Dour Leonard Cohen Taught Me Joy

Granted, it did require me—a non-singer—to sing in sports bars.

Let’s just say that I’m a bit beyond a Leonard Cohen fan. I’m not sure there are many others out there who’ve begun as non-singers, recorded a rewritten Cohen tribute album, and then performed the songs in the subway and their local sports bars. Anyone? So can we conclude that I win the biggest fan award?

Cohen first grabbed my attention in the 60s with his line about a Jesus who walked on water and knew that only drowning men could see him. I was religious, but was already tired of church pretense and sentimentality. This was refreshingly new. A few more albums and I was hooked. I was intrigued by Cohen’s lack of posturing, his honest amusement at his own self-delusions. He seemed gritty and raw, living by his own set of rules, yet open to “the Mysteries” and poignantly longing for more. He could face the bleakness, aware of his own betrayals, knowing he too was drowning, and yet still remain darkly hopeful for redemption since “I am the sinner I decry.”

Still, my fascination with the man might not have gone further except that in 2009 I felt a need for spiritual guidance. The Bible’s advice, I knew, was to “be still and know” because God often speaks in a small voice. Cohen had sought this sort of guidance by moving to a Zen Center, where he was ordained as a monk and given the Dharma name for “silence.” So I began a “hermitage,” a three month fast from everything conceptual to try to listen better. No TV, computer, cell phone, books or even music. For three months I read only the words of Jesus. And, in Leonard’s words, I “listened so hard that it hurt.”

The sense I received was of one so radically accepting that I referred to him as the “non-Christian Jesus.” Cohen had written “Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” The crack in my spiritual pretensions, illuminated by Cohen, had opened me to experience God.

Around this time, my wife and I attended Leonard Cohen’s concert in Boston. As we approached the turnstiles for the nosebleed section, a man walked straight toward us from across the lobby to ask “Would you two like seats in the orchestra?” And that’s not all that got my attention that night.

The crowd seemed evenly divided between those in their 20s and 30s and those like us in their 60s and up. The concert was almost worshipful. Everyone was in such rapt attention that I was stunned when the audience applauded loudly in the middle of a song. Later, listening to one of his CDs at home, I heard a London audience cheer at the same place. It was in “Anthem,” when Cohen growls “killers in high places say their prayers out loud. They’re gonna hear from me!”

This was back when the world’s disillusion with Iraq war was at its height. This so dominated the news that I guessed both audiences were thinking of the pious President Bush praying as he bombed Bagdad. I was equally appalled by the war, yet every time I heard that song I wanted to change the few words that sounded self-righteous.  

So that next week, for my own amusement, I played around until I found an alternate way to say something about killers that still reflected my own shortcomings, calling myself a hypocrite and unrighteous.

Alone in my living room, loudly singing my five sentences to the glorious music of Leonard Cohen was so delightful that I continued writing words for the rest of his song. I had never written poetry, but the whole process felt like I was marinating in the spirit of Jesus that I’d been reading about for all those months, putting down words and listening to see if Something Divine was affirming them or suggesting an alternative.

This was so much fun that I began writing more lyrics to Cohen’s music. When I mentioned this on his web site, several people chastened me for my heresy. But his lawyer sent me a pleasant note and a signed photo.

I had never thought of singing my songs publically and certainly not of recording them, but a musical friend suggested it and his group provided backup. I quickly gave up trying to sing my quiet songs in the subway stations, but the sports bars and public parks were a joy, and the conversations that continue to build are now my greatest delight.

I couldn’t have guessed that getting spiritual counsel from the dour Leonard Cohen would have taught me how to find joy. It makes me wonder what else is out there hiding in plain sight.

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