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By Nils Visser
One of Canada’s most famous voices is that of Leonard Cohen, born in Montreal in 1934. He learned to play the guitar as a teenager, but first and foremost he was a poet. He opted for a literature course at the McGill University in order to launch a career as a poet, and in 1956 published Let Us Compare Mythologies. He moved to the U.S. in 1967 and soon gained fame as a singer-songwriter with his iconic Suzanne.
Leonard Cohen has continued to publish the occasional collection of poetry, the last time being in 2006 (Book of Longing), and has written two novels as well. However, he is best known for his music, releasing 11 original albums, starting with Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967. His latest and 12th album, Old Ideas will be released on the 31st of January 2012.
His songs have often been covered by other artists, most notably Hallelujah, selected by over 200 artists, amongst which the likes of Amy McDonald, Allisone Crowe, Jeff Buckley, John Cale, Alexandra Burke, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Brandi Carlile, U2, Imogen Heap, Katherine Jenkins, Neil Diamond and Rufus Wainwright.
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The lyrics of Hallelujah serve as a good starting point to explain Cohen’s continued world-wide popularity, recently illustrated by a very successful series of concerts in a world tour which would have exhausted most younger artists, let alone a 74 year old singer-songwriter. By-the-by, when reading any lyrics by Cohen, do try to imagine them being voiced in his deep baritone, it takes ingenious poetry and lifts it to an experience that is, at the very least, moving if not spiritual.
One of the first lines is an example of Cohen humour, just like the title of this article, the standard closure of a letter which he uses to end the song Famous Blue Raincoat. In Hallelujah the narrator intrudes to explain the technical makeup of the song, i.e. the chords:
"it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift”
We could spend a week discussing the meaning of the song, not quite within our present scope. We may conclude that a relationship is at the center of the song, and using that as basis we’ll settle for some of the somewhat disturbing and erotic imagery invoked by some of the lines.
Cohen uses an allusion, referring to King David and Bathsheba in the line:
"you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you.”
Here using a minimum of words, Cohen creates an image that almost makes the listener feel the tantalization and guilt of a peeping Tom. To be overthrown by beauty, a rare experience, one that truly does turn your world upside down when it occurs.
In a later stanza Cohen cleverly mixes a number of things, starting with the sharing of thoughts and (sub)conscious perceptions which used to take place between the two lovers but have since ceased.
“There was a time when you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?”
Judging by what follows, the lines above can take on a double meaning, involving a more physical interpretation as well. The stanza concludes by moving on to a sublime mix which seem to describe the physical act of lovemaking quite graphically, whilst at the same time elevating it to a religious experience.
“And remember when I moved in you
The holy ghost was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah”
At almost every turn one gets the perception that the singer-songwriter behind lines like these has lived life to the full, and bears his mental and physical scars with wonder and pride. He may have made mistakes, but they are his and he embraces them like he would one the lovers he sings about with such intensity. Some folks don’t like his songs, they find them unsettling, provocative, a tad too honest or just plain depressing. Others hear a master at work. A master of poetical devices and imagery. A master of song. A master of real life, including both pain and ugly truth as well as the inconceivable tenderness of intimacy and simple beauty of drawing breath and feeling the heart beat the rhythm of Life.