Leonard Cohen in Joy and Sorrow: “Hallelujah”

“There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah”

– Leonard Cohen. Hallelujah

The last time I was in Montreal, Leonard Cohen, who had been dead two years, was on my mind.  How could it be otherwise for one who has admired his songs since his first album.  My daughter is named after perhaps his greatest song – Suzanne – (a heresy to some in light of this article about “Hallelujah”), and all his work has enchanted not just me but millions of other music lovers who desire depth in song.

“You want it darker/We kill the flame,” he sings, as he goes very deep indeed.  He is the king of darkness, perhaps matched only by Bob Dylan, who once wrote a seriously whimsical fantasy for the liner notes to John Wesley Harding:

‘And just how far would you like to go in?’ he [Frank] asked and the three kings all looked at each other. ‘Not too far but just far enough so’s we can say that we’ve been there,’ said the first chief.

Who wants to go deep?  Who wants to go into the darkness?  Who will go all the way in?

Who prefers to say “we’ve been there” when they only took a walk in the park?

It’s easier to appreciate these singing poets at a superficial level without going where their art demands.  I say “their art” to distinguish the fallible men from their best creations.  Not entirely, of course, but to note that the artist often pales in comparison to his creations, which often come through him as much as he shapes them.

Both Cohen and Dylan, prophets of song, have been so popular because in their darkest visions they also offer a glimmer of hope, not much, but a bit of light presented in enigmatic lyrics.  In Cohen’s words: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”  A crack that runs through everyone in a story that can only be told by transcendent visionaries.  Cohen:

Thеre’s a lover in the story
But thе story’s still the same
There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame
But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle-class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission
To murder and to maim
You want it darker

And the light they offer is spiritual.  It is only available to those willing to follow them into hell, like Odysseus, Aeneas, and Dante who went far down into the underworld to bring back messages of hope.  They are what another master in words, the English author John Berger, calls “enclaves of the beyond,” windows in walls of words where faith pops out to overcome despair and fuels resistance to evil.  Little apertures onto hallelujahs despite life’s struggles and confusions.

Both Cohen and Dylan came to prominence in the 1960s when darkness and doom dominated the news. Both knew then and later that only a spiritual revolution offered hope, for spirit, secular or sacred, even when incognito, sustained the resistance to the political nihilism that was then rising to a crescendo.  Where it was absent, resistance collapsed.

Now we are undergoing the culmination of those years of mass slaughter in Vietnam, CIA assassinations of our anti-war and civil rights leaders, and a youth rebellion sadly coopted with drugs and other propaganda by the same CIA.  Cohen and Dylan sensed then what would come to pass.  Drug addictions, suicides, despair, loss of meaning, resignation, and a growing complacency as the population settled into a long sleep in the bed of consumer and war culture and the warfare state built its propaganda apparatus to the demonic digital level it is at today.

Perhaps they read Nietzsche.

Perhaps they were very frightened.

Perhaps they were just poetic geniuses who never lost touch with God.

Cohen was a haunted man and his art was an effort to find relief from his conflicts; he called his writing a “harbor” where he could give form to and find shelter from the combat in his soul.  So being in his birthplace with his massive painted face staring from the side of a tall building, I naturally wrote an article about him, and much more.  In The Cell Phone and the Virgin: A Montreal Odyssey, I wrote the following from one of Cohen’s haunts, Old Montreal down by the riverside:

I stood in front of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel (Our Lady of Good Help), looking up at the Virgin glimmering in the afternoon sun. The old port. The sailor’s church. Like Henry Adams, I thought of the powerful force of the Virgin throughout history.  Her protection across life’s tempestuous seas. And Leonard Cohen, the Montrealer, who as a young man would come to this chapel and sit in meditation and write his beautiful song, “Suzanne,” invoking “our lady of the harbor.” Leonard, who would stand in awe of the woman as protectress, mother, lover, killer, and muse:  As in the beautifully tuneful and complex song “Night Comes On”:

I went down to the place where I knew she lay waiting
Under the marble and the snow
I said, Mother I’m frightened
The thunder and the lightning
I’ll never come through this alone
She said, “I’ll be with you
My shawl wrapped around you
My hand on your head when you go”

And the night came on
It was very calm
I wanted the night to go on and on
But she said, “Go back, go back to the

We were fighting in Egypt
When they signed this agreement
That nobody else had to die
There was this terrible sound
My father went down
With a terrible wound in his side
He said, Try to go on
Take my books, take my gun
Remember, my son, how they lied

And the night comes on
It’s very calm
I’d like to pretend that my father was wrong
But you don’t want to lie, not to the young

For one who knows something about his relationship with his mother, and his father who died when Cohen was nine-years-old, such words may seem a bit mawkish, a sentimentalizing of their actual relationship, a distortion of reality with a cryptic political message. This would be a misunderstanding of the artist at work; it would be to simplify a complex man, one who, like other conflicted artists (a redundancy?), takes personal relationships and transmogrifies them to find a temporary harbor in which to rest from a reality that roils them to their depths.  They sense, if do not explicitly say, that the personal can only be understood within the social.  Isn’t this what Homer and Virgil did?

Who is not roiled these days?

Was Odysseus roiled when he went to the underworld to consult Tiresias the seer about how to get home and met his mother’s ghost who, when he tried to embrace her, fluttered through his fingers, “sifting away like a shadow/dissolving like a dream”?

Was Aeneas roiled when he too went to the underworld and met his father’s shade whom he tried to embrace but felt “nothing, the phantom sifting through his fingers, light as wind, quick as a dream in flight”?

Cohen was a roiled and literate man, one who drew on the best in traditional literature.  He may have been from Montreal, but he was always a sailor lost at sea, a drowning man with no direction home who always quested after guidance to free him from his life-long depression.  He admitted that drink, drugs, religion, sex, or psychotherapy couldn’t free him.  But prayer as a toiling over words made into song granted him a temporary safe harbor from going under.

In the recent documentary about him – Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song – we get to see the artist at work on this process.  The film chronicles the history of one of Cohen’s songs – “Hallelujah” – that became an obsession with him. We learn that he wrote 150 verses over the years and that the original song took five years to complete.  It was included on his 1984 album Various Positions, but Columbia Records refused to release the album, thinking it of inferior quality.  The album is actually great, with many wonderful songs.  It was later released on a smaller label and Cohen sang different versions of it at his concerts.  Bob Dylan covered it in the late 1980s, which no doubt attests to Dylan’s great musical insight and his affinity for Cohen, brothers in song. Then in 1991 it was covered by John Cale and in 1994 by Jeff Buckley, who did a most passionate version.

The song was on its way, but to where was the question.  It gained in popularity over the years and in 2001 it was featured in the movie, Shrek, a most unlikely place for it to be heard.  Kitsch met depth.  The passionately conflicted and highly sexualized Cohen’s “horny and holy” version had been neutered.

Over the years there have been more than 300 covers of the song and much debate about its meaning.  The mysterious poet/songwriter from Montreal had slipped into mainstream culture to his great amusement.  The song reached the Billboard Charts in 2016, the year of Cohen’s death.

The documentary is interesting in many ways, especially for its use of archival material from the Cohen Trust, including use of his notebooks, writing, performances, and interview footage.

Watching this excellent film, I was struck by how this song encapsulates Cohen’s spiritual journey.  For Hallelujah is a prayer in song, not in a mawkish way, but a prayer for our times when the old distinctions between the sacred and the secular have melded once again and people seek spiritual sustenance outside the traditional categories of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, etc.  One may begin life in one tradition, as Cohen and Dylan did in the Jewish faith, but eventually many cross over to explore other faiths while remaining somehow anchored in their beginnings, whether those beginnings were explicitly religious or not.  For many, the roots of a spiritual journey lie in the examples of their parents and whether or not their lives were lived with unspoken spiritual integrity – acta non verba.

The theologian John Dunne wrote in his brilliant 1972 book, The Way of All the Earth: Experiments in Truth and Religion, the following:

Is a religion coming to birth in our time? It could be. What seems to be occurring is a phenomenon we might call ‘passing over,’ passing over from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another. Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion. It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back,’ coming back with new insight to one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion. . . . The course such an adventure follows is that of an odyssey. . . . One’s life is finally the homeland.

This seems to me to sum up Cohen’s odyssey.  He was a man of his turbulent times who “experimented with truth,” in Gandhi’s words. Not that he was in any way another Gandhi, for he was, by his own admission, seriously flawed (who isn’t? Gandhi, too) and “not somebody who’s seen the light” and yet could still praise life with his “cold” and “broken Hallelujah.”  He turned poetry into truth and truth into poetry without sparing himself.  This took guts.  Like many poets, he could sound exalted and dejected simultaneously, morose and ecstatic (especially about sex and love), grating and sweet.  And like any cultural icon who is glorified by the media and whose personal life becomes somewhat of an open book, he is not an exemplar to follow.  But his work is, for it takes us into deep places where the heart’s desires meet and clash in a search for peace and reconciliation.

From his first song, Suzanne, to his last, Treaty, all his work, as he says in the documentary, is one piece.  The words of a man cracked into many pieces but who, from beginning to end, searched for wholeness with his songs.

As my four-year old daughter Susanne once said to me as we walked past a boarded-up church, “Papa, I think that when we die, God will put us all back together again.”  The words of a poet!  Mysterious and dark.

Sing “Hallelujah.”










7 thoughts on “Leonard Cohen in Joy and Sorrow: “Hallelujah””

  1. Reminder — 59 years ago today, JFK murdered by “all those deep and ugly anti-democratic tools.”

    Check this out, Ed: Montreal’s Permindex and the Deep State Plot to Kill Kennedy by MATTHEW EHRET


    We have arrived at the 59th anniversary of the murder of America’s 35th President John F. Kennedy and too few have come to terms with the tragic forces that both murdered this great leader on November 22, 1963, and attempted to destroy the positive vision of mankind towards which Kennedy dedicated his life.

    Now 59 years later, 500 CIA documents remain illegally classified despite former President Trump’s efforts to make everything public according to the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 which itself was made possible through the incredible work of Oliver Stone in 1992.

    In spite of that lack of full de-classification, enough evidence has been uncovered over the years, largely spearheaded by the pioneering work of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner in Stone’s production) who led in the only jury trial investigating the true killers in 1966. Garrison’s work didn’t stop at the trial which uncovered mountains of inconsistencies in the “official narrative” of a lone gunman promoted by the very CIA which Kennedy openly threatened to “splinter into a thousand pieces and scatter into the wind” after firing Allan Dulles.

    Garrison’s investigation continued until his death in 1992 and his discoveries led directly to a Montreal-based international assassination bureau set up by MI6 during WWII named Permindex and steered by a shadowy figure named Maj. Gen. Louis Mortimer Bloomfield- a character whose life is kept a mystery as letters and personal writings remain classified in Canada’s National Archives, in spite of their legal mandate to be made public 20 years after his 1984 death.

    In this presentation recorded in November 2013, I outlined the historical forces shaping the world when JFK become President in 1961, what this young man’s vision was for a post-colonial world of win-win cooperation, how he fought to shut down the Federal Reserve, break up the CIA, and end the Vietnam war. In this lecture, I also take on the cover up of JFK’s murder and how an Anglo-American intelligence operation coordinated through Montreal carried out the murder, how New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison fought to reveal the truth throughout the last 3 decades of his life and how the current alliance of Russia and China are offering humanity a 2nd chance to pick up the torch where it was dropped by JFK in 1963.

    The full truth of this operation which mis-shaped the course of world history will surprise you.

  2. Good post, Ed.

    Some brainstorming coming from reading your work . . . sorry for the splintered thoughts:

    Shaena Lambert: “Keep believing in your story, keep letting it grow. Sometimes putting it away can be magical. It will grow on its own, putting out roots and tendrils while sitting in its drawer.”

    I cite her after realizing young voices are fighting this rottening capitalism.

    Women, though, are the standard bearers, here:

    David Suzuki’s daughter Tamiko and granddaughter Midori Campos crossed the police line on Sunday, while protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion on Burnaby Mountain.

    The women were promptly arrested, along with women from the Klabona Keepers of the Tahltan Nation in northern B.C., and two women with the activist group Beyond Boarding.

    The women were among three mother-daughter groups detained by police on Burnaby Mountain on the weekend, including award-winning author Shaena Lambert, her daughter Lucy, and another woman and her 11-year old daughter.


    This is the touch of Mario Puzo, no, this disgusting Biden, this disgusting USA Mafia? What would Cohen say?

    “The US has granted Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman sovereign immunity in a lawsuit over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The decision means that despite the near certainty of the US intelligence community that the 37-year-old authorised the brutal murder of Khashoggi in 2018, any prospect for holding the crown prince legally accountable for the killing is blocked.”

    Order a hit, many hits, and get immunity from the Empire of Lies/Chaos/Terror!

    Now, the Lockhead Martin Mafia, providing Ukraine with 220 HIMARS next year. Sick sick sick. No Hallajulah for the MICC?

    What would Cohen say? Dylan? Has he weighed in on this madenss?


    Note: UK Ministery of Defenses (Offense) will provide refillable lighters to the UkroNazi Army with the slogan, “GLory to Ukraine,” inscribed on them as part of the winter kit it is giving Ukrainian recruits training on British soil.

    Whew, the Brits continuing the Nazi — Bandera — tradition!

    Finally, how Canada will treat the sick, homeless and desperate: Euthanasia!



    Any song writers out there willing to tackle the age of insanity?

  3. Ed, Enjoy these ruminations, these “riffs” inspired by tunes and prophetic lyrics. I speak purely of song as essential life forces.

    I’ve requested musicians play this widely loved song by Leonard Cohen. I do like Cohen’s songs but this one I requested because others were so moved by it.

    Here is a favorite cover, of mine, of Cohen’s very special (for me) song by Tom Jones: Tower of Songs. I wish Tom did all Leonard’s songs for those of us who love the lyrics but cherish Tom’s gritty blues interpretations.


  4. “Now we are undergoing the culmination of those years of mass slaughter in Vietnam, CIA assassinations of our anti-war and civil rights leaders, and a youth rebellion sadly coopted with drugs and other propaganda by the same CIA.” – I often find myself contemplating very similar thoughts Ed. That this morass we find ourselves in today extends far back to that long ago cowardice of we Americans in accepting the farcical existence of that “magic bullet” – rather than dare face reality.

    The CIA’s war on “material reality” has now metastasized to the point that our MSM pulls the latest “magic bullet” out of it’s hat (or somewhere else) on cue almost reflexively for each new propaganda operation. When I questioned the Syrian regime-change war propaganda I was called a “Putin Puppet.” When I expressed concern for the basic human rights and the lives of Palestinians I was called an “antisemite.” When I simply stated that I know what a woman is I was called a “transphobic bigot.” And when I dared question the covid, lockdown and vaccine narratives I was called a “right-wing Trump supporter.” That none of these aspersions is remotely true is irrelevant in a world in which any questioning of the official “CIA approved” narrative renders one an unhinged – “conspiracy theorist.” Guilty as charged.

    We live in a world in which the “magic bullet” is reborn in some new form it seems almost daily – and in which “material reality” fades further and further into the rearview mirror. But pay no mind whisper our wise post-modern academics who quietly shill for the latest woke approved Western barbarism – while explaining that ‘material reality’ isn’t what it’s cracked up to be anyway, and it is only what we “feel” that is important. Sadly what “I feel” is simply increasingly numb to the idiocy of whatever the latest flavor – “magic bullet of the day” – propaganda line might be.

  5. The first time I heard Leonard Cohen I was in my first passionate embrace with a woman.
    It was the early 70’s and I was hooked.
    On Cohen.
    It’s been a beautiful journey and I finally got to see him in Australia in 2009. A magical experience.
    Long live Leonard.

  6. Always had a hearing problem so I could not ‘get’ the lyrics of most music. Sometimes I like just the music. Apparently at one time Cohen lost some fans with the people of Ramallah. I never had idols or gods. I tried to hear myself…still trying. For me, wars started at the dinner table. Vietnam was not necessary. I still like food.

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