“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Everybody in my generation and before has a personal story to tell about Cohen. A bit like the “where were you when Kennedy got killed or when Diana died in the car crash”. Everybody remembers those moments of hearing the news.
Where were you when you first heard Cohen sing? Those moments became parts of our personal mythology, in spite of an obvious lack of the personal connection.
Nick Cave as one of interpreters of Leonard Cohen’s music in the “I am Your Man “ movie has talked about his first life changing encounter with his album, “Songs of Love and Hate”: In his youth, in the conservative and bland atmosphere of Wangaratta, Cave suddenly felt he was “the coolest person”, having discovered Cohen, the music that “separated him from everything and everyone he detested”. Knowing Cohen’s music “changed things” for him. It changed things in a very personal way.
I certainly felt the same in Budapest at a time when even getting hold of his music involved major challenges, not to mention the privilege one felt being a part of the world he represented.
Yes, being a part of something really “cool”, important, beautiful and soul touching is what Cohen’s fans repeatedly experience.
Cohen invites you into his personal world, to engage with, or to merge with, if you like. This is in the centre of his talent in engaging the audience in singing, writing and in his being.
Every time I wanted to analyse why I was crazy about his songs, I had to admit in the cold light of truth that his songs are beautiful, but very simple, he is not a musician, he has never actually considered himself as one. His skills on the guitar are basic, his voice, his “golden voice” is everything but classically beautiful. His poetry is close to my heart, but does he stands out amongst his contemporaries as a poet? Maybe he does, maybe he does not. . In any case, put all elements in his presentation together in a mix, and you get great art. So what is it about him then, that makes him in my opinion one of the greatest artists of his generation and what is it that sustainedly kept him in the centre of art-consciousness all over the world for over 40 years.
His value as an artis has always been extensively analysed and debated by literary and musical critics. Everybody has experienced but nobody could explain the charismatic allure that Cohen’s voice and personal being radiate. A music journalist, Robert Christyan has asked the same question in a documentary review on Cohen’s work: “Why is it the Leonard Cohen makes you feel intimate with him?” This is exactly what he does; when you enter his songs, you enter into an intimate relationship with Cohen.
One of my influential co-fans of Cohen, who helped me to get to know his songs better and more of them, was my lovely cousin, a New Yorker. When we met “we were almost young”. I was learning English via Cohen songs, and he already had a life long passion for his work.
Much later he interviewed Cohen for his magazine, and felt quite nervous leading up to the meeting. He was afraid to meet Cohen personally, for one reason only, to avoid the potential corruption of his somewhat idealized “inner Cohen” by an encounter with the real person. He called me after the interview, happy, and sent me a recording of the conversation.
He found Cohen an engaging, interesting and a NICE person to be with. At the end of the interview, the “Great Cohen” was interested in finding out about my cousin, engaging him in an intimate conversation, which left a long lasting impression.
Evidently, most people who worked with or befriended him had the same opinion. They all talk about him with acknowledgement, respect, and genuine appreciation.
Ira Nadell, one of his biographers says: “Leonard is not interested in entertaining, he is interested in engaging both in person and in music.” So how does he do it?
Cohen has the ability to reach into his own personal world so deeply that every song, every note and every poem draws you in. He creates such a powerful pull which some identify as a hypnotic like trance. A subtle vibration in his voice creates a certain quality that contributes to that hypnotic effect.
A rich and powerful metaphorical world opens up in his poetry that calls for a “travelling with”, an enticing process of discovery.
Still, I believe, the key to his genius is that he invites you into a personal relationship by his willingness and capacity to expose his own personal world.
At his live performances the audiences live the songs, his inner world with him, as he is living it on stage.
Anthi wrote something similar about Ibsen, the playwright:
His aspirations played an important role in his relation to the public who came to admire him. To call forth such deep engagement in others is only possible through an elaborative and creative transformation of personal narcissism. Unelaborated and untransformed narcissism cannot engage an audience. – Anthi, P.R. (1981). Ibsen. Narcissism and Creativity. Scand. Psychoanal. Rev., 4:161-176.
Cohen reaches out by reaching in. This is one of the true paradoxes about him, the man of paradox. In fact Cohen is the man of paradoxical engagements.
His intimate relationships in his own life seem to have a paradoxical nature: he thirsts for intimacy but runs from the permanency of romantic relationships.
He loves structure, discipline and ritualistic lifestyle, while at the same time he is a drunk, a drug addict and an unpredictable womaniser.
He is crazy about women, but can spend a thousand nights in a Buddhist monastery, sleeping alone.
He applies paradoxes often in his poetry and his most significant spiritual connection with his master; Roshi is also described as the ultimate relational paradox.
For Cohen, Roshi is someone who shows him what he needs to see. He is a Zen monk, but that is completely irrelevant. Roshi cares deeply about who he, Leonard is, or rather, “he deeply doesn’t care”.
That is precisely why the construct that Cohen believed himself to be can whither, so he can become, who he really is. He becomes himself when he gives up what he thought was him. He describes a very deep friendship with his master, that is paradoxically, a non-intimate relating. His master is someone whom he knows everything, and nothing of.
His other paradoxical relationship is to his life work. He arrives at the notion of abandoning attachment to one’s “masterpiece” and therefore creating one. The very action of abandoning an attempt at perfection is the key to truly mastering something. This is beautifully written and sung in his masterpiece:
“Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
In his songs Cohen brings you to your knees, but makes you laugh. Religious and prophetic but at the same time sensuous and erotic.
Cohen, as Bono of U2 explains it, is capable of creating beauty, heart wrenching love, and truth from the abyss, from the dark side of life. He deals with the dark and transforms it into truth and beauty.
Bono says ”He has you when you feel idealistic, he has you when your relationship breaks down, he has you when you can’t face the world, he has you at all stages.”
Nick Cave and many of us feel grateful to Cohen for guidance in our youth, for gifts of a personal kind, for the beauty and truth that we accessed through him.
Musicians feel humbled in the presence of his body of work. We all have many intense emotional and even spiritual experiences through his art, but the most outstanding quality that speaks of his power, is the personal non-personal relationship we all feel with him.
Don’t we all have an inner Cohen?