Thursday, February 28, 2013


An excellent essay on the Humanist approach to alcohol, drugs, religion and sex.

Prohibition & Humanism

“Pot’s Legal!” declared the Seattle Times in large print on November 7, 2012, while that same day the Denver Post ran the headline: “FIRED UP.” As two states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, an ancient debate is slowly rekindling. The term prohibition seems to be a remnant of an age long past, when mobsters wearing slick suits and fedoras sipped moonshine in speakeasies. However, as marijuana legalization enters onto the national stage, the word is quickly becoming associated with a new intoxicant. The religious and non-religious alike find themselves once again faced with a moral question that has haunted humanity since the first caveman stumbled across fermenting fruit: Should drugs be allowed?
For as long as drugs and alcohol have existed, society and religion have weighed judgment on their consumption. In ancient Egypt beer was a gift from Osiris, while in ancient Greece many praises were sung to Dionysus, god of the grape harvest and life of the party. However, many of the world’s younger religions have not been so friendly toward intoxicants. Buddhists, Muslims, and Mormons generally condemn drugs and alcohol as a form of evil, while Christians can’t seem to agree on whether intoxicants are a gift from God or a tool of Satan.
Christianity’s indecision on drug and alcohol policy is directly related to a number of contradictions in the Bible. In the beginning, it seems as if God tacitly accepts the consumption of booze. In Genesis, God’s right-hand man on earth, Noah, loves the stuff. Following the flood, he immediately plants a vineyard and lolls about naked and drunk once his wine has fermented (Genesis 9:20-25). As humanity repopulates, God’s people continue to sing praises for this apparent gift to man. The Song of Solomon contains beautiful poetry comparing the joys of love to the intoxication of wine (Song of Solomon 1:2, 7:9). Later, when the wine runs out at a wedding, God’s own son goes on a celestial booze-run, reinvigorating the party (John 2:1-11). Given that precedent, one would think that Christians would host keggers every Sunday. However, as Alcoholics Anonymous will tell you, there are many other Bible verses that simultaneously condemn the consumption of intoxicating beverages.
To a nontheist, it seems rather silly to try and divine whether an all-powerful God smiles or frowns when you take a shot of tequila. However, in societies all around the world, religious lawmakers continue to ask that very same question, enacting strict prohibitionist measures as a result. As self-envisioned servants of God, they feel their duty is to bring divine law to his jurisdiction. With religion as their hammer and the law as their chisel, governments the world over actively persecute those nonbelievers who hold their own codes of morality when it comes to inebriating substances.
In the Islamic world, many drug and alcohol laws come straight out of the Koran, which teaches that khamer, or intoxicants, are instruments of Satan. In Saudi Arabia, getting caught with a beer comes with a punishment of forty lashes; a rather mild sentence when one considers that in much of Southeast Asia, drug possession often merits the death penalty. As the prophet Mohammed said, “Whosoever drinks wine, whip him. If he repeats it for the fourth time, kill him.”
The United States saw its fair share of religiously motivated moral legislation in the early twentieth century, when Evangelical Protestant churches and religious fundamentalists pushed for the prohibition of alcohol, intent on removing this “evil” from society. The Rev. Mark Matthews, a leading figure in the temperance movement, famously noted, “The saloon is the most fiendish, corrupt, hell-soaked institution that ever crawled out of the slime of the eternal pit. …It takes your sweet innocent daughter, robs her of her virtue, and transforms her into a brazen, wanton harlot. …It is the open sore of this land.” With the ensuing ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, religious conservatives believed that God’s will had been done, and that the United States had succeeded in taking a bold step towards achieving heaven on earth.
However, to their dismay, after the law took effect in 1920 people kept on drinking, and the United States was soon facing a rampant problem with organized crime. The “noble experiment,” as it came to be known, ended in 1933 with the passing of the Twenty-first Amendment, and the power to regulate alcoholic beverages was passed back to the states. Today, many of these religiously fueled state laws remain unchanged in rural America. “Dry Counties” are a common occurrence in the South, and all across the United States unusually harsh punishments abound for underage drinking, public intoxication, and other nonviolent alcohol-related offenses.
There are those Americans who view the so-called “war on drugs” as Christianity’s most recent attempt to push moral prohibitionism on the masses. Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, for example, calls it a “war on sin,” noting that the organizational factor behind current U.S. drug policy is to simply outlaw “anything which might radically eclipse prayer or procreative sexuality as a source of pleasure.” The bottom line, Harris argues, is that intoxicants are perceived by religion as a threat to individual faith.
This begs the question, does current drug policy truly serve the objective betterment of society, or has it been pointedly enacted by religious zealots attempting to push their interpretations of sacred text on the masses? A 2010 Pew Research Center poll found that while 64 percent of the religiously unaffiliated believed marijuana should be legalized, only 33 percent of Christians shared that view. Indeed, it is religious interest groups that have been the driving force behind anti-drug policies in the United States. The two largest Christian lobbying groups, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Family Research Council, are major funding sources for anti-legalization efforts. Just as the temperance and prohibition movements of the early twentieth century were largely fueled by religious fervor, it is reasonable to conclude that the modern war on drugs is in large part fueled by Christian moral interests.
The legislation of morality is widespread; from blasphemy to gay inequality to reproductive rights, religious majorities actively persecute those with differing values through the codification of morality. And while many of these marginalized groups have seen notable public support, the public is largely silent when it comes to the marginalization of those who choose to use drugs. Just as religion often labels those with alternative sexual preferences as morally corrupt or evil, so too does religion judge those who choose to use drugs and alcohol as morally inferior.
Part of the philosophy of humanism is to stand against outdated codes of morality that persecute and make life difficult for people. Just as LGBT issues are humanist issues, so too are drug and alcohol issues. When evaluating how society treats inebriants, science and reason should be the standards by which we create policy, not ancient religious texts. Most comparative policy studies agree that drug and alcohol abuse should be regarded as a public health issue, as opposed to a criminal justice issue, and that public funds are best spent on drug treatment and prevention rather than enforcement and incarceration.
Predominant theocratic norms have so influenced society that tacit acquiescence for religious prejudice has largely replaced critical analysis when it comes to social attitudes towards drug use. Indeed, there is little opposition, even among nontheists, to laws that persecute those who choose to use drugs. However, humanism and human decency afford that individuals with varying values and beliefs should be respected, not shunned.
One example of a largely unopposed, overly harsh drug law in the United States is the Higher Education Act’s Aid Elimination Penalty, which states that any individual with a misdemeanor drug offense is to be barred from receiving federal financial aid to attend college. Because of the provision, hundreds of thousands of promising students have been forced to drop out of college because of minor, nonviolent drug offenses. The penalty was introduced in 1998 by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), a Christian conservative whose battles included anti-abortion legislation and the prohibition of online gambling. Heavily influenced by his religion, when asked about his position on abortion, Souder responded, “the closer to the clearness of the Bible, the less ability I should have to compromise.” Ironically, this moral crusader left office in 2010 after admitting to an affair with a staffer, lamenting in his resignation speech that he had “sinned against God.”
While drug laws that prevent access to education have untold social costs, the financial burdens of the war on sin can be more easily calculated. In 2010 alone, the Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that this so-called war cost the U.S. federal government $15 billion, and state governments another $25 billion. Incarceration costs alone can be staggering. In 2011 the State of California spent $45,006 per inmate and approximately 31 percent of all California inmates were booked on drug offenses. To put that into perspective, the state spent $8,667 per college student in the same year. Because of the war on drugs’ mandatory minimum sentencing laws, Americans now comprise 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but 23.4 percent of its prison population.
The Obama administration has at least vocalized concerns regarding the failure of national drug policy. As stated in its recently released 2012 National Drug Control Strategy: “science has shown that drug addiction is not a moral failing but rather a disease of the brain that can be prevented and treated.” However, upon review of the actual policy, many have concluded that the only thing changed is the wording. “This strategy is nearly identical to previous national drug strategies,” stated Bill Piper, the director for national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “While the rhetoric is new, reflecting the fact that three-quarters of Americans consider the drug war a failure, the substance of the actual policies is the same.” Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein raised similar concerns, noting that “President Obama promised to use a science-based approach to public policy. But when it comes to marijuana, he has continued the unscientific policies of George Bush, and has even gone far beyond Bush in his attacks upon medical marijuana clinics.”
Eighty-some years ago, the primary motivations for ending the alcohol prohibition were the staggering economic costs of enforcement, as well as the huge impact of lost tax revenues. A 1929 pamphlet distributed by the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment estimated that the total loss of federal tax revenues was $861 million, the equivalent of $108 billion dollars today. The nation, in the midst of the Great Depression, was in desperate need of these tax revenues to implement economic stimulus programs, and so in 1932 a bipartisan effort saw the passing of the Twenty-first Amendment. Perhaps a similar appeal to reason can be made in our current time of financial uncertainty. If nothing else, perhaps religious lawmakers can be made to see that their war on sin has failed in economic terms.
Ideally, a majority of lawmakers may eventually come to realize that drug experimentation is a natural human phenomenon—that humans are instinctively attracted to mind-altering substances.
Archaeologists have uncovered widespread evidence of drug consumption in ancient communities across the globe. The oldest evidence of beer consumption dates back to around 5000 BCE in what is now Iran, while wine consumption goes back even further, to about 6000 BCE. The consumption of betel nut, the fourth-most used drug in the world after nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine, dates back 13,000 years ago in Timor, and 10,700 years ago in Thailand. Coca was domesticated in the western Andes close to 7,000 years ago, and the consumption of tobacco in the Americas, pituri in Australia, and khat in Eastern Africa already represented ancient practices when European colonists made first contact, perhaps dating back 40,000 years or more. Most anthropologists agree that human drug consumption predates human civilization.
Indeed, neurological studies have revealed that drug use has been a part of mammalian societies since ancient times. According to a study from the Stanford University School of Medicine, the central nervous system has developed certain receptors that indicate co-evolutionary activity between mammalian brains and psychotropic plants. In essence, the human brain has “evolved receptor systems for plant substances, such as the opioid receptor system, not available by the mammalian body itself.” The study notes that a common ancestor evolved these receptors at some point in evolutionary history in order to accommodate substance consumption. The study also points towards the body’s natural defenses against drug overdose, such as exogenous substance metabolism and vomiting reflexes, as further evidence for mammalian coevolution with psychotropic plants. As odd as it might seem, this suggests that humans are actually hardwired to enjoy drug consumption.
While coevolution explains why humans can experience drugs, it doesn’t explain why humans choose to use drugs despite social stigma against them. Another theory of human drug consumption explores the idea of modern drug experimentation as a form of evolutionarily novel behavior. The theory builds off of what evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa calls the Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis. It combines his Savanna Principle, which states that the human brain has difficulty dealing with entities and situations that didn’t exist in the ancestral environment, with the theory of evolution of general intelligence, which suggests that general intelligence evolved as a psychological adaptation to solve evolutionarily novel problems. Within the realm of evolutionary psychology, this hypothesis predicts that individuals of higher intelligence are more likely to engage in novel behavior that goes against cultural traditions or social norms.
Interestingly, the findings of a forty-year-long study funded by the British government paralleled this hypothesis, and found that “very bright” individuals with IQs above 125 were about twice as likely to have tried psychoactive drugs than “very dull” individuals with IQs below 75. As Kanazawa explains, “Intelligent people don’t always do the ‘right’ thing, only the evolutionarily novel thing.” Other forms of evolutionarily novel behavior that are more prevalent among individuals with higher IQs include vegetarianism and the use of contraceptives. Kanazawa, who is a senior scholar at the London School of Economics, even suggests that liberalism and atheism can fall under the Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis as a form of evolutionarily novel behavior defying the deeply ingrained cultural traditions of humanity.
But whether humans choose to use drugs simply because they are hardwired for it, or because evolution inclines them towards experimentation, it is important to push for the continuation of research into the science behind intoxicating substances in order to better understand the relationship between psychotropic drugs and human beings. Further research into the spiritual effects of many recreational drugs may even lead to a deeper understanding of human spirituality and religion. Unfortunately, as with stem-cell research, religious lawmakers within the U.S. government continue to obstruct research involving recreational drugs in the name of morality.
The government’s primary tool in enforcing modern drug prohibition and monitoring drug research is the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970. By means of the CSA, the federal government has the final say in the legal status of any and all drugs. Under the CSA, drugs are classified into different groups, schedules I-V, which represent the relative risk each drug poses to society. Schedule-I drugs are generally regarded as the most dangerous, and are classified by the following criteria:
The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.
Marijuana still remains on the Schedule-I list despite countless studies showing it to be non-addictive, safe for personal consumption, and to have valuable medicinal properties. Other drugs currently labeled as Schedule-I have also shown promising medical value even though their recreational use can be dangerous. MDMA (the primary ingredient in “ecstasy”) has been proven to be an effective means of treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. LSD (“acid”) and psilocybin (or psychedelic mushrooms) have shown potential for use in the treatment of certain psychiatric ailments. Ibogaine (a hallucinogen with psychedelic and dissociative properties) has been proven to cure heroin addiction, and GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate, a recreational depressant also used as a date-rape drug) is commonly used outside of the United States in the treatment of narcolepsy.
If science is to be the ideal standard by which policy decisions should be made, more research into the true nature of psychotropic substances is needed. It’s simply counterproductive to mislabel substances in order to stifle research and stiffen penalties. Moreover, to weigh moral judgment on the mere existence of recreational drugs is to presuppose a cosmic struggle between good and evil. As Lewis Lapham writes in the Winter 2013 issue ofLapham’s Quarterly (devoted to the theme of “Intoxication”), the war on drugs is essentially a war on human nature, and that whether declared by church or state, such a war is “by definition lost.” However, as it’s waged, this war against human nature strengthens the fear of one’s fellow humans. “The red, white, and blue pills sell the hope of heaven made with artificial sweeteners,” Lapham opines.
For now, all eyes are on Washington and Colorado. How will their noble experiment fare? Will it result in increased crime rates and social discord? Will pot stores be fiendish, hell-soaked open sores on the land? Or will the law create a safe and legal way to access a friendly substance that makes people feel good? If the latter proves true, it may be necessary to reevaluate how society regards all recreational drug use.
Popularity should not be the standard by which the legality of recreational drugs is decided. Scientists and policymakers alike need to review current motivations behind drug policies. It’s important to recognize that whether it’s drinking coffee in Seattle, smoking hookah in Istanbul, sipping sake in Tokyo, or eating ibogaine in the jungles of Cameroon, drug use is something that is deeply ingrained in the cultural traditions of humanity. Religion tends to breed fear and contempt towards all that it would interpret as evil, be it homosexuality, stem-cell research, or drug consumption. Humanism should challenge that norm, encouraging tolerance and understanding while fighting against religiously motivated bigotry and the moral legislation that goes along with it.
Brett Aho is a freelance writer currently based in Seattle, Washington and a recent Fulbright scholar who holds degrees in French, German, and international relations from the University of Redlands. More of his work can be found at

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Leonard Cohen

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen
by Sylvie Simmons

Leonard Cohen, Royal Albert Hall, London, May 1976

Leonard Cohen’s songs mix the sleazy and the sacred in ways that break down both categories. This music, delivered in Cohen’s nasal non-voice, often played on cheap synthesizers, shoddily produced, sometimes badly recorded and unreliably distributed, nevertheless finds unlikely access to words like “holy,” “saint,” and “prayer” as though to transcend its origins in the gut and the loins. Cohen has attracted many disciples and inspired many conversions. He is one of the most beloved figures in modern pop, but everyone who listens to Cohen feels he has bailed him out of impending obscurity.

He is a kind of permanent alternative to whatever it is you’ve been listening to: I came to him after I’d listened too much to the Nineties West Coast band Pavement, with whom he has zero in common. Somehow I felt I’d been making a mistake, all this time, listening to other bands and singers. The feeling passed, but it’s a common one: Cohen inspires not just loyalty but a weird monogamy.

Cohen has the ubiquity of Waldo or Zelig, turning up on the fringe of every picture. People who have never even heard of Cohen have heard his songs. He is a regular on movie soundtracks of all kinds. His songs created much of the power of Robert Altman’s marvelous Seventies western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. In another vein, “Hallelujah,” his most famous song, played at the end ofShrek as the two computer-generated ogres embraced. This was an odd choice, considering the fact that the most famous lyrics from that song are “remember when I moved in you/the holy dark was moving too”: I don’t need to picture Shrek and his girl in that kind of detail. Cohen is a figure out of the movies—more Altman than Shrek—and his songs, which create the ambience they describe, are essentially cinematic. When you see him on stage, his soulful mien framed by a trilby and a tie, Cohen does more than perform his songs: he stars in them.
He has had a nomadic life, moving from Montreal to New York to London and Greece to Mumbai and Singapore and back again. He is not identified with any one place or scene. He hung with Andy Warhol and Judy Collins in the same day. His music is the work of a man constantly entering new milieus, making the new appeal. His lyrics are a species of banter or rapport, unlike, say, Dylan’s, which exist in a hermetically fused chamber of their own brilliance when they do not practice outright exclusion or even accusation. This ambivalence, approaching disdain, for his audience is Dylan’s genius; Cohen, who was called “the Canadian Bob Dylan” when he appeared on the scene in the mid-Sixties, could not be more different. Cohen’s music assumes admiration from his listeners and assumes, furthermore, that admiration is just uncatalyzed lust. Many people who have heard Cohen’s music, over the years, have right away gone to bed with him—or, if he was unavailable, with the person next to them. He is one of those sublime charlatans who can make spiritual matters seem to depend on taking immediate carnal action.

He is a throwback: a poet (Bono, who nobody ever thought of as a poet, said he was our Shelley, while others name Rimbaud and Baudelaire); a man, Cohen has said, “born in a suit,” a figure out of old Montreal and the nearby minor-league borscht belt of the Eastern Townships and the Laurentians. The Cohens were prominent in Montreal, but the family was in some disarray: Cohen’s father died when Leonard was nine; his mother remarried. As a teenager Cohen often came down from his perch on Westmount, where the Anglos and wealthier Jews lived, to walk the streets of the seedier districts and “catalogue the magic and tricks, rubber cockroaches and handshake buzzers,” as Cohen wrote, and to meet the “men who wore overcoats even in summer.”
Joni Mitchell, who met Cohen in Greenwich Village in the Sixties and fell for him instantly, has a gorgeous song about sleeping on Cohen’s mother’s bed in Montreal while Cohen, ever the observer, watches her sleep:

It was a rainy night
We took a taxi to your mother’s home
She went to Florida and left you
With your father’s gun, alone
Upon her small white bed
I fell into a dream
You sat up all the night and watched me
To see, who in the world I might be
“Rainy Night House” along with two other of Mitchell’s songs—“A Case of You” and “That Song About the Midway”—forms one of the most inspired and beautiful groups of songs by one great singer about another in the history of pop. In “Rainy Night House,” Mitchell describes Cohen as “a holy man/on the FMradio”; many years later she decided he was merely a “boudoir poet,” though her own song shows how unusual an experience it was to pay a visit to the boudoir with Leonard Cohen.
I’m Your Man is Sylvie Simmons’s new biography of Cohen, whom she calls “Leonard” throughout: she interviewed her subject extensively for this book, which sometimes is just a conduit for his million-watt charm. Anybody choosing to write an authorized biography of Cohen while he’s still very much alive has already submitted to his magnetism, if not the actual mesmerism Simmons describes in the early pages of the book. Cohen, in his early teens, has gotten his hands on a guide to hypnosis:
Finding instant success with domestic animals, he moved on to the domestic staff, recruiting as his first human subject the family maid. At his direction, the young woman sat on the chesterfield sofa. Leonard drew a chair alongside and…told her in a slow gentle voice to relax her muscles and look into his eyes…. Leonard instructed the maid to undress.
Do we believe all this? Hypnotizing domestic animals? Undressing the maid? I’m not certain I do, but if I did, I would not have Simmons’s response:
What a moment it must have been for the adolescent Leonard. The successful fusion of arcane wisdom and sexual longing. To sit beside a naked woman, in his own home, convinced that he made this happen, simply by talent, study, mastery of an art and imposition of his will.
The whole creepy story feels like a scene from a silent film starring Louise Brooks. But Simmons’s book is symptomatic of Cohen’s icky appeal—especially, as here, when it attempts to strike an analytic note. Whatever he did or did not do to those domestic animals and to his “domestic staff,” Cohen has made a career of figuring out how to do the kind of thing women couldn’t resist even if they tried.
When pop stars are called “poets” it doesn’t always mean their lyrics are good enough to hold up on the page. Often it means simply that they have something of the bardic or shamanic in their swagger: this is why Jim Morrison was once called a poet but Paul Simon normally is not. But Cohen is, or at least was, indisputably, a poet. He published his first book while a student at McGill, long before he ever recorded a song.*
At McGill he fell in with Irving Layton, probably the best-known and most celebrated Canadian poet of the era. He and Layton caroused and drank and talked about women and studied poems by Wallace Stevens together; Cohen, twenty years Layton’s junior, was his apprentice, though others saw the two men as equals. Layton was part vascular and part oracular: his training included, Layton later remarked, opening to Cohen “the doors to sexual expression, to freedom of expression.” In return, Cohen has said, he taught Layton, always a shambles, how to dress.
This would have been about 1955. When you think about what the other great performers of Cohen’s generation were doing in 1955, the oddness of Cohen’s literary apprenticeship comes to seem definitive of his career. He was not scrounging blues records in North London or raiding the folk shops in the Village: he was breathing the air of Great Poetry with a man who considered himself to be the greatest poet and who considered Cohen to be next in the line of Canadian bards.
There is something uncommonly dynastic in Cohen’s early ascent, as though, in losing a father, he sought his lineage where fatherless kids often go, in literature. Music sprawls in all directions: Cohen heard it at his socialist summer camps, in jukeboxes, on the radio. But poetry is often a kind of peerage, and in the Fifties in Montreal it was handed from man to man. Cohen has always taken pains to depict his masculinity by outmoded means: the hat, the tie, the chivalry, and most of all the poetry.
Cohen published six books—four volumes of poems and two novels—between 1956 and 1966. When he landed again in New York in 1967, he was picked out of a crowd at Max’s Kansas City by Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground and introduced to Warhol and his circle. He was known as a writer in a crowd of musicians and artists. The connections are amazing to imagine. Nico, who had acted in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and dated both Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, was now Warhol’s house “chanteuse” and was seeing Jackson Browne, at the time an obscure twenty-year-old guitarist whose song, “These Days,” Nico recorded on Chelsea Girls. Browne describes seeing Cohen, who had become well known after Judy Collins had a hit with his song “Suzanne,” seated in the front row at Nico’s shows “writing and looking at her.”
It is a good thing that Cohen ended up, a year or two later, taking the stage. His poems are not extraordinary. They do have a stoned gallantry and a gaudiness that lasts, but they are full of the kinds of large gestures that pass for wisdom at closing time, often lightly ironized. Here is “The Music Crept by Us,” written in the early 1960s, in its entirety:

I would like to remind
the management
that the drinks are watered
and the hat-check girl
has syphilis
and the band is composed
of former SS monsters
However since it is
New Year’s Eve
and I have lip cancer
I will place my
paper hat on my
concussion and dance
“Concussion” is the stroke of genius here, the authentic surprise in a poem otherwise full of stock remarks. Someone, perhaps Layton, must have convinced Cohen that poetry involved extremely inflated claims and blowsy affirmations. Here is a passage from “For E.J.P.” (“E.J.P.” is E.J. Pratt, the distinguished Canadian poet of the Thirties and Forties):
I chose a lonely country
broke from love
scorned the fraternity of war
I polished my tongue against
the pumice moon
floated my soul in cherry wine
a perfumed barge for Lords of Memory
“For E.J.P.” was published in 1964, in Cohen’s blasphemously titled bookFlowers for Hitler. It is hard to believe that only a few years later, Cohen performed for the producer John Hammond while sitting on the edge of the bed in his room at the Chelsea Hotel. The twelve tunes collected on The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) possess in spades the quantum of genius so sparely meted out in his poems.
Leonard Cohen and Arlo Guthrie backstage at the Newport Folk Festival, Newport, Rhode Island, July 1967
As with all great songwriters, you see what is precisely special about Cohen’s art by noting how much is lost when it hits the page. This is why lyricists are not, however brilliant they may be, “poets”: Why should they be? Poetry lost the benefit of musical accompaniment aeons ago: it returns only very rarely and, when it appears, it takes a lot of getting used to. A kind of truce was struck: poets get the page and all the mental spaciousness that attends silent reading. Singers get to keep many of the devices of poetry—rhyme, imagery, and so on—plus the verbal work that song will not survive on the page.
But of all the lyricists people call “poets,” Cohen comes closest to surviving that hard passage into print. “Suzanne” is not a poem: too much depends upon the glorious, tentative melody backed by a choir of voices and strings. But you can see, even on the page, that Cohen’s sense of song includes the kind of inscrutable swerves of mind that great poets make. Somehow Constant Comment tea served to him by his friend’s gorgeous wife becomes “tea and oranges/that come all the way from China.” Cohen might have been thinking of Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” and its “late coffee and oranges/in a sunny chair”; in both cases, a secular Eucharist conjures the presence of Christ. Here is the second verse of “Suzanne”:
And Jesus was a sailor
when he walked upon the water
and he spent a long time watching
from his lonely wooden tower
and when he knew for certain
only drowning men could see him
he said All men will be sailors then
until the sea shall free them
The weak stress on the last syllable of every line ensures that we roll right into the next line in expectation of the strong stress: this is a literary effect, not strictly a melodic one, though the melody shapes it. And the way the song leaps across lines, looking for its next strong stress, suggests the song’s beautiful sense of how spontaneity and risk find a home within pattern and routine. It is a song about the surprise of ceremony.
Suzanne Verdal is not the only muse of Cohen’s to achieve fame: Marianne Jensen, of “So Long, Marianne,” has an entire Norwegian book written about her. But Suzanne has an additional claim to fame: she is one of the few women Cohen ever wrote about who refused to sleep with him. This might have been the source of the song’s mystery; women who are more forthcoming end up in a different sort of song. “Chelsea Hotel #2” is Cohen’s best song, though for important reasons he is not its best singer: that honor would go to Rufus Wainwright, whose operatic interpretations of Cohen’s melodies bring many of his songs the lives they wanted all along. Wainwright is gay, which changes everything about the force of its opening verses:
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
You were talking so brave and so sweet;
Giving me head on the unmade bed
While the limousines wait in the street.
The “you” in this song is Janis Joplin: their stories diverge a little, but according to Cohen, the episode in question unfolded because Joplin couldn’t find the guy she was looking for, Kris Kristofferson. The atmosphere of the song is utterly funereal (the unmade bed, the limousines “waiting” like hearses to take Joplin away), an effect driven home by a steady 3/4 beat, part dirge, part prom dance. Nothing in the print version approximates that beat.
Paradoxes abound when you think about the lyrical strength of Cohen’s best songs. They tend to be rather lushly orchestrated where we expect a spare presentation of voice. Other singers—Wainwright, the late Jeff Buckley, Jennifer Warnes—made his songs famous; often when people hear him singing them, their initial response is resistance. He claims to feel little sense of ownership; he has been negligent of copyright and other business matters, once losing all his money to a rogue manager while he, Cohen, was immersed in Zen meditation. “Hallelujah,” which has been recorded over two hundred times, is, for some, a nearly supernatural song, a song they feel brings them health and luck and bounty.
Cohen’s signature on his own songs is often faint, which makes others often better performers for them, even though the sensibility they convey is uniquely his. But since there are comparatively few songs (twelve albums in nearly fifty years) and they are so much alike (Cohen never had a country phase, or a reggae phase, or converted to evangelism), you can talk about a “Leonard Cohen song” the way you could never describe a prototypical Dylan song.
From the moment Judy Collins recorded “Suzanne,” his career has been in others’ hands; he occasionally shows up in it and sings his songs, but his nature is to wander in and out of his own work rather distractedly. He is now seventy-eight and recently released a new album and started a tour. His outfit hasn’t changed, but now the black hat and suit seem like mourner’s attire. In “Going Home,” the remarkable opening track on his new record, Old Ideas, Cohen, who often speaks in the role of someone talking about him, plays God:
I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit
But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
To refuse
In the Sixties, with his briefcase and his blazers, he seemed old and a square: he was thirty-two by the time he became popular with the people who distrusted anyone over thirty. Now that he has hit the road again, he seems preternaturally young: a musician working gigs, not, like so many of his contemporaries, a spectacle attracting endorsements. He isn’t going home, because really, he never left.