Monday, April 6, 2009

Leonard Cohen

The Jesus Song and Leonard Cohen
By William Hay

The plane landed in Tel Aviv at the Ben Gurion Airport. It was 3 am and I was alone in a foreign country, weary from the flight from Vancouver to Amsterdam and stopover in Amsterdam before the 5 hour flight to Tel Aviv. The dry sea air outside the air port struck me as did the southern stars in the clear sky. . It was the air, the stars and the light that were so different for the northerner. Vancouver, my home, was a rain forest. Here there was sand and sea. A strange place indeed. The Holy Land. Known by Bible and Politics but alien and mysterious in person.

I got into the taxi. A white citroen. The driver asked me where am I from.

"Canada", I replied.

"Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver? "


"Ah Vancouver is beautiful isn’t it. Mountains and sea.

"Yes, very beautiful.

In the background I’m listening to the music. It’s in English. A woman singing. I recognize the words.

"That’s a Leonard Cohen song on the radio. "

"Oh yes, Leonard Cohen is very good. He is from Canada too, no?"


I sat back in revelry listening to the latest prophecies, celebration, and songs of worship from the man who changed my youth.

I didn’t know he was a Jew. I just was sent to sit in the library for some misdemeanor in class and found his poetry. I was a budding poet myself in high school. With my friend I’d started a poetry journal. At every chance then I read poetry books and wrote my own poetry in little black pocket books I carried everywhere.

When I found Leonard Cohen, I read Leonard Cohen and loved Leonard Cohen. Maybe it was the naughty bits. He celebrated life and there was the appreciation of women from a true romantic which filled the heart of an adolescent boy who could think of little else with exuberance.

Here in Israel I’d thrill to hear Leonard Cohen played in the taxis as I’d thrilled to hear him played in Montreal when I finally hitchhiked out to that city of intellectuals, drank coffee late at night and watched the glorious French Canadian women.

I first heard Leonard Cohen's songs outside Banff in a cabin on a mountainside with two charming and lovely blond ski instructors. They’d offered me a room for a night after hearing me play guitar and sing in the old Grizzly House. I’d been paid in beer and pizza and done a rendition of Suzanne I’d learned from a Judy Collins Songbook.

They’d asked me if I’d ever heard Leonard Cohen. I’d said no and they’d invited me back for the night. We listened to their Leonard Cohen record with candles burning. After sleeping in our individual beds till morning, they made me porridge and peaches and set me on my way. I was wearing blue jeans, a large army navy blue pull over sweater and a black beret I’d bought in Montreal. I carried my guitar on a strap over my back. I loved Leonard Cohen then. The Sisters of Mercy.

We’d be teaching drama a few years later at the Arts Festival in the little enchanted southern Manitoba town of Neepawa. There were rolling hills and blue skies and smells of summer in the prairies in the air. She told me she’d been Leonard Cohen’s lover in Thunderbay, an unlikely town, to a hero worshipper. This was before many women would make such claims when relatively few still yet knew him. She taught at the university.

“There was a lot of red wine and we really did have a fabuolous romp. He’s such a wonderful man and a very good lover. When I later read what he wrote, well, I’d like to live in his mind. That’s all I can say. For me it was just really good sex but to him it seemed it was a symphony or a cathedral. You had to know the man to understand what I mean.”

We were eating Chinese food and she was laughing with reminiscence.

First we take Manhatten then we take Berlin.

It was still the sixties in the early seventies and I was singing Suzanne in a country bar in Selkirk Manitoba. Valdy hadn’t yet sung “Play me a Rock and Roll Song” and The Blues Brothers movie hadn’t yet been shown with the classic Rough Riders scene. But I was there in that kind of scenario and it was Leonard Cohen’s music that inspired a young cowboy to throw a beer can at me hitting me square in the forehead amid boos and cries for western music. Giddy up!

Ironically the one time I’d see Leonard Cohen in concert was in Winnipeg. In that prairie town he'd have a slide guitar in his band giving it a more distinctly western sound. Maybe even he knew when to play it safe.

I’d learned all the words to That’s No Way to Say Good bye and sang them to girls I was breaking up with hoping for a very different reaction from what I’d still get, with or without the song.
Sometime in California I read his book Beautiful Losers and identified. Maybe it was just the yearnings and confusion.
Over the years I'd memorized and played a dozen or more Leonard Cohen songs.
Years later long after I’d become a doctor I was doing a locum in the Yukon . I played guitar in a bar where my northern colleague told me he’d treated almost everyone for major traumatic injuries related to alcohol abuse.
"See that fellow over there, had to suture all the strap muscles after his throat was slit one night. He'd be dead if they got the jugular. "
Some one had a guitar and asked me to play. I’d had a few and had taken off my jacket and tie and thought I probably could still remember all the words to Suzanne. I did and the bar fell silent.

The First Nations, in blue jean jacket and cowboy boots whose guitar it was, said after,

“Geez, man I really liked that Jesus song.”

Now I was in the Holy Land remembering it was Leonard Cohen who really taught me the story of Issaac. What I loved about Leonard Cohen was the rich biblical imagery and his extraordinary and palpable sense of metaphor.

There’d been an occasional Canadian flag in a shop but other than that it’d been Leonard Cohen that I’d heard. I’d be walking around with a Canucks T Shirt and every once in a while I’d hear a strain of music and recognize it as his.

It was a very moving experience for me as a Canadian who had grown up with the songs of Leonard Cohen to be walking or driving around the Holy Land hearing his songs with their words of prophecy and lamentation. And always there was celebration of women.

I watched an Israeli woman walk across an ancient square with that relaxed Mediterranean swing to her hips. She was so strong and yet so feminine. Thanks to Leonard Cohen I imagined her like the “heart of a captured bird.”

Lover, Lover, Lover, Come Back to Me. I quietly sang to myself.

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