Categories
Literature Music Religion

Lonely Wooden Tower

The CBC discovers that Leonard Cohen used religious imagery in his songs.

Interesting.

I did a presentation on Leonard Cohen in grade 12 at Beacon Christian High School.  I played several songs, including “Suzanne” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” and even “Diamonds in the Mine” and read some of his poems and some passages from “Beautiful Losers”, his novel.  And one of my key points was this:  we have been taught since we were little that to be “good” means denying the flesh and living a spiritual life of self-denial, and to shun sins of the flesh because it blinds us to the gospel truth.    But “Suzanne” brings the two together, Jesus the sailor in his lonely wooden tower, and Suzanne with her tea and oranges, and the two belong together because they both address the same essential spiritual longing in the individual. They are not at war, but in harmony, because the longing for Suzanne is a response to the fact that we are all sailors, all “drowning”, and that’s how we see Christ on “his lonely wooden tower”.  And we are made perfect not in self-denial but in desire.

Not sure I phrased it quite that elegantly in Grade 12 but I remember that I expected the teacher, John Vriend, to object to that part of my presentation and was surprised when he did not.  He kind of nodded and thanked me (it wasn’t an assignment– I had offered to do it and Vriend, tacitly acknowledging that he knew very little about Cohen, except that he was a respected poet, accepted my offer).

I have never forgotten the strangeness of the ending of my presentation.  At that time, nobody was listening to Cohen– nobody.  I’m not sure what I expected– a round of applause?  Disapproval?  Argument?  But it was very quiet.  I had thought I might get some ridicule from my class-mates who were more into top-40 music, and some disapproval from the puritans, but it was just quiet, as if I was in a large cave and there was no echo.  I wondered where the “hello” went.

Note: I’m more than happy to admit that my memories are never 100% accurate.  That’s the best I can do about this particular moment.  I am most certain about the quiet at the end because that is something have never not remembered about it.

Categories
Film Literature Politics

Digestible Disney

In the original legend of “Robin Hood” the bad guys were greedy aristocrats; in Disney’s version, they are tax-collectors. In the book “Hunchback of Notre Dame”, Frollo is an arch-deacon, not Disney’s magistrate. And in real life, Rasputin was a monk; in Disney’s Anastasia, he weirdly becomes a warlock instead.

Disney loves making stories easier to digest.

Categories
General Literature Music

I Am Offended

“The Future” is one of Leonard Cohen’s best songs.  It is spell-binding, powerful, uncompromising.  But even Cohen, apparently, grew frightened of his own lyrics.

Here’s the original second verse:

Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that’s left
And stuff it up the hole in your culture

If you read reddit and browse through the occasional discussion of sexual preference and fetishes it appears that anal sex is not all that uncommon today.  It probably never was.  But a certain constituency out there would find it indelicate.  Thus:

Here we go: Mr. Cohen on the CBC in 1993:

Give me speed and careless sex
Take the only tree…

Let’s note immediately that no one seem all that concerned about taking the “only tree that’s left” or with, later, “the white man dancing”– a strange phrase that suggests there is something not perverse about a black or latino man dancing.

It’s a powerful prophetic song that makes Cohen look like a genius in a certain light.  Not because he is right– he isn’t– and not because he doesn’t offend: he does, wonderfully.  But because he touches about the most sensitive impulses at the arc of our culture: violence and sex and religion– and tells us that they are off the rails.

I need to point out though that no prophecy of future chaos and disorder has ever been wrong.  It is human nature to regard the diversity, conflict, violence, and destruction of every era as inevitable and the worst it has ever been.  But, as thinkers like Hans Rosling have pointed out, you could make a strong argument for the case that humanity has actually never been in better condition than it is now.  [There is an exception: there are strong arguments being made that Global Warming is now beyond the tipping point and real world-wide catastrophe looms.]  There are few wars, less violence, more prosperity than we ever dreamed of 50 or 100 years ago.

Back to my point.  It is more than a little tacky and tawdry and shabby –to use a word favored by Cohen himself– to play the uncompromising prophet and then compromise.  Who asked him to remove “anal sex” and “crack”?  Did he volunteer to do it?  It would not surprise me because Cohen has gone soft in recent years, disappointingly attuned to his own mythology as it plays to his new constituency.   Most of his current fans never listened to the original “Songs of Leonard Cohen” or read any of his books of poetry, or “Beautiful Losers”, the novel, or even “Favorite Game”.

They wouldn’t like the early Cohen, with this, for example:

The 15-year-old girls
I wanted when I was 15
I have them now
It is very pleasant
It is never too late
I advise you all
To become rich and famous….

So when Cohen sings “careless sex” to avoid offending his new fan base, I feel like the man whose incorrigible Uncle has suddenly married and joined a church.  Oh, he used to be so much fun.