Wisdom for Troubled Times
Just before Donald Trump became our reality TV star president-elect, songwriter-bard Leonard Cohen died, leaving an incomparable legacy.
Releasing his last album weeks before his death at 82, Cohen charted courses for survival and redemption. And he pulled no punches. To the end, he deftly interwove themes of darkness and light that were political and personal, erotic and sacred. More than entertaining his listeners, Cohen intimately engaged them. He called on fellow travelers to take heart, make change, laugh, pray, dance, and act with courage, dignity and love.
Insights from a dozen Cohen songs are relevant to today’s unsettling realities.
1. Achieving democratic ideals is an ongoing challenge. Cohen’s prescient “Democracy” (1992) recounts the governmental system’s challenges and shortcomings. “It’s coming to America first, the cradle of the best and the worst…from the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet…It’s coming from the sorrow in the streets, from the holy places where the races meet…Democracy is coming to the USA.”
Cohen told Paul Zollo in Songwriters on Songwriting in 1992: “It’s not an ironic song. It’s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country…This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another.”
How to navigate all this complexity? The song admonishes: “The heart has got to open in a fundamental way.” Cohen sends godspeed for America’s precarious journey: “Sail on, sail on, O mighty ship of state! To the shores of need, past the reefs of greed, through the squalls of hate…”
2. Stare down desolation with grit and grace. In “Steer Your Way” (2016), released on his final album, Cohen’s sings: “Steer your way past the ruins of the altar and the mall…/Steer your way past the pain that is far more real than you/That’s smashed the Cosmic Model/That blinded every view.”
He calls for unflinching self-review and humility: “Steer your way past the Truth that you believed in yesterday/…And say the mea culpa which you gradually forgot/Year by year, month by month, day by day/Thought by thought.”
As Cohen prepared to bid farewell, he surveyed the natural world and a coarsened culture with trademark irony: “They whisper still, the struggling stones/The blunted mountains weep/As he died to make men holy/Let us die to make things cheap.”
3. Yes, the system is rigged—now what? Decades before Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren railed against oligarchs and plutocrats controlling America, Cohen pronounced, “Everybody knows the deal is rotten/Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton/For your ribbons and bows.”
“Everybody Knows” (1988, with Sharon Robinson) is a caustic litany: “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed/Everybody knows the war is over/Everybody knows the good guys lost/Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/That’s how it goes/Everybody knows.”
Both bleak and droll, it can be heard as a fatalistic accounting of corruption or an urgent plea to clean things up.
4. Hold onto an inner guiding compass. “In My Secret Life” (2001, with Sharon Robinson) celebrates quiet subversiveness. “I do what I have to do/to get by/But I know what is wrong/And I know what is right/And I’d die for the truth/in my secret life.”
The song recounts the strain of facing ever-present horrors: “Looked through the paper/Makes you want to cry/nobody cares if the people/live or die/And the dealer wants you thinking/That it’s either black or white/thank God it’s not that simple/ in my secret life.”
5. Take care of body and spirit. “Come Healing” (2012, with Patrick Leonard) is reverent, transcendent: “O see the darkness yielding/That tore the light apart/Come healing of the reason/Come healing of the heart.”
A devout Jew, Cohen also often referenced other spiritual traditions: “Behold the gates of mercy/In arbitrary space/And none of us deserving/The cruelty or the grace/O solitude of longing/Where love has been confined/Come healing of the body/Come healing of the mind.”
6. Tough times call for clear-eyed vision and empathy. “The Future (1992) is prophetically stark: “Give me back the Berlin Wall/give me Stalin and St. Paul/Give me Christ/or give me Hiroshima…I’ve seen the future, baby: it is murder.”
Cohen explained to Rolling Stone in 2009 that “The Future” and “Democracy” were on his concert set list, “because their apocalyptic vision seems truer now than when they were recorded. People really thought I needed help back then,” Cohen told the reporter, laughing.
The song warns: “Things are going to slide, slide in all directions/…the blizzard of the world/has crossed the threshold/And it has overturned/the order of the soul.” Nevertheless, he offers a way out: “I’ve seen the nations rise and fall/I’ve heard their stories, heard them all/But love’s the only engine of survival.”
7. Embrace imperfection. “Anthem” (1992) starts as a solemn serenity prayer, “The birds, they sang/At the break of day/Start again/ I heard them say/Don’t dwell on what/Has passed away/Or what is yet to be.”
Then it urges action and acceptance, despite all: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”
The narrator defiantly prepares for mythic battle: “I can’t run no more/With that lawless crowd/While the killers in high places/Say their prayers out loud/But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up/A thundercloud/And they’re going to hear from me.”
Rebecca De Mornay, who co-produced the song, told Uncut about the verse: “That ‘I’—that’s the soul of Leonard Cohen.”
8. Invoke a higher power. The incantatory tone of “If It Be Your Will” (1984) reflects Cohen’s fervent mysticism. “From this broken hill/All your praises they shall ring/If it be your will/To let me sing.”
It’s a plea for global as well as personal salvation: “If there is a choice/Let the rivers fill/Let the hills rejoice/Let your mercy spill/On all these burning hearts in Hell/If it be your will/To make us well.”
9. Comfort others and do what you can to sleep well. Cohen told Rolling Stone about a song he was working on in 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession: “I thought that ‘Lullaby’ was just what everyone needs to get to sleep in these troubled times,” he said.
Released in 2012, it’s beautifully simple: “Sleep baby sleep/The day’s on the run/The wind in the trees/Is talking in tongues…If your heart is torn/I don’t wonder why/If the night is long/Here’s my lullaby.” Cohen reassures the listener: “There’s a morning to come.”
10. Live passionately. A popular standard, “Dance Me to the End of Love” (1992) honors deep love and the protection it can provide. “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin/Dance me through the panic ‘til I’m gathered safely in/Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove/And dance me to the end of love.” Even as passion gets spent, it shields: “Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn/Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn.”
Cohen told an interviewer the “burning violin” image “came from just hearing or reading or knowing that in the death camps, beside the crematoria, in certain of the death camps, a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on.” He added that “It’s not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.”
11. Celebrate paradox (and cultivate patience). “Hallelujah” (1984), Cohen’s exultant and erotic anthem has been covered some 300 times. He drafted 80 verses over five years before its release, sometimes singing alternate lyrics in concert, such as: “There’s a blaze of light/In every word/It doesn’t matter which you heard/The holy or the broken Hallelujah.”
It took 15 years for “Hallelujah” to become a massive hit. Cohen told the CBC radio show Q in 2009 that after it was released on Various Positions in 1984 in Canada and Europe, Sony decided not to release the album in the U.S.: “The only person who seemed to recognize the song was Dylan. He was doing it in concert,” Cohen said.
More than a decade later, “Hallelujah” recordings by John Cale and Jeff Buckley began building an audience. Rufus Wainwright’s version in the 2001 film Shrekbrought it into the mainstream.
12. Take positive action, however you can. In “You Got Me Singing” (2014, with Patrick Leonard) Cohen’s deep-throated delivery conveys triumphant optimism (accompanied by a violin and country-tinged vocals). He makes a winking nod to his signature song: “You got me singing/Even tho’ the news is bad/You got me singing/The only song I ever had…You got me singing/Even tho’ it all looks grim/You got me singing/The Hallelujah hymn.”
His tone is matter-of-fact and resilient, even lighthearted: “Even though the world is gone/You got me thinking/I’d like to carry on.”