Cohen: profound differences and serious risks

Leonard Cohen interview from 1993. Transcript here.

On men and women:

And it’s always been confrontational. Not in an aggressive sense but in an acknowledging sense that there are some profound differences and it involves serious risks and that these risks are really best acknowledged. And I think that’s the tone of most of the stuff and if the love and passion can transgress that mutual acknowledgment then you do have something that takes off, either it’s a song or a poem or the moment. But without that, you’ve got the moon-in-June school of writing–though my stuff gets close to the moon-in-June school of writing, but I think it’s that acknowledgment of the risk that rescues it every time.

[via 1heckofaguy.]

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A Cohen Lorica

Críost liomsa, (Christ with me)
Críost romham, (Christ before me)
Agus Críost i mo chroí’se, (and Christ in my heart)
Críost os mo chionn’sa, (Christ above me)
Críost fúm, (Christ below me)
Agus Críost ar mo chroí’se. (and Christ on my heart)
Agus Críost i mo chroí. (and Christ in my heart)
-the Lorica in Gaelic

This week I’ve slowly been listening to a 1996 interview of Leonard Cohen with Armelle Brusq at Mt Baldy Zen Center.  Since the length of YouTube uploads is limited, the interview is broken into six ten-minute segments. Here are the links: 1/6, 2/6, 3/6, 4/6, 5/66/6. (thanks, DrHGuy)

Today I was looking for the segment where Leonard says. “You have to sit in the very bonfire of that distress and you sit there until you’re burnt away and it’s ashes,” and I realized in places his words had a cadence very much like the Lorica, but instead of the traditional Christian context, he gives a version that is a pure Cohenesque mobius strip, or maybe Klein bottle. [Transcription is from video 4/6 starting at 7:35, and video 5/6 starting at 5:40]

I’ve always liked singing, I’ve always liked playing guitar, I– like music.
My mother sang, you know, the cantor sang in the synagogue–
Music was a big part of my life — it was natural to express myself musically.

I had whatever few materials I had, but mostly it was chaos and desolation
And it was just to organize something with what I had
a little melody, a chord
you know, just pieces of bone and rag
and just a few things put together and you know

and at a certain point, they breathe, that mess,
that formless pool of slime and despair
it starts–even if it’s about that, even if the song is about those matters
it still you know becomes a universe of its own
and you can enter it,  you can sing it and you can communicate it and you can inhabit it,

so, it strengthens you to do that kind of work.
but you have to — dive into it just — same way in zazen
things arise that are very disturbing

and there’s no way around it,
there’s no way over it,
there’s no way under it
there’s no way to the side of it,
there’s no forgetting it, you know.

You have to sit in the very bonfire of that distress
and you sit there until you’re burnt away
and it’s ashes,
you know,
and it’s gone.


You know, I had this urgency
from quite young, from a quite young age
to make things, you know
mostly it was on a page
just to make something that worked, you know

something that, that rose off the page
that sang
that had a life of its own
that you know
could win a heart,
could present me in a good light
could touch myself.

I always felt that poetry and song were the ashes of experience
and the ashes were well burned, you know,
they were — you could clarify them, you could purify them
you could get rid of the clinkers and the chunks
and it could be beautiful fine white ash, you know

which is what a good song is or a good poem
it — really is —  it can blow away in the wind
it can blow right through you,
it can blow right through your heart

when you get out of the way of your own love, it  becomes true
and it’s not fixed,
when it’s not solidified,
and when it’s not focused rigidly on another object it … it …  it broadcasts

in front of  you and in back of you
to the right of you, to the left of you
above you and beneath you
and you’re in the center
of a force field
that includes everything
that has no inside or no outside
that doesn’t look at anything
nor does it need to be looked at.

It’s like the taste of honey when you’re very young
it’s just — or chocolate when you really are–need something sweet
and every cell of your body says thank you

That’s what it’s like.

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Mongolian Sacred Chord?

I heard there was a sacred chord that David played and it pleased the Lord.
Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah
And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.
I Samuel 16:23

Do eastern sacred chants have “chords” or is that a western concept?

I first ran across dual tone singing, a form of chant where two notes/overtones are sung at the same time by one person, on a CD that includes “The Sacred Chants of Tibetan Buddhism” sung by monks.   There are instruments playing at the same time, but whether it is a “chord” or a “cacophony” probably depends on your frame of reference; I find it soothing.

There are also Mongolian “throat singers” who sing dual tones. On the border between Mongolia and Russia, the Tuva throat singers sound like a two string instrument tones playing simultaneously with a third vocal tone. Throat singing is traditionally a male pursuit — I never knew the female voice was capable of producing dual tones, but here is a woman braving custom and breaking taboo.  The male throat singer with the accordion is also a rebel; under the soviet system, throat singing was also considered a form of dissent, along with shamanism and Buddhism. Not sure what to think of the accordion, but it doesn’t sound like  a traditionally Western tonal scale, likewise with the tuning of the autoharp (goats at 10:45).

This one is from Siberia — a duet with a two-stringed instrument (I am reminded of the bedouin rebaba) and vocals that sound almost like whistling.  In the background: some footage of Siberian ice fishing.

Here is  a very polished Tuvian singer, Kongar-ol Ondar on Letterman show with three-stringed instrument and playing what looks like chords that aren’t quite western (or do I hear a 7th?) but seem to resolve like western chords. Somewhere I saw that out of 100 Mongolians who go to the throat class, only 7 or 8 go on to actually study it. Something like our western chorus.

A Mongolian with a two-stringed instrument, one string is in unison with the voice and the other sounds like a drone, similar to the low note on bagpipes.  Again there is a sort of harmony that seems to resolve, but I’m not ready to call it a tonic.

From my favorite travel show, Ian Wright on Globetrekker (a British production, obviously): four musicians singing with stringed instruments sort of illustrates the problem of trying to define the question in terms of western music. Where we would look for chord progressions — the tonic, the fourth, the fifth, the minor third, (and if you will, for Leonard Cohen fans, the major lift) — they seem to be naming their sounds “steppe, mountains, river, forest, Gobi desert.”

I would also not think that just because there are not two notes playing simultaneously at a given time that no underlying “chord” exists. Imagine “Amazing Grace” sung a capella (Judy Collins 1970). Each note can only fit into a certain chord, or a certain set of chords, so you can hear in your mind’s eye (sheet music) the chord progression I, IV, I, V7, since the note “G” can only fit into a C-chord or a G-chord, but not a D7 chord, etc. Since I can basically sing in tune, and hear half tones and whole tones, but not quarter tones, I can’t imagine what they must be hearing in their mind’s eye (if that isn’t too mixed of a metaphor), but they must be hearing something.

Persian Blog Mystery

Here is a Leonard Cohen mystery.  Some time ago someone left a message here and signed it “leonardcohenphotos”. If you follow the link, it leads to a visually haunting blog called leonard cohen’s photo blog, subtitled “a man who wrote suzanne!” The posts are signed “Author” and “last year’s man”. And what is that avatar…a seated figure? or maybe the blue hand of Fatima with the eye in the center?

You don’t have to read too far to figure out that although the blog is in English, that’s not the writer’s first language. But you can also sense the writer is a poet, in the sense of someone who knows how to use minimal verbiage to express essentials. The images are unusual and perhaps brooding: photos of Leonard, fragments of Leonard’s songs or other poetry presented in a way that illuminates rather than explains.

Who is behind Leonard Cohen’s Photo Blog? There’s no bio, no “about” page. Just a poll about favorite Cohen songs (maybe the writer’s favorites?) and a sponsorship benefiting suicide prevention services.  A few weeks ago a commenter asked “Who and where are you? Can’t locate info,” and the answer was a cheerful but cryptic

  • No one
    No where
    just waiting
    waiting for the miracle to come ;)

But I have one clue: the comment “leonardcohenphotos” left here. That leaves an IP address that I can try to run down. I don’t publish IP’s, especially from someone in the Middle East, but I don’t think it’s a violation of privacy to say I’m pretty sure it came from Iran. That brings to mind Dr Heckofaguy’s post about Iranian-born reporter Maziar Bahari, imprisoned and tortured after reporting on the Iranian election, and how he kept his sanity in prison with Leonard Cohen songs. (Here is the Newsweek article; a CBC video interview here–Bahari discusses Cohen at about 18:00.)

So, anyway, if you’re a Cohen fan, check out the photoblog. It’s sort of like opening a book and finding yourself at a page that unfolds into a huge map.

Wise Men

Some years ago I was in Mexico on January 6, and was surprised to find they observe Epiphany, the day of the arrival of the Magi, the Wise Men from the East, as the last day of Christmas. I can’t think of any Magi wisdom just off the top of my head, so here is some Northern wisdom from a Canadian, Leonard Cohen, from his Tel Aviv concert right before he gave the Priestly Blessing:

I want to draw our respectful attention once again to the Israeli and Palestinian members of the Bereaved Parents for Peace and those other men and women, some of whom have called naive, foolish, irrelevant, defeatist, but no, no, not at all friends. They have..they have achieved the victory, perhaps the only victory available, the victory of the heart, over its own inclinations for despair, revenge, and hatred.

In trying to find a video with better audio quality, I came across this, apparently also from the Tel Aviv concert, that brought tears to my eyes.

It was a while ago that I first heard of the work of the Bereaved Parents for Peace, that there was this coalition of Palestinian and Israeli families who had lost so much in the conflict, and whose depth of suffering had compelled them to reach across the border into the houses of the enemy, into the houses of those,  to locate them who had suffered as much as they had, and then to stand with them in aching confraternity, a witness to an understanding that is beyond peace, and that is beyond confrontation.  So (prolonged applause)  This is not about forgiving and forgetting, this is not about laying down ones arms  in a time of war, this is not even about peace, although God willing, it could be a beginning. (scattered applause) This is about a response to human grief, a radical, unique, and holy, holy, holy response to human suffering baruch hashem (?)*** (applause) And I, I bow my head in respect to the nobility of this enterprise. (applause) So ring the bells that still can ring (cheers and applause), forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

When I taught in Jordan I had the experience of having one of my students, a member of the Islamic Brotherhood, shove a photo of a dead baby under my nose. Other Americans had similar experiences.  The Israelis don’t release photos of their own dead, believing they will be used for  celebratory propaganda. But what a way to keep a ruling cabal in power.  Just keep a low level warfare in operation for continued casualties and play on the resulting hatred. Of course, once dead babies have become an effective  tool of war and a commodity, new ways of manufacturing dead babies will have to be found and new wars started…

…unless someone can short-circuit the madness of using the dead as propaganda tools by using them instead as tools of humanization, healing, and reconciliation. That’s how the light gets in, indeed.

*** a commenter at has identified this as Baruch HaShem, in this situation meaning something like “with the help of God”. In Hebrew the common greeting meaning “what’s new?” is “Mah nishma?” and the formula answer is “Baruch Hashem” ברוך השם — Thank God, or “Blessed be G_D” . Wiktionary says “Baruch Hashem” is “Blessed be the Name (of the Lord)”.
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My Secret Life with Leonard Cohen

Driving cross country can be tedious. Even with a steady supply of good radio stations, if the trip is long enough the mind begins to wander. On the way to the Leonard Cohen concert in St. Louis, optimistically at least a five hour drive, a scenario about Leonard Cohen popped into my head, and continued at sporadic intervals throughout the subsequent camping trip.  Every once in a while, when I glean another Cohen factoid, another piece of it spontaneously falls into place.

Scene one- somewhere in the U.S.

I arrive and Leonard greets me.  How was my trip, etc. If you need a place to stay you can crash here, and by the way, there is hot water for a shower in Leonard’s hotel suite, feel free to use it. (I know, I know, but it’s my fantasy.  Since living in Jordan, for some reason every meaningful fantasy must have hot water in it. It is somehow symbolic of being in a safe place.) I emerge refreshed and Leonard has just returned from his trailer (yeah, yeah, I know they travel by plane, but it’s my fantasy and here he has his own RV for makeup) Everyone is already eating and I join the meal in process. (If this isn’t surreal enough yet, keep reading.) The meal turns out to be a privately catered Wisconsin Door County style fish boil on the inside of a circle formed by the band’s trailers.

After the fish has been eaten, everyone gathers around the remains of the fire and starts singing. My singing voice, in real life not quite ready for primetime, is joined by the voice of Sharon Robinson and with her harmony becomes golden. As it becomes dark, more and more people gather at the fringes of the light thrown by the fire and the music ebbs and flows.  Finally we begin to spontaneously compose songs, and I find I have become a poet as well. Verse after verse is thrown into the night as an offering, fragments of despair, resolution, longing,  from every sacred tradition.

Scene two, the next morning

Leonard has been forwarded a copy of my resume (from where?  these imaginings have all the continuity of dreams!) and says he needs me as an assistant at his Jerusalem nonprofit office.  I’ll be making sure everything is culturally appropriate for the comfort of the Arab women involved,  as well as being the liaison with the Catholic social agencies where my old Jordan roomate is now working, not to mention doing the odd bit of paper shuffling, which I’m very good at as long as it’s not my own paper. The position also provides central heat, Western health insurance, unlimited hot water (yes!), and access to a huge library filled with tomes about the Middle East.

Scene 3 –Jerusalem

Leonard arrives on pilgrimage.  I see him to the monk’s quarters and sneak an argila with apple tobacco onto his balcony (it’s a no smoking facility). I offer him hot water for a shower and a nicotine patch. After dark, he steals out into the Arab section with his body guard  dressed as a bedouin, looking for some good roast lamb (Wait, isn’t he a Buddhist monk?  Should it be  felafels? But in the Arab Quarter the best evening meal is those little individual pizzas made with pita bread and egg.)

Not bad, not bad at all.  As fantasies go, it’s one of my better ones. But where DO these images come from?

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Cohen at St Louis photo outtakes

I have already posted the best photos from Leonard Cohen’s St. Louis concert; here are the less than best photos. They evoke something for me. Maybe they will evoke something for someone else.

These were taken with a little hundred dollar Canon Powershot A560. There are probably better cameras with higher resolution and better stability on the market now for the same price, but I don’t have one. That means I have to hold the camera perfectly still without a tripod while I take the picture. I have found that if I take enough pictures, I will get some that aren’t too bad. And what about the ones that aren’t not too bad? I’m keeping ’em. It’s Leonard friggin’ Cohen.

(Yes, they’re clickable. I rather like the closeup of the Webb sisters in the 5th row.)

Leonard Cohen in St. Louis

Leonard Cohen in concert, St. Louis, Missouri, November 8, 2009.

Facets of our own day-Pound and Cohen

On the bus and on the train: wherein I read from Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era while listening to Leonard Cohen’s Live in London album, and exegize further on Pound and Cohen.


The following two quotations are from advice given to Ezra Pound by Ford Madox Hueffer* as he started his career, quoted in Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era.  They’re somewhat ironic as they’re about the usefulness of contemporary comprehensibility, but they can be difficult to understand by today’s  standards.  The first quotation is seen against the background of the then-current practice of writing about Greek or Latin poems:

Aureate diction** was a civic menace because ” the business of poetry is not sentimentalism so much as the putting of certain realities in certain aspects, ” and “poetry, like everything else, to be valid and valuable, must reflect the circumstances and psychology of its own day.  Otherwise it can be nothing but a pastiche.***  And as to the use of the past, “study every fragment of Sappho; delve ages long in the works of Bertram de Born;…let us do anything in the world that will widen our perceptions.  We are the heirs of all the ages.  But, in the end, I feel fairly assured that the purpose of all these present travails is the right appreciation of such facets of our own day as God will let us perceive.”

That has to go over even better in America, since here we tend to  emphasize science, military, engineering, and other practical subjects over “classical” studies.We are lucky to have retained any liberal arts at all in our universities.  Most of today’s students have probably never heard of (or care about) the foreign language stanzas the poets of Pound’s day so painstakingly expounded upon.  And of course the issues they cared so passionately about make as much sense to us now as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

The second quotation, again advice about how to write poetry:

…Ford had hammered on the diction and syntax of natural speech: “nothing, nothing, that you couldn’t in some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion, actually say.”

Who could say things more completely with fewer words than Leonard Cohen?  But as for “appreciating facets of our own day”, part of Cohen’s fascination is the way he weaves in such bits of history, Old Testament imagery, and archaic ritual that is still floating around our collective consciousness.

For instance, Who by Fire is part Bible, part Camelot, part leprosy and Salem witch trials, part choir madrigals, and part Shakespeare .

And who by fire, who by water,
who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
who in your merry merry month of may,
who by very slow decay,
and who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
and who by avalanche, who by powder,
who for his greed, who for his hunger,
and who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
who in solitude, who in this mirror,
who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
who in mortal chains, who in power,
and who shall I say is calling?

Interspersed with this vision of sixteenth century maypoles and dungeons, is the telephone age phrase “who shall I say is calling?” Below it echoes the older meaning of paying a call on someone, and below that, medieval folk tales of visits by the grim reaper.

Just as the literature that inspired Shakespeare does not resonate so much with us, Cohen’s apparent antecedents don’t pass the Ford test of “nothing that you couldn’t in some circumstance… actually say” .  A verse  somewhat similar to “Who by fire” is all over the internet attributed to a  1951 prayer book, but tracing back further, we find this verse from the Unesanneh Tokef |wiki|, part of the liturgy in rabbinical Judaism for centuries, possibly going back to the third century Genesis Rabbah tradition.

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the Decree!”

The smell of judgment day and shepherds’ flocks is all over this, not the stuff we usually concern ourselves with in this century, but leave it to one of the Kohanim (Leonard Cohen is halakhically a priest) to bless us with a version that not only expounds in terms of “facets of our own day” and in words “that someone could actually say”, but also resonates with deeper cultural memories of our collective past.

Above: blessing during a Cohen concert (8:00)


*Ford Madox Hueffer.  From wiki: “In 1908, he founded The English Review, in which he published Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, John Galsworthy and William Butler Yeats, and gave debuts to Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence and Norman Douglas. In 1924, he founded The Transatlantic Review, a journal with great influence on modern literature. Staying with the artistic community in the Latin Quarter of Paris, France, he made friends with James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and Jean Rhys, all of whom he would publish….”

**Aureate diction — ornate  poetic diction (“a speaker’s distinctive vocabulary choices and style of expression”, not “pronunciation”) with internal rhyme and Latin coinages

***pastiche–stylistic imitation  or composition from different works

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Leanard Cohen Skips Offstage at St. Louis

At Leonard Cohen’s Chicago concert, I was enchanted to see him skip offstage between sets in a twirling sort of gypsy dance. So when he did it again in St. Louis, I was ready with the camera.

One rather cheeky Cohen fan, Dr. HGuy (and he has a lot more detailed examples), has declared that the prototype for Cohen’s skipping is to be found in The Wizard of Oz.  Not so. While googling Jewish wedding dances I discovered the more likely culprit: the bottle dance. Here is a group of New York bottle dancers who dance at Jewish weddings with real bottles on their heads:

If you have never seen the bottle dance scene from the Fiddler on the Roof, here is the video of the film version. I’m not going to imbed it, but if you have never seen the three minute segment, it’s well worth watching. The hand movements of the musical put me in mind of another type of dance, the dubka, danced by the Jews’ Arab cousins. For hardcore choreographers, here is another bottle dance from a school production of Fiddler on the Roof, you can see the steps better than in the film, and possibly read an account of velcro in hats.

Now, the Arab dubka. The best one online is still this out of focus one, apparently from a professional group at a wedding.

It starts slow, but towards the end they form a line and you can see the traditional form of the dance. Sort of. It’s really a man’s dance. Or rather there are separate dances for the men and women, since there will be separate parties for men and women.

I remember watching a TV special in the north of Jordan with a film from 1930–my Arab friends were very interested in the film since it showed the dubka danced by alternating male and female in a circle.  You won’t find that now.  North or south, the women want nothing to do with the men.  The women’s dance is also slightly different, the feet crossing in a different direction. Here’s a women’s impromptu dubka, probably at a wedding. Here is also my little video of Chicago Arabs dancing impromptu about Daley plaza, also with separate lines for the men and women. When the women go past, you can really see the proper footwork.

If you stop and count the beat of both the music and the dance steps, the music is in 4/4 time, and the dance steps are in 6/8 time. Maybe that’s why it’s such an intensely focused dance. I have yet to see an example that is different.

Still the best part of the dance is not the feet, where some of the dancers get fancy with the stomping; or even the hand movements, with the lead dancer twirling a string of prayer beads in the air. It’s the haunting sight of a long line of gorgeous men of all ages, shoulders interlocked, moving in rhythm, first just back and forth easily, then eventually the whole line moving in a huge circle.

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