Happy Birthday, Mr. Cohen
The rabbi turns 78
For the past two years, I’ve been living another man’s life. Luckily for me, that man is Leonard Cohen.
Cohen, who turns 78 today, is a slippery subject for a writer. When I started working on my book—a non-biography, an attempt at understanding his ideas and their resilience, a broken hallelujah to my favorite artist—I realized quickly that there are several of him to behold, each one a riddle. Cohen the poet was a young master of sublime imagery until he wrote a book called Flowers for Hitler that was filled with jagged little anti-poems and seemed to suggest that the whole lyrical undertaking was doomed. As a novelist, he hit his stride with his second work, Beautiful Losers, which one critic called “the most revolting book ever written in Canada” and many others, myself included, found to be breathtakingly beautiful, a rich and strange tapestry of sex and salvation. The novel was his last: After its release, Cohen, a decade older than the hard bodies who strutted shirtless on stages across America, announced he wanted to become a singer. His friends chuckled. It has turned out nicely.
While working on the book, I immersed myself not only in Cohen’s writing and music but also in his papers, everything from high-school doodles to elegiac letters written from his home on the Greek isle of Hydra. Soon, his life eclipsed mine; slowly, the years peeled off, and it wasn’t 2012 but 1963 or 1975, and I was tanning by the Aegean or standing in Aix, watching a stoned Cohen, eyes glassy and hair unkempt, ride on stage atop a while stallion. I’m still there, and I dread the moment I’ll have to leave.
So, what has life with St. Leonard taught me? The question took me hundreds of pages to answer. But if I had to sum it up in a sentence, I’d select one of Cohen’s, from the song “Anthem”:
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.
Amen to that. There, in 25 words, is the perfect embodiment of Cohen’s charms. We listen to him long after we’ve dismissed most of his peers and long after many more have died from recklessly indulging in drugs and self-regard. We listen, because Cohen is more than a singer. He’s a prophet, the spiritual scion of the men, like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah and their ilk, whose ears were sufficiently attuned to hear the divine humming and whose tongues were sharp enough to translate its secrets into a language the rest of us could understand. And what these prophets have always told us is what Leonard Cohen is telling us now: Rather than hold out for radiant heaven, we should learn to find comfort and joy in the messy and tattered and glorious lives we all lead right here on earth.
So, mazel tov to you, rabbi, and thanks for everything.