Light and darkness

11 November, 2016 (20:24) | All articles | By: Stuart Fraser

What an utterly miserable year this has been.

This is why I have not been with you these many months, and am unlikely to be around much for the time being – I find it really quite overwhelming to share a world with such awfulness, and this week has been yet another celebration of rednecked bigotry and ignorance. In tough times, people are either brave or utterly vile; vileness and cowardice is winning right now.

But a very, very great man once said: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring; there is a crack, a crack, in everything – that’s how the light gets in.’

The man was, of course, the great and godlike Leonard Cohen, who has died.

He was a huge part of my life. I read and listen still, and always will.

I loved him when he was a figure of ridicule, and it has been a joy to see today the reverence with which the world has reacted to his passing, acknowledging the true stature of one of the giants of 20th century words, a stature few in this country granted him until his later years.

Toronto’s Globe and Mail, in Cohen’s native Canada, said this, which I think is rather lovely: ‘Like a god sheltering at the Holiday Inn, he did the hard, stubborn work of creation, and slowly built a tower of song from which, some days, you can see forever.’

My late friend John would have loved that. He and I saw Leonard twice on his comeback tour, and I have never, ever experienced an atmosphere quite like it, of love, warmth, respect, all mutual.

Close to Cohen’s skinny frame, we watched him vibrating with tension and intent as he reclaimed his great song ‘Hallelujah’; I’ve never forgotten the way his backing singers put their arms around each other for support as the band played the start of the song, the concern and devotion with which they watched Leonard.

I will always treasure Cohen’s humour (‘I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice’), his compassion, his comfort, his searches for some sort of path through this…. This.

Even now, so close to the end, he had such wonder in him. In July, he wrote movingly to his lover of so many years ago, Marianne Ihlen, as she lay dying. She was the beautiful girl in the photo on the sleeve of the ‘Songs From A Room’ album, taken in their sun-kissed years on the Greek island of Hydra. Leonard wrote to her: ‘I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.’ As the words were read to her, she held out her hand.

In the record he released a couple of weeks ago, his last, ‘You Want it Darker’, he wrote with astonishing power about the world he was about to leave – and with his usual elegant wit: ‘I was fighting with temptation but I didn’t want to win,’ sang the legendary roue: ‘A man like me don’t like to see temptation caving in.’

I have sought Cohen’s words in every conceivable situation of my life, and never been disappointed. In ‘A Singer Must Die’, he wrote with defiance I’ve clutched close many times:

I thank you, I thank you

for doing your duty

you keepers of truth

you guardians of beauty

your vision was right

my vision was wrong

I’m sorry for smudging

the air with my song

In ‘The Traitor’, he wrote: ‘The artists ride against the men of action – Oh see the men of action falling back’, and that will remain a dream while:

The killers that run

the other countries

are trying to get us

to overthrow the killers

that run our own…

I don’t like to see

a burning flag

because it excites

the killers on either side

to unfortunate excess

which goes on gaily

quite unchecked

until everyone is dead.

And, of course, he wrote about love, more beautifully than anybody, with gentleness, with desperation (‘give her to me and let me be for a moment in this miserable and bewildering wretchedness, a happy animal’), with lust, with humour, with… love.

Truly, ‘there are some men who should have mountains to bear their names to time’.

Cohen would not want a mountain, I know, but he wrote all his life about light, from ‘the light pouring down like honey on our lady of the harbour’ to that famous crack in everything.

So:

I know the stars

are wild as dust

and wait for no man’s discipline

but as they wheel

from sky to sky they rake

our lives with pins of light.

It seems very dark today. But I will ring the bells that still can ring, and try to look for the light.

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