Monday Musing: Leonard Cohen


I heard Leonard Cohen’s music for the first time driving from Skagen down to Copenhagen some years ago. Skagen is at the top of the world, at least as far as mainland Europe is concerned. We walked along the beach on a grayish day. You can walk until the sand tapers into a point and then vanishes beneath the North Sea.


A group of painters became fascinated with the light and the landscapes there during the mid-nineteenth century. They became known as the Skagen painters. It’s true that the light is special there. It’s diffuse and it’s sharp at the same time, which doesn’t really make any sense but I guess that’s why it is special.

Driving back south again through marshes, dry marshes you pass miles and miles of little trees. My Danish friend told me that the trees are all so small because of the make-up of the soil and all the sand. I have no idea if that’s true or even if my memory is entirely accurate about the trees or the soil. But I have an image of vast stretches of the tiny bare branches of thousands of little trees filtering the strange dying light late in the evening.

We watched the scene from the car window and listened to an album of collected Leonard Cohen songs. We listened to Chelsea Hotel #2:

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
you were talking so brave and so sweet,
giving me head on the unmade bed,
while the limousines wait in the street.
Those were the reasons and that was New York,
we were running for the money and the flesh.
And that was called love for the workers in song
probably still is for those of them left.

And I remember that we listened to Hallelujah in several different versions.

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah


Anyway, with that weird northern light up at the end of the world and those forests of tiny little trees and the mournful throaty singing and those Cohen lyrics that always manage to surprise you with some funny-tragic turn of image it was quite a ride. Not something you’d want to do every day but affecting, memorable.

Well, he has a new album coming out in a week and half called Dear Heather. I don’t know what to expect, really. A lot of his more recent music found him utilizing some rather strange arrangements, cheesy synthesizers and drum machines. I’d say it was all an elaborate con or something but you never can tell with Leonard. He spent the late 90’s at the Zen Center of Mount Baldy where he’d become a monk and took to calling himself Jikan.

He started making drawings and writing poetry like this:

Seisen has a long body. Her shaved head threatens the skylight and her feet go down into the vegetable cellar. When she dances for us at one of our infrequent celebrations, the dining hall with it’s cargo of weightless monks and nuns, bounces around her hips like a hula-hoop.

This from a man who was said by one journalist to have penned “the most revolting book ever written in Canada.” So, you never know with Leonard. Of course, he seems to have spent much of his time at the Zen retreat drinking, smoking cigarettes, and taking sex breaks. He calls himself a “bad monk, a sloppy monk.” It also turns out that while he was practicing Buddhism up on the mountain his lawyers and accountants stole all his money. When he found out the he’d been fleeced of all but a fraction of his cash he said “You know, God gave me a strong inner core, so I wasn’t shattered. But I was deeply concerned.” For better or worse he’s been stimulated to write a lot of music again and go back into touring.

The lyrics for the song Dear Heather seem promising though, they sound like the Cohen of old, just having gotten a lot older:

Dear Heather
Please walk by me again
With a drink in your hand
And your legs all white
From the winter

His best music clearly came from a time when he was a miserable wreck. But it will be interesting to hear what comes out of a Leonard Cohen who’s reached 70. Recently, he said of his old age:

There was just a certain sweetness to daily life that began asserting itself. I remember sitting in the corner of my kitchen, which has a window overlooking the street. I saw the sunlight that shines on the chrome fenders of the cars, and thought, “Gee, that’s pretty.”

Fair enough, Jikan. I’ll buy the album.