When my husband first played a Leonard Cohen CD for me, I rolled my eyes and groaned. A decade (or so) ahead of me, he is a product of his generation (as we all are), frequently nostalgic for the 60’s poets who couldn’t sing. Geesh, what was it about Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits that these older boomers revere? Why, they can’t even sing?! And that ubiquitous Hallelujah. Turn it off already.
I, on the other hand, have years of formal music education and grew up with parents who were accomplished string musicians and valued only classical music. I should know music. Classical was the ideal. Country and Gospel were at the bottom (and Leonard Cohen had too many hints of both). Jazz was “interesting.” My complete enjoyment of pop, Sinatra standards, and musicals shall go unmentioned, an enormous disappointment to my father and all others who I imagine have higher standards and expectations of me. I had absorbed my parents’ xenophobic attitude toward musical genres that were unfamiliar – constrained by a rigid hierarchical ranking system and not open to thinking differently. Though, of course, over time and through exposure by many music-loving friends, I have expanded my horizons and softened my judgments.
A few years later, my cousin Elizabeth was visiting us. A rare and special occasion. She was the sister I never had. I looked to her for insight about our shared family. She had the nerve to speak the unspoken (at least to me) in a family that did not speak the unspoken and I admired her courage for choosing a life of independence and adventure. She was an extrovert who loved people and made friends with everyone, open to all genres of music, of people, of life. Killed by a drugged up drunk driver 11 years ago, I still miss her and what we might have shared. During her visit, my husband put on the Leonard Cohen CD. She was a fan. Hmmm, maybe I should give this guy some more attention.
Two years ago, my yoga mentor quoted Leonard Cohen in a teacher-training clinic. It was his quote about the meaning of his song The Traitor, where he suggests that the song is about:
“failing or betraying some mission you were mandated to fulfill and being unable to fulfill it and then coming to understand that the real mandate was not to fulfill it but to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you found yourself.”
Huh? I did not understand the song nor his suggested meaning, and was beginning to think my degree in English Lit was failing me. Nevertheless, because my wise mentor, my beloved cousin/sister, and my husband all found meaning in Leonard Cohen, I began to pay attention. Six months later in a private session with my yoga teacher, she looked me in the eye and shared this quote again with me. AGAIN! I strained to grasp its meaning and its application to me. I am not guilty. It was not my fault. I don’t have to be anyone other than me.
It was not my fault. Guiltless, I don’t have to be anyone other than me.
When I became aware that Leonard Cohen would be performing in concert for his Old Ideas Tour, I knew I had to go. With my husband.
We went. Cohen, 78, lithely jogged on to stage and opened with “Dance Me to the End of Love,” my current personal favorite, the meaning of which I am mulling.
“Dance Me” is physical, full of life and passion, something you do with your partner. “To the End of Love.” What does that mean? Love never ends, so we will dance together forever. Love always ends, but we will be together until it ends. Love ends only when life ends – it is our deepest joy, our deepest meaning, even amidst horrific suffering. All possible meanings are profoundly passionate and put love front and center. When Cohen drops to he knees (his signature gesture) and proclaims his physical longing and reverence for the love of his life, his soul-baring honesty is an offering. It is perhaps easier on stage in front of strangers than in the intimacy of one’s relationship to be naked. Yet, even with his soulful poetry on display for all to see, he is a classic introvert, his hat shielding his eyes. He bows deeply with gratitude and respect for his fellow musicians (who are accomplished and richly musical), he bows deeply with humility and appreciation for his audience; he bows deeply with honor and love for all. May I have the nerve to drop to my knees and bare my soul to the love of my life. Guiltless. Just me. And may he reciprocate. What courage it takes to live and to love to the end.
Photo is from leonardcohen.com