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Sunday, November 13, 2016

On removing a sliver of the darkness

Leonard Cohen was in his thirties by the time he found his calling. He had poetry within him his entire adult life – perhaps even younger. He wrote passionate poems and gathered a meagre following – but he never found success in that realm. It wasn’t until he began writing songs that he found his place in the world.
In interviews, Cohen explains that his songwriting was not simply poetry set to music. He said the words to a song come from a different part of the heart. Poetry, he said, is the expression of an inner voice or running commentary. Songwriting is sharing that voice with everyone else who cares to listen. 

When Cohen wrote the song “Hallelujah” in 1984, it did not receive critical acclaim. One critic said he “didn’t get it.” Like many songwriters, Cohen’s own performance of his songs is an acquired taste. It’s when the song is adopted and adapted by someone else that it comes to life. And man, did that song come to life.
The first person to make “Hallelujah” his own was Australia’s Jeff Buckley, in 1994. His haunting version, where his voice breaks and he runs out of breath, pulls the listener along with him through whatever painful memories the melody evokes. 

The song has travelled globally, inspiring artists to put their own spin on it. I, like many other Canadians, didn’t become aware of the song until it fell into the hands of Ms. Kathryn Dawn Lang of Alberta. I don’t believe the song came to her by accident. The artist known as k.d. lang took that tune and put her own mournful, spiritual phrasing on it. She ploughed the depths and reached the heights of emotion with that song. She sings it barefoot. It is the one song she cannot leave out of any concert playlist. To many people, her version of Leonard Cohen’s song has become her signature. And it has become his masterpiece. 

I love many of Leonard Cohen’s songs – especially when my daughter and her fiancé sing them. Cohen continues to inspire today’s generation of singer-songwriters with the music that he had to punish himself to complete, his lack of confidence stopping him in his tracks time and again. 

A few years ago, Facebook informed me it was Leonard Cohen’s birthday. I know his page likely wasn’t manned by himself, but I sent him a note anyway, and asked for his advice to today’s young artist starting out. I was surprised when I received a reply, just after midnight. 

September 22, 2007, 12:16am
“Good evening, Ms. Fisher. A certain thread runs through some of those who practice Zen - this thread is woven from the strands of Shikan-taza. 'Shikan' means 'nothing', 'ta-za' means 'to sit.' This thread is woven from the strands of the idea that meditation is nothing more than sitting, can mean nothing more than sitting, that it is only when one releases his or her desire for enlightenment that enlightenment truly comes.

Woven through art, I think, is the fine silk thread of observation. True art, whether paint or music or literature, shows us where we came from, who we are, what we are to be, always from a different angle, in a slightly different language, and therein truth is discovered, piece by piece.

Learn to listen, to quiet yourself, to watch the present go and the future come, hear the great pulse of this universe, and then to teach to us the facets you witness. If you can remove a sliver of the darkness from my blindness, you are a true artist.”

I sent the note to a former McGill classmate of Leonard Cohen, who lives in Kemptville. He said there was a very good chance the note was written by the artist himself, as “it sounds like him.” 

The note is one of my treasures, and it reminds me to be quiet, to listen and to share what I’ve heard.
That is Leonard Cohen’s legacy and gift to us – he wants us to listen to ourselves, to believe in ourselves and to follow the path that is so clearly laid out before each of us. We all have a calling. It isn’t necessarily what we do for a living, but it is what makes us come alive.


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