Now Santa Claus comes forward,
that's a razor in his mitt;
and he puts on his dark glasses
and he shows you where to hit;
and then the cameras pan,
the stand in stunt man,
dress rehearsal rag,
it's just the dress rehearsal rag,
you know this dress rehearsal rag,
it's just a dress rehearsal rag.
"Dress Rehearsal Rag"
The following article appeared in the Canadian Jewish News, October 6, 2004.
It was contributed by Esther Cohen, Leonard's sister,
and forwarded by Dick Straub, two of the most wonderful spirits around.
Photographs of Leonard and Judy Collins are from Songs of Leonard Cohen -- Herewith: Music, Words and Photographs© 1969 Stranger Music, Inc., and are credited to the University of Toronto Library.
Cohen: 'Arguably Montreal's Most Famous Jew'
By Michael Regenstreif
In From the Ghetto to the Main: The Story of the Jews of Montreal, author Joe King describes Leonard Cohen as "arguably Montreal’s most famous Jew."
Indeed, the reclusive poet, novelist and singer-songwriter, who has lived away from Montreal – in Greece and the United States – for most of his adult life, but who visits here frequently, has been the subject of numerous books, documentary films and academic conferences.
When Cohen turned 70 in September, there were concerts, poetry readings and other gatherings held in his honour in far-flung places around the world.
Cohen was born in Montreal in 1934 to one of the city’s most prominent Jewish families. That year, Cohen’s paternal grandfather, Lyon Cohen, ended a 15-year tenure as founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. His maternal grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, was a prominent talmudic scholar. Nathan Cohen, Leonard’s father, a clothing manufacturer, died when the boy was just nine years old. Masha Cohen, his mother, from whom he inherited a love for songs and poetry, died in 1978.
Growing up, Cohen studied extensively with his grandfather, Rabbi Klintsky-Klein, and was profoundly influenced by him on several levels. He and the rabbi would spend many hours discussing the meaning of a single sentence. Cohen has said he often devotes similar amounts of time, sometimes more, to a turn of phrase in a poem or song. As well, there are the biblical and Judaic themes in much of his work.
As a McGill University student in the early 1950s, Cohen began to make his mark as a poet. His first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published in 1956 and Cohen quickly became one of the city’s major English-language literary figures. In 1957, along with mentors Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, Frank Scott and A.M. Klein, he was recorded for a Folkways album of Montreal poetry. Other acclaimed books of poetry soon followed.
In 1963, Cohen’s first novel, The Favorite Game, was published. Cohen’s protagonist, Lawrence Breavman, was clearly based on himself: the character is the son of a prominent Jewish family from Westmount who loses his father early and achieves literary fame as a university student. The book vividly describes Breavman’s coming of age, his move from beyond the parochial world of his upbringing into Bohemian circles and the conflicts of a Jewish man falling in love with a gentile woman.
A second novel, the abstract and somewhat difficult Beautiful Losers, followed in 1966. That book was an experimental, post-modern novel about the obsessions of a love triangle that seemingly drew its inspiration from the conflicts between the French, the English and the First Nations in both colonial times and in the contemporary world of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.
In his youth, Cohen learned to play guitar and dabbled with traditional folk songs. As a McGill student, he briefly played in the Buckskin Boys, an amateur country and western trio.
Eventually, Cohen’s interest in music and poetry would intertwine in song. Around the time that Beautiful Losers was published, Cohen turned his attention to songwriting.
The 1960s were an exciting time for innovative songwriters. Bob Dylan had combined the influences of the Woody Guthrie and traditional American folk music with the literary influences of beat poets and novelists like Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, thereby redefining what could be accomplished in a song. Cohen attended Dylan’s 1966 concert at Place des Arts and was drawn to that creative challenge. Ultimately, it was as a singer-songwriter that Cohen would attain his most enduring fame.
When a mutual friend arranged for Cohen to meet Judy Collins, the popular folksinger, he sang two of his earliest songs for her: Suzanne, filled with images evoking Old Montreal (regarded by many to be the great Montreal song); and the harrowing, Bertolt Brecht-like, Dress Rehearsal Rag.
Collins recorded both songs on an album released in 1967 and Cohen’s career as a major contemporary songwriter was launched. Within a year, his own first record album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, was released to critical acclaim.
Jewish, or Jewish-influenced, themes were present in some of Cohen’s early songs and have continued to recur to the present. One of the key songs on Cohen’s first album was The Stranger Song. Although Cohen voices the song as an observer singing in the third person, the listener is left with the impression that Cohen himself is, indeed, "the stranger." Cohen’s imagery of the stranger in this song is highly influenced by the thesis of Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig that the Jewish people are, by definition, strangers in the Diaspora countries in which they live.
Another early example of Jewish themes in Cohen’s songwriting can be found in Story of Isaac, a song based on the biblical story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, which appeared on his second album, Songs From a Room. Here Cohen sings in the first person, from Isaac’s perspective, of being led to the sacrifice. Ultimately, Cohen turns the song into a rabbinic-style morality lesson on the ethics of one generation sacrificing the lives of the next.
Cohen was in Greece when the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973. Immediately, he flew to Israel with his guitar and performed concerts for the soldiers at the front lines, an episode that he would invoke a quarter-century later when his commitment to Judaism was called into question when he became involved in Zen Buddhism.
As a poet and songwriter, Cohen sees himself as part of a tradition that goes back to biblical times. Hallelujah, which he first recorded in 1984 on the Various Positions album, and which is one of his most-covered songs by other artists (Bob Dylan sang it at a 1988 concert in Montreal), invokes images of King David composing his own Hallelujah, and praising God just as he’s tempted by Bathsheba.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cohen’s career as a recording and performing artist reached new heights of popularity. Each new recording achieved great critical acclaim. His concert tours filled theatres around the world and he was the recipient of a long list of awards including several Junos, membership in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Order of Canada, an honorary doctorate from McGill, the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award and many others.
Then at the height of his success, Cohen withdrew from public life in 1994 and moved to the Mount Baldy Zen Centre in California. Zen is a branch of Buddhism that stresses meditation and offers no discussion of God. In 1996, he became a Zen monk.
There were some who used the incident to call Cohen’s commitment to Judaism into question. According to Cohen, his practice of Zen was not contradictory to being Jewish. In an excerpt from Not a Jew, a 1997 poem, Cohen wrote:
"Anyone who says
I’m not a Jew
is not a Jew
I’m very sorry
but this is final
Eliezar, son of Nissan,
priest of Israel;
Nightingale of the Sinai,
Yom Kippur 1973;
Jikan the Unconvincing
In 1999, Cohen left Mount Baldy and moved to Los Angeles. In 2002, he told an interviewer for the Los Angeles Weekly that the years he spent at the Zen centre had strengthened his commitment to Judaism.
"You just enter into that 4,000-year-old conversation with God and the sages," he said.
In 2001, Cohen released a new album called Ten New Songs, and one of the most striking songs was By the Rivers Dark, a song inspired by Psalm 137, attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, which laments the destruction of the first Temple and the exile of the Jews to Babylon.
Later this month, Cohen will release a new album of songs called Dear Heather. Interestingly, Cohen uses three songs on the album to recall his roots in the Montreal literary scene and pay tribute to Frank Scott, Irving Layton and A.M. Klein, three of his poetry mentors. To A Teacher, dedicated to Klein, is a musical setting of a poem with several Judaic references that was written while the older poet was battling mental illness. The poem was first published in Cohen’s 1961 book, The Spice-Box of Earth.
In addition to the new album, Cohen is also working on a new collection of poems and drawings to be called Book of Longing.
Although Cohen has said that he has no plans to perform in concert tours, at 70, "Montreal’s most famous Jew," shows no signs of retiring or slowing down from his creative drive.
The following article appeared in the Des Moines Jewish News, November/December 2004.
It was also contributed by Esther Cohen, Leonard's sister,
and forwarded by Dick Straub.
Photograph of Leonard and Judy Collins is from Songs of Leonard Cohen -- Herewith: Music, Words and Photographs© 1969 Stranger Music, Inc., and are credited to the University of Toronto Library.
Pop Icon, Leonard Cohen Turns 70
By Mark Finkelstein
Hard to believe, but one of music's most popular icons, balladeer Leonard Cohen has turned 70. The romantic Bohemian of Montreal, whose bleak music with vivid (and some say, unparalleled) imagery has spanned more than three decades, released a new CD at the end of October.
Cohen grew up in Westmount, a middle class suburb of Montreal and he includes information about his Jewish upbringing and his neighborhood in his 1963 novel, The Favorite Game, through the persona of the main character, Breavman. Despite forays into Zen, Cohen, who reportedly entertained the Israeli troops during the 1973 war, identifies as Jewish. To one questionnaire of Jewish identity, for example, he epigrammatically quotes a fragment Psalm 137, "If I forget thee" when asked if he retains his Jewish teaching. And he summarizes his upbringing as having internalized the values of maintaining "just balances, just weights." Another indicator is that one of his most beautiful songs, "Who by Fire," plays off the structure and content of the famous text, "How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it..." from the Yom Kippur service. He reprises a version of the Akedah in his composition, "The Story of Isaac."
Cohen first attracted attention asa poet while an English major at Montreal's McGill University. In addition to two novels, he now has 15 albums, the first of which appeared in 1968. His music has been recorded by many artists, including Judy Collins. Although his vocal quality has changed over the years (it wasn't so great to begin with and is now deep and raspy -- almost a whisper,) he still sings better than William Shatner. And no, his fans are not known as Cohanim.
An early compilation, Best of Leonard Cohen, contains his most popular songs like "Suzanne," "That's No Way to Say Goodbye," and "Bird on a Wire." More Best of Leonard Cohen includes "Anthem," whose lyrics are excerped below. Cohen's lyrics are generally unsuitable for children. Comprehensive information about Leonard Cohen may be found online at www.leonardcohenfiles.com
The birds they sang
at the break of day:
I heard them say.
"Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be."
You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum.
to love will come
but like a refugee.
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
Excerpts from Leonard Cohen's song,
Anthem, recorded in 1993.
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