Ambiguous Hallelujahs

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums
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jarkko
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Ambiguous Hallelujahs

Postby jarkko » Thu Feb 19, 2009 8:27 pm

http://forward.com/articles/103158/
Leonard Cohen: Ambiguous Hallelujahs
By Benjamin Ivry
Published February 18, 2009.

On February 19, famed Canadian Jewish singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, 74, will be performing his first New York concert in more than 15 years.

Getty ImagesLeonard Cohen’s song ‘Hallelujah,’ rife with biblical imagery, has been revived for a new generation of music fans.Cohen’s song “Hallelujah,” rife with biblical imagery, has recently been revived for a new generation on such reality shows as “American Idol” and Britain’s “The X-Factor,” where young listeners refer to it as “The Shrek Song,” since it was included on the soundtrack of the 2001 animated film. This nickname is curiously apt, since Cohen’s songs often seem motivated by some primal shrek, or terror.

The product of an Orthodox Jewish upbringing in Montreal, Cohen has repeatedly told interviewers about the psychic scars he obtained when he attended synagogue during his youth, as relatives towered over him while a rabbi castigated him as a “sinner.” This angst has fueled Cohen’s creativity in such songs as “Who by Fire,” “The Future” and “Story of Isaac,” all delivered in Cohen’s menacing gravelly baritone. Often mislabeled as a “folk singer” (which folk sing like Cohen?), he in fact emerges from a 1960s style of vaguely ominous, ecclesiastical songs abounding with hallelujahs, such as the dated hit “Who Will Answer? by Ed Ames, an American actor/singer of Russian-Jewish origin.

Cohen’s cavernous, raspy singing darkens this style even further — earning him the labels of “poet laureate of pessimism” and “godfather of gloom” in the press — until he sounds like a Jewish version of Johnny Cash. Small wonder, then, that the most memorable covers of Cohen songs were by Cash, himself and by Nina Simone, another singer capable of scaring an audience out of its wits with grief-imbued anger.

Yet, against all odds, Cohen’s recent tours have been high-spirited, exalted occasions; they are audience love-ins where longtime fans exult to such spirit-stirring songs as “Democracy Is Coming to the USA,” which itself was recently made into a video supporting President Obama. Recent YouTube postings from Cohen’s ongoing world tour — so far, only an April 17 concert in Indio, Calif., has been officially added to the Manhattan date, although “Live in London,” his first new CD in five years, will be released next month by Columbia Records, drawn from his July 2008 United Kingdom concert — show him in a fedora and in a well-worn Armani suit, looking alternately like an old man davening in a synagogue; a sprightly uncle of snarky TV chef Anthony Bourdain, and German performance artist Joseph Beuys (1921–1986). Like Beuys, whom one art historian described as “both infantile and messianic,” Cohen sends out multiple, contradictory messages that have garnered him a confounding range of fans, including the unlikely duo of Ariel Sharon and Mel Gibson. Cohen won Sharon’s friendship during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the singer/songwriter took a hiatus from his sybaritic musician’s life to volunteer for active duty in the Israeli army (sanity prevailed, and he was offered a stint instead, as an army entertainer).

The affiliation with Gibson is more profound, since he produced “I’m Your Man,” a 2005 documentary tribute to Cohen, notable for its near-total absence of any discussion of Jewish influences. Gibson also included Cohen’s song “By the Rivers Dark” on the 2004 CD “Songs Inspired by ‘The Passion of the Christ’” (Universal South). No artist can be blamed for the misprisions of his fans, but even the counterculture uprising called for in “First We Take Manhattan” sounds chilling in a recent live concert from Germany, when the rowdy Teutonic audience bellows, “Then we take Berlin!” At a time when compromises, rather than calls for invasions, are essential, this can seem particularly unfortunate.

Can a truly great poet be as professionally imprecise as Cohen is? Take one of his best-loved songs, “Bird on the Wire,”: “Like a bird on the wire/like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried, in my way, to be free.” This sounds good, but even Cohen’s exegetes have not agreed on what it means. What exactly is a midnight choir, why has a drunk joined it and how does such a presence in the choir equal an attempt to be free? This kind of confusion is compounded by Cohen’s insistence that he considers himself Jewish despite having become a Buddhist monk during a five-year stay, during the 1990s, in a Japanese Zen monastery in California (thereby bringing him perilously close to the so-called New Age “Jew-Bus,” who make a mishmash of Judaism and Buddhism, hoping to find the best of both religions). Cohen differentiates himself from this hybrid breed by insisting that his Buddhism is nondoctrinal and based on friendship with a Zen master, and that he remains Jewish first and foremost.

Such debates and concerns will be brushed aside by Cohen’s many devotees, especially those drawn by his enduring reputation — even in his 70s — as a chick magnet. His personal charm in relatively unguarded moments can be seen in “This Beggar’s Description,” a 2005 documentary about an alcoholic, schizophrenic Montreal street poet named Philip Tétrault. Cohen affectionately protects Tétrault, as if the poet were his younger brother.

The fact that Cohen himself repeatedly admits having sampled every kind of self-medication over the decades and somehow survived it all is permanent encouragement to listeners everywhere. His songs, catchy to the point of distraction, certainly will continue to be performed by younger artists, although few, if any, of these cover versions will have the authority and authenticity that will be heard February 19 at New York’s Beacon Theatre.
1988, 1993: Helsinki||2008: Manchester|Oslo|London O2|Berlin|Helsinki|London RAH|| 2009: New York Beacon|Berlin|Venice|Barcelona|Las Vegas|San José||2010: Salzburg|Helsinki|Gent|Bratislava|Las Vegas|| 2012: Gent|Helsinki|Verona|| 2013: New York|Pula|Oslo|||
MaryB
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Re: Ambiguous Hallelujahs

Postby MaryB » Sat Feb 21, 2009 10:32 pm

Leonard Cohen admonished as a 'sinner' when he was a boy? How can this be since he is such a 'gentleman' and all this word encompasses :o :roll: :? :shock: :?:
Thank you for this informative article Jarkko!
Best wishes,
Mary
1993 Detroit 2008 Kitchener June 2-Hamilton June 3 & 4-Vienna Sept 24 & 25-London RAH Nov 17 2009 NYC Feb 19-Grand Prairie Apr 3-Phoenix Apr 5-Columbia May 11-Red Rocks Jun 4-Barcelona Sept 21-Columbus Oct 27-Las Vegas Nov 12-San Jose Nov 13 2010 Sligo Jul 31 & Aug 1-LV Dec 10 & 11 2012 Paris Sept 30-London Dec 11-Boston Dec 16 2013 Louisville Mar 30-Amsterdam Sept 20
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hydriot
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Re: Ambiguous Hallelujahs

Postby hydriot » Sun Feb 22, 2009 4:14 pm

Leonard Cohen: Ambiguous Hallelujahs
By Benjamin Ivry
Published February 18, 2009.

Can a truly great poet be as professionally imprecise as Cohen is? Take one of his best-loved songs, “Bird on the Wire,”: “Like a bird on the wire/like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried, in my way, to be free.” This sounds good, but even Cohen’s exegetes have not agreed on what it means. What exactly is a midnight choir, why has a drunk joined it and how does such a presence in the choir equal an attempt to be free?
Honestly! Anyone here not in agreement as to what the image of a drunk in a midnight choir means? As Leonard has written, after a night of carousing, Greeks would stagger home arm in arm, back up Donkey Sh*t Lane, singing all the way.

Anyone know which year Leonard started to read Cavafy? The image of a midnight choir appears in the original Cavafy that Leonard later turned into Alexandra Leaving, so I wonder if he picked up the image subconsciously.
“If you do have love it's a kind of wound, and if you don't have it it's worse.” - Leonard, July 1988
imaginary friend
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Re: Ambiguous Hallelujahs

Postby imaginary friend » Thu Feb 26, 2009 5:00 am

Thanks for posting this Jarkko – it's an unusual article; interesting to experience a different take on Leonard. I didn't know about the Mel Gibson connection – he and Leonard seem to me an odd collaboration.

Hmmm... I hope Benjamin Ivry actually attended the Beacon concert. If he did, I wonder, does he see Leonard in a different light now? Can anyone who attended a concert on the 2008-2009 tour help but feel profoundly touched by this man whose great heart is equal in size to his humility, and who treats his audience with such love and respect?
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Re: Ambiguous Hallelujahs

Postby imaginary friend » Thu Feb 26, 2009 5:06 am

From Benjamin Ivry's article:
...Yet, against all odds, Cohen’s recent tours have been high-spirited, exalted occasions; they are audience love-ins where longtime fans exult to such spirit-stirring songs as “Democracy Is Coming to the USA,” which itself was recently made into a video supporting President Obama.
(my bolding)

Hey! Is this a reference to John K's YouTube video??? Whahoo!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Ajsh0o2aU4
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Re: Ambiguous Hallelujahs

Postby lizzytysh » Fri Feb 27, 2009 4:07 pm

Hey! Is this a reference to John K's YouTube video??? Whahoo!
I certainly hope so 8) !
Can anyone who attended a concert on the 2008-2009 tour help but feel profoundly touched by this man whose great heart is equal in size to his humility, and who treats his audience with such love and respect?
Simply as a man onstage, singing us his songs, this description couldn't be more perfect, Sheila. Then, there are the songs and performances themselves, and it's no wonder we're all still here and trying to get to wherever the next 'there' is.

I agree, Hydriot. Whoever wrote this hasn't read much about Leonard's songs.

MaryB ~ I believe the "sinner" aspect may be similar to that of the Christian tradition... we're all considered to be de facto sinners, by virtue of being alive and human, not being Jesus, and until we ask for forgiveness in the Christian tradition.


~ Lizzy
"Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."
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alb123
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Re: Ambiguous Hallelujahs

Postby alb123 » Sat Mar 21, 2009 8:24 pm

hydriot wrote:
Leonard Cohen: Ambiguous Hallelujahs
By Benjamin Ivry
Published February 18, 2009.

Can a truly great poet be as professionally imprecise as Cohen is? Take one of his best-loved songs, “Bird on the Wire,”: “Like a bird on the wire/like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried, in my way, to be free.” This sounds good, but even Cohen’s exegetes have not agreed on what it means. What exactly is a midnight choir, why has a drunk joined it and how does such a presence in the choir equal an attempt to be free?
Honestly! Anyone here not in agreement as to what the image of a drunk in a midnight choir means? As Leonard has written, after a night of carousing, Greeks would stagger home arm in arm, back up Donkey Sh*t Lane, singing all the way.

Anyone know which year Leonard started to read Cavafy? The image of a midnight choir appears in the original Cavafy that Leonard later turned into Alexandra Leaving, so I wonder if he picked up the image subconsciously.
I've always interpreted "like a drunk in a midnight choir" the same way...And I confess, I too have found myself in many a midnight choir, myself... ;)
Waterbury, CT - May 14, 2009
Las Vegas, NV - Dec 11, 2010 (Final Show of Leonard's 3 year World Tour) INCREDIBLE!
Boston, MA - Dec 15, 2012 (Best L.C. concert I've been to!)

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