by Paul Abruzzo
A Jewish girl named Jules introduced me to the music of Leonard Cohen. She insisted I meet her father, a law professor, and I agreed because I desperately wanted to make love to her. We went to his apartment one night on the Upper West Side, where he lived alone. The hallways were vast and cold. He was very serious, and bald, and so was the apartment. He wore a large gray sweater that sagged low beneath the arms, like bat’s wings. We sat to dinner; the table was long. He put himself at its head, and Jules and me on one side together near the two long purple candles in the center, leaving the opposite side strangely vacant. The snow was high outside. We had wine. To reassure me—she sensed my nervousness—Jules kept squeezing my upper thigh under the table whenever the bat professor asked me a question.
“Jules tells me you’re Jewish,” he said towards dessert, elbows up on the table.
“Oh, yes,” I responded, “I suppose I am, despite my last name, since my mother is Jewish.” I recalled the only Jewish moment that ever transpired between me and my mother: around the holidays one year she pulled me and my brother aside and said, “This is for Hanukah,” as opposed to the Christmas gifts we’d be getting in few days.
He smiled politely, and nodded. After dinner, he suggested we watch the documentary on the reunion of The Weavers, which concludes with a concert at Carnegie Hall. I’d never heard of The Weavers, but I didn’t want to seem ignorant (one of my great fears, particularly back then), and so when I said that I hadn’t as if I knew not only who The Weavers were, but also of the existence of the film, Jules put her hand to her heart and gasped like the French. The bat got up from the table to find the videotape while we did the dishes. In the living room Jules and I sat together in a deep beige couch as the professor stretched out in a leather recliner after carefully dimming the high hat lights. I of course recognized Pete Seeger, but not the others; I knew the famous Newport story, where he allegedly took an axe to the cables when Dylan came out with Butterfield Blues guys. At the time I was morbidly exclusive in my listening: limited, like a kind of monk, to Pre-Desire Dylan and, for some reason, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, a record I listened to alone in the dark, wallowing in the waves of heady yet sublimely calming emotions it brought on.
During the documentary, when they pushed one of the Weavers in a wheelchair out onto stage at Carnegie I heard some sniffling and looked over at the bald professor and noticed he was weeping. “This is all not really happening,” I said to myself, now keeping my eyes rigidly on the screen. I imagined he was suffering from some great loss or loneliness there in that bare apartment.
“That was really nice,” I lied to Jules on the way back to her place, though I did like the documentary. My head felt oddly cleansed by it. We talked about folk music. I knew some of the people her father had introduced her to, mostly because of my peripheral Dylan research. She was astonished when I mentioned Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton.
“You must love Leonard Cohen,” she said, stopping dead, in the way people do in their twenties while talking about art, again with her hand on the heart.
Somehow, I had a humble moment: “Who’s that?” I asked. She shrieked. Back at her apartment she put on Songs from a Room, the only Lenny record she had, his second, released in 1969. I liked “Bird on the Wire,” the lead track, but when “Story of Isaac” came on I went nuts, and made her play it again and again, listening intently, almost forgetting completely about trying to make love with her. I had just taken an introductory English class, and we’d read the parable of Abraham and Isaac, from Genesis, and I found it unnerving, the way Abraham takes Isaac, his only son, to the mountaintop for sacrifice.
Dylan, of course, parodied the story a few years before Cohen in the first verse of the song “Highway 61 Revisited,” mocking the parable’s depiction of the ease with which Abraham was willing to murder his only son. In Dylan’s wry jibe, Abe obeys God not out of faith, but rather to save his own ass. And Dylan’s God demands the location of the sacrificial altar to be the road running straight through the country:
Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."
Cohen humanizes both figures, removing them from the field of parable. First, he shifts the narration to Isaac, and then he adds tactile the details of shining blue eyes, and a cold voice.
The door it opened slowly,
my father he came in, I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
his blue eyes they were shining
and his voice was very cold
In a later verse Isaac turns prophetic. Is he addressing the architects of the Vietnam War? I’m very attached to the morality and psychology in the phrase, “A scheme is not a vision,” and the image evoked in “hatchets blunt and bloody.”
You who build these altars now
to sacrifice these children,
you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
and you never have been tempted
by a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
your hatchets blunt and bloody,
you were not there before,
when I lay upon a mountain
and my father's hand was trembling
with the beauty of the word.
Later, I came upon the Wilfred Owen poem “The Parable of the Young Man and the Old,” in which he also retells the story. (Owen was British, killed young in the trenches of WWI; his family received word of his death about a week after the local church bells rang to announce the armistice.) In his version the altar is built of “parapets and trenches,” and when the angel appears to stop Abraham’s sacrificial hand, saying he should offer the ram instead of Isaac, the poem ends:
But the old man would not so, but slew his son
and half the seed of Europe, one by one.
I can't write about Leonard Cohen on a Jewish holiday without bringing up “Hallelujah,” which is about, among other things, the mysterious and spiritually nourishing power of music. Cohen’s reference in the first verse is to a tale from I Samuel [16:23]. The “evil spirit” here is depression, which is, interestingly, described as being God given.
And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took a harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.
Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
The lyrics track and describe the musical changes occurring in the song itself. First, the “secret chord” phrase is delivered right on the introduction of the always-moving A-minor, which is “secret” because of its uncanny emotional effect, how its blueness paradoxically offers us relief from sadness through identification—as in the Bible when “Saul was refreshed.”
Then the chords change exactly with the lyrics describing those very chord changes: “the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift.” That device is reminiscent, perhaps consciously so on Cohen’s part, of Cole Porter’s great lyric/chord-change correspondence from “Every Time we Say Goodbye,” where the chords change from major to minor with the lyric, on the beat after the word “change."
But how strange the change
From major to minor
Every time we say goodbye
The “strange change” in Porter is not only about the emotional shift itself, but also the inscrutable nature of music’s effects on the emotions, so uncanny that we may as well just use musical description to name the emotions. Relate that to the king’s bafflement in Cohen, to the mystery of music banishing the evil spirit from Saul in the Bible.
A central theme running through this and other Cohen songs, is the faith/sex connection. It's almost as if Cohen is asking, why is it that even atheists invoke God' name during orgasm?
“Night Comes On,” also from 1984’s Various Positions, is a song that is a reassuring chant against fear, with the beautiful refrain, “go back to the world.” Each verse is sort of free-standing, hinging on the power of a few images. The phrasing is subtly packed with feeling: listen, for instance, to the slightly drawn out annunciation in the single word “die” in the following verse.
We were fighting in Egypt
When they signed this agreement
That nobody else had to die
There is great moral simplicity in these lines. War is about people dying. A treaty is signed, and people stop dying. The use of the anonymous ‘they,’ indicates the interchangeability of figures of authority, no matter their ideology or goals.
The last verse is my favorite, for me it evokes a whole way of life.
Now the crickets are singing
The vesper bells ringing
The cat's curled asleep in his chair
I'll go down to Bill's Bar
I can make it that far
And I'll see if my friends are still there
A few years after my brief encounter with Jules, I met a girl named Linda and we fell in love. I was at the time a drowning mess and Linda pulled me out of the water and I came to live with her in her little Village apartment. The sun spread across the floor in the afternoons. She was beautiful and kind and I loved her and I had not been in love for a long time. In the first months we introduced each other to our music. She brought me Al Green, whom I’d of course heard, but hadn’t registered, particularly “Let’s Stay Together,” and “Still in Love with You.”
Linda didn’t deal well with mornings. I’d get up and make the coffee and bring it to her in a large bowl, and kiss her adorable face to wake her up. She’d smile, yet keep her eyes shut against the day, and sit up slowly, like a little flower unfolding. I’d bring her cigarettes and her big fancy glass ash tray shaped like a shell. Her black mutt would jump up on the bed, lie on his side, beckoning for a scratches. She’d smoke, comb her fingers over the dog, and take hits from the coffee.
I’d put on Lenny’s first record, Songs, take the dog out, and then sit on the bed drinking coffee with her. Probably our favorite was “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” I felt LC was talking in my voice with the line “Your hair upon the pillow / Like a sleepy golden storm,” since Linda’s hair was long, reddish blonde. She fell in love with that record, and I re-fell in love with it. I always think of “The Stranger Song,” though, when I remember those days, about a woman who takes in a drug addict, a man “reaching for the sky just to surrender.” I think the smoke metaphor is genius in the description of her discovery of the track marks on the junkie’s neck.
And while he talks his dreams to sleep
you notice there's a highway
that is curling up like smoke above his shoulder
But the lines that really hit home as I sat on the bed with her were in the chorus:
And then leaning on your window sill
he'll say one day you caused his will
to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
And then taking from his wallet
an old schedule of trains, he'll say
I told you when I came I was a stranger
I was grateful to be there in her apartment, a home, so unlike the places I’d been living in, but I felt also we weren’t right for each other, that I’d be leaving. Maybe that was just terror: I don’t know. Whatever it was, I knew I was being dishonest in not talking about it, and that is why I avoided looking at Linda during the chorus, as if she might intuit what I was thinking.
The evenings were reserved for Al Green.
One night, in the beginning, Linda and I were on the Upper West Side, in a restaurant, and we ran into a couple she worked for in LA, film people. The introductions went around. We left. She said as we walked down Broadway that I’d really like the guy, the husband, if I got to know him.
“Really?” I asked, “why?”
“Oh, he’s done work on interesting films, films you’d like.”
“Really?” I asked, “like what?”
“Well…,” she said, “he did sound or directed that Weavers documentary. You ever see that?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I did,” keeping the coincidence to myself, remembering the night with Jules and her father in the apartment not far from where we were then walking, “I loved it.”
I left Linda ten Hanukahs ago. On our last fight she sat on the couch, cross-legged, crying. “I’m miserable,” she said. I went to stay with my parents on Long Island for a month or so, until I got on my feet, commuting on the Long Island Railroad—proving, after all, the truth of the old schedule of trains in my wallet.
Then, something very odd happened at the end of last summer. I went to visit my uncle in Buffalo and pictures came out. My cousin had one of Linda, and one of me and Linda. I had no pictures of her myself: five years living together and not one picture. I asked to have them. When I got back to the guest room I took them out, entranced. I put them on the night table, and turned the light on and off twice to look at them after I got into bed, each time feeling like I was looking at a bit of life that could only possibly have been mine. “Who was this woman?” I thought, and “Who was I?” and “Whatever happened?” When I came home to New York I put the pictures away, but then, like a drug addict unable to have just a bit, took them out again and looked and looked, going over bits and pieces of the relationship. Lenny in the morning, Al Green at night. I also ran over in my mind all the time I spent trying to get her back, obsessing over her, long after I’d left.
That day I got back from Buffalo I called my girlfriend, Stefanie. We’d been together for about three months. It was the first time I was having strong feelings for a woman since Linda. I met Stefanie and we had a picnic on the west side, on the river. We played Scrabble, which Linda loved too, a game I find unpleasant due to the feelings which accompany the possibility that I’m not seeing or thinking of something that’s obvious. The relationship hadn’t been going well—we could both feel it—and I was tired from my trip, and cranky. When we got up to go, and started walking on the esplanade, out of nowhere she started singing the Al Green song, “Let’s Stay Together.” Stefanie never sang out loud like that—she’s not the type—and she’d never once mentioned Al Green. I didn’t make any connections, but a déjà vu kind of feeling shot through me.
Then it got spooky, I realized only in retrospect, when she said, after I looked over at her, “I don’t know why I’m singing that.”
That was our last time together. It didn’t strike me until later, after we broke up, just what song she’d been singing, the weirdness of it, in light of my just having pored over the pictures of Linda, and thinking so much about her. It was as if Stefanie had become a conduit for a communiqué from God, like the baffled king. Not that I can pretend to know what the message was exactly (a coy, ironic reminder not to hold on?). All I know is how utterly enchanted I was by the strange mystery of the whole thing.
Lifted, like Saul. Refreshed.
"Story of Issac" mp3
by Leonard Cohen, 1969.
available on Songs from a Room
by Leonard Cohen, 1984.
available on Various Positions
"Night Comes On" mp3
by Leonard Cohen, 1984.
available on Various Positions
"Stranger Song" mp3
by Leonard Cohen, 1967.
available on Songs of Leonard Cohen
by Jeff Buckley, 1994.
available on Grace
by John Cale, 1992.
available on Fragments of a Rainy Season
Painting: Saul and David, 1655-60 by Rembrandt.