Friday Morning Download – "Stranger Song" by Leonard Cohen

In an essay by Paul Monk, he makes this comment about the work of Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen:

“His unique lyrical style is a wholly contemporary blend of the Psalms and Federico Garcia Lorca, the Chelsea Hotel, Nashville and the Greek islands, Zen Buddhism and the Song of Songs, Franz Rosenzweig and Bob Dylan. Cohen is not an entertainer of spoiled children, or politically correct white collar workers. He is a master singer of the songs of Zion, by the polluted waters of our post-Christian Babylon. There are few others like him.”

Monk goes on to say that if there is a single song that could be called Cohen’s signature song it is ‘Stranger Song’, which was released on his first album almost forty years ago – Songs of Leonard Cohen (1968). It expresses a theme which deeply informs his sense of what human life is about. That theme is the burden of our freedom as something we must forever wrestle with strenuously against the temptations of “giving up the Holy Game of Poker.” Cohen has practised Zen Buddhism for many years – he worked as a dishwasher at the Zen Center of Mount Baldy outside L.A. till Spring 1999 as Zen monk ‘Jikan’ – and has been wrestling with this theme of the burden of freedom as an ultimate access to true freedom through ‘detachment’ (what Paul Monk calls his move to becoming a “Zen Cohen” in and of himself).

Although Leonard Cohen has moved ‘east’ in his practice of Zen, his understanding of the burden of freedom is deeply Judaic. The Jew is, from of old, the perennial ‘stranger’ in the world – leaving Ur, leaving Egypt, exiled to Babylon, dispersed across the face of the world, hunted to death by the goyim. At several levels of experience and active metaphor, this is at the heart(ache) of Cohen’s whole body of work – what good is freedom when you are a stranger to everyone? How can someone ever find peace when they are destined to be a stranger?

His ‘stranger’ metaphor runs through his love poetry, his songs of existential fear and despair, and his songs of prophetic darkness. It is for this reason that, when his selected poems and songs were published, in 1993, he called the book Stranger Music . Cohen is certainly one of the most literate of singer/songwriters and has drawn particular insight from the work of Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem. Franz Rosenzweig’s seminal book, The Star of Redemption published in 1921, is probably the ideal theological and philosophical companion to Leonard Cohen’s songs.

As Cohen sings in “Stranger Song” this life is filled with near encounters and displacement, a sense of discontent and unrealised intimacy – a stranger who is free but not at home:

Well, I’ve been waiting,
I was sure we’d meet between the trains we’re waiting for
I think it’s time to board another
Please understand,
I never had a secret chart to get me to the heart of this or any other matter

When he talks like this you don’t know what he’s after
When he speaks like this, you don’t know what he’s after.
Let’s meet tomorrow if you choose upon the shore,
beneath the bridge that they are building on some endless river
Then he leaves the platform for the sleeping car that’s warm
You realize, he’s only advertising one more shelter
And it comes to you, he never was a stranger
And you say ok the bridge or someplace later.

In an 1993 interview in Britain’s The Daily Telegraph, Cohen said “I don’t consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin.” There is honesty in someone who has embraced being homeless and out in the rain – the stranger who is free to know that this world is not his home. It is that life of imperfection and homelessness that Cohen finds solace. As he sings in his song ‘Anthem’ from The Future (1992) it is through our imperfection that perfect ‘light’ can come in – “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ It’s how the light gets in.” We need to continue ‘ringing the bells that can ring’ and embrace that we are ulitmately not alone in this life since the Lord of Song sings with us in our displacement and wanderings. The trope of freedom is that it is submission to the Lord of Song where true freedom is born. As Cohen sings in “If It Be Your Will” from Various Positions (1985):

If it be your will That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before I will speak no more
I shall abide until I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring

If it be your will
To let me sing
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well
And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

You can pick up ‘Stranger Song’ and ‘If It Be Your Will’ at iTunes here.

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