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A great crack, where the light got in

2016 November 15
by Paul Vallely
Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes I thought it was there for good so I never tried

Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes
I thought it was there for good so I never tried

By one of those eerie coincidences, a few days after the death of Leonard Cohen, one of his songs came up in something I was watching in the theatre. The play was called Things I Know To Be True and though it was written some time before the Canadian songwriter’s death it highlighted why the departure of such a figure on the cultural landscape can feel like a personal rather than a public loss.

The play, at one point, takes Cohen’s song Famous Blue Raincoat and uses it as a device by which a young woman can tell her mother (played by Imogen Stubbs, above) that she has always understood something which her Mum thought was hidden. The daughter had noticed her mother would cry when she heard it. I won’t spoil the plot as this fine play – a tender and moving study of family life by Andrew Bovell – is currently on a national tour. But various lines from the song became an unnervingly threnody along the woman’s life.

Popular song is the soundtrack to the lives of a generation who live, love and age along with the songs’ singers. It’s why musicians of longevity, like David Bowie or Prince, leave such a bewailed gap in the lives of the fans they leave behind. Leonard Cohen did that most distinctively because of the elegance and depth of his poetic sensibility.

To a pop star’s romantic charisma he added an eroticised intelligence. He was more than a womanising poet singing songs of melancholy. He delved deep into love, suffering, depression and despair – and then offered a fragmented redemption with his holy but broken Hallelujah. Pleasure and pain to him were inseparable parts of what it is to be human: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Leonard Cohen could gaze up to the heavens and down to hell and yet his feet were planted firmly here on earth. He had “this direct line to the galaxy”, said Rufus Wainwright, “whilst at the same time knowing exactly when to take out the trash”. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh, Cohen said.

He showed that “being spiritual but not religious” can be more than a shallow secular slogan. Brought up an Orthodox Jew he flirted with Scientology before spending six years in a Zen Buddhist monastery in California – an experience which eased his lifelong depression. Latterly he revealed: “Occasionally I’ve felt the grace of another presence in my life.” On his final album, last month, he borrowed a Jewish prayer of preparation and humility, singing Abraham’s response when God called on him to sacrifice Isaac: “Hineni, hineni; I’m ready, my lord”.

The response to his death showed that his work and his words have reached beyond his peers to resonate across generations. As he wrote to his old lover Marianne on her deathbed only weeks ago: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine”. His steps will always rhyme.

from the Church Times

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