This might be somewhat off-topic, but then maybe not. The news about Leonard Cohen’s death this morning have left me a bit shaken. When Dylan was announced winner of the Nobel Prize I thought that was well deserved; still I had to think that Cohen would have been an at least as worthy recipient of that prize as he has made poetry again tangible for a whole generation.
“Suzanne” was one of the anthems of my teenage years, a song that we listened to over and over again and that became part of our emotional fabric. We couldn’t really figure out what the song was about (even though “touching your body with one’s mind” sounds very appealing to teenagers). But what was the point with tea and oranges coming all the way from China, or what had Jesus being a sailor had to do with anything?
I read somewhere that Cohen started using a guitar in order to make his pub poetry recitals more palatable, to ride the singer-songwriter-wave at the time. So, yes also for me he always was a poet first. And he got it right: poetry should be read aloud or even sung.
I learned this at about the same time I had my first contact with Cohen songs. At one of these summer camps in the Black Forest someone read to us Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge”. Ah, now I’d wish you could read it in German – because the English translation doesn’t quite have the immense verbal power of the original. We didn’t get the content quite at first reading but were so mesmerized by the recital performance that we asked for it to be read to us over and over again – until we finally understood. By that time learning about the Holocaust and the Nazi terror had been an important part of my education, both from my parents and in school. But none of that reached quite so deep as Paul Celan’s words. I learned that one could speak about the greatest horror and evil in words sublimely beautiful and thus penetrate far deeper than any lesson could do. I think we all went away from that morning with a deep-felt resolve to never become part of “death as a master from Germany”.
I think this is the same thing Cohen’s “Suzanne” did for us; which all great art does for us. To reach behind our intellectual understanding, our culture, convictions and beliefs and to simply plug a string in our human soul. This is, in the very end, what I pursue to do with photography and makes it worth continuously trying even in failure.
At home we sometimes play a game comparing on YouTube old performances by musicians to new ones in order to see who has improved by maturity. There are many that have lost the magic of their youth. But then there are some who got so much better with age. Joni Mitchell with “Both sides now” and Mark Knopfler’s later renditions of “Brothers in Arms” are splendid examples of the latter category.
But none of these quite compare to Leonard Cohen’s interpretation of “Hallelujah” on his 2009 tour. I’ll link it here, so you can treat yourself (but viewer discretion is advised: this video might leave you weeping).
In this rendition Leonard Cohen not only performs a beautiful song. I love to watch his face and gestures, which become essential parts of the recital and with them he gifts us with more than a song, but with the outreach from a fellow human being, who has lived life to its full depth.
What do you do when you’ve received a great gift? You say thank you. So that’s all that is left for me to do here:
Thank you, and so long, Leonard!