Culture Break: “Old Ideas”

Culture Break: “Old Ideas” January 23, 2012

Poet, songwriter, Jewish prophet, Buddhist monk, and master of Christian literary imagery Leonard Cohen, 77,  is about to release a new album on January 31. I just gave the album, titled Old Ideas, a “first listen” at National Public Radio. It strikes me as another masterpiece, on par with Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), Various Positions (1984), I’m Your Man (1988), and The Future (1992). If you’re not familiar with Cohen, there is no better introduction than “Live in London,” a two-disk set from his 2008-2009 tour (at the age of 74). I promise that by the time you reach track 6, “In My Secret Life,” you will be a fan, if not a follower.

I have followed Cohen’s career since the mid 1970’s. I “discovered” him through my musical and lyrical infatuation with Bob Dylan (an infatuation which has not abated despite 37 years, 28 live performances and some big disappointments).  But it wasn’t until I saw Cohen live in Boston in 2009 that I became deeply invested in his oeuvre, including his poetry. I’ve been to scores and scores of concerts over the years, but nothing had prepared me for the generous, humble, self-donating spirit of the man or the luminous virtuosity of the musicians around him. Combined with the God-haunted lyrics of the songs, the evening was a transformed into a genuine religious experience.

That said, Cohen doesn’t fit neatly into any religious – or musical – categories, so I won’t even attempt to fix him in some lame triangulation scheme. What he does is announce deep truths about sex,  mortality, sin, God; and he does so in the language of a man whose first love was poetry. A good example is the following quote, which is taken from an online chat in which someone asked Cohen for his assessment of the state of Christianity today. He answered: “As I understand it, into the heart of every Christian, Christ comes, and Christ goes. When, by his Grace, the landscape of the heart becomes vast and deep and limitless, then Christ makes His abode in that graceful heart, and His Will prevails. The experience is recognized as Peace. In the absence of this experience much activity arises, divisions of every sort. Outside of the organizational enterprise, which some applaud and some mistrust, stands the figure of Jesus, nailed to a human predicament, summoning the heart to comprehend its own suffering by dissolving itself in a radical confession of hospitality.”

I can’t be sure Cohen wrote that, but it sounds like something he’d say. I am certain that he wrote the following lines, which are from a song titled “Show Me The Place,” from the new album, Old Ideas, available for purchase a week from tomorrow:

Show me the place where you want your slave to go
Show me the place, I’ve forgotten, I don’t know
Show me the place, for my head is bending low
Show me the place where you want your slave to go

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the Word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

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