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Boogie Street

And the Production of Repose –

I remember lying around in the living room of the house on West 3rd Street in Lexington, Kentucky where the phonograph, the record player, commanded the space below the windows that looked out toward the holly tree. I remember the album covers stacked beside the speakers – 12×5 by the Rolling Stones, The Beatles’ Abbey Road, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and many others that were only slightly less emblematic of that era. Set apart a little in my memories is the album cover with, on the b-side, the picture of the naked woman engulfed in flames. Dark haired and voluptuous, the woman raised her eyes toward heaven, transfixing my ten year old imagination with her beauty, her nakedness, and with the mystery of the broken chains that hung from her wrists. When I turned the album cover over I could contemplate the face of the singer, a close shot, the focus a little soft, of a man with dark hair and liquid, sensual eyes that made a strong impression, I could tell, on my older sister. The songs on the record seemed almost old-fashioned, the lush imagery salvaged from melodrama by the singer’s precise phrasing – the way his voice relaxed into its own depths and broke a little, not taking things too seriously but never ironic in its sincerity either. On the one hand there was the sense that these songs were offerings, confessions that moved as far as they could in the direction of prayers, and on the other hand they made no such extravagant claims and were content to remain ordinary ballads with catchy melodies – no big deal.

Thirty years later, in 2001, the singer’s new CD arrived, a Christmas gift I think, from my older sister probably. Ten New Songs it was called. I listened to it once or twice but it didn’t grab me. I thought the singer-songwriter – Leonard Cohen – had lost his edge, and the songs seemed over-produced and un-hip. Plus, without really knowing why, I had fallen out of the habit of listening to music. It wasn’t a choice, really, but at some point during the Bush-Cheney fiasco playing CDs disappeared from my daily routine. Listening to music had started making me feel like a consumer perhaps, at a time when I couldn’t stomach that identity. The counterculture had long since been emptied of juice and abandoned, conceding its irrelevance to the course of things in a “real” world that had been seized by ghouls and demons. Also, all the young artists making a bid for striking relevance had begun to seem inherently irrelevant to me: the packaging of persona, the pageantry of personality, the new combinations of moves emblematized by artists from Elvis to Iggy Pop seemed trite and over-worked in the corporatized era of the new century.

I don’t know why I put the CD in the player a few months back, but I was instantly struck once more by the deep ease in Cohen’s voice. The same seductive and disarming intimacy that had set that earlier album apart so many years before had been amplified so that now the voice seemed to emerge from some place the other side of a whisper, or from deep within the structure of the singer’s cells. The lush arrangements that had seemed over-the-top to me when I first heard Ten New Songs now seemed like a smart choice, a covering of ones tracks. “Can I experience this and be at ease at the same time,” the songs seemed to ask, examining love and death and other highly charged and defining experiences of humanity. Over the top but also somehow irresistible, this is music that aims to transform surreptitiously, shifting weight into ease, reconciling us to our situation.

As many will know, Cohen is a Zen adept in the Rinzai tradition who lived for many years in the monastery on Mt Baldy under Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. Having practiced in a related tradition for some time now I found myself listening to the ten songs with the ears of practice, appreciating the way Cohen was able to convey the experience of dharma via the over-familiar forms of the popular ballad. To my ear, songs like In My Secret Life and A Thousand Kisses Deep seem written and delivered in a purely meditative mode, all the forms of a long and successful career as a commercial musician are engaged with and purified simply because that’s what this particular trajectory entailed. All the songs on the album now seemed strong to me. Love Itself, the fifth song, is perhaps the clearest expression of the kind of affective experiences that come with a daily practice.

But it’s the 8th song on the album, Boogie Street, that had the strongest impact. “Oh Crown of Light, oh Darkened One,” the song begins, a soulful refrain, “you kiss my lips and then it’s done.” Death is being addressed here by a man old enough to be cultivating that acquaintance. I think of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the eerie accounts it contains of what our last moments look and feel like as we sip that final breath. I think of a sequence in my own daily practice where the instruction is to examine those very last moments – how the five stages of grief tend to seize the mind then, and what steps one can take to move through denial, bargaining, anger and despair toward acceptance and a return to presence. It’s always instructive to observe which steps in a meditation sequence we skip or gloss over in distracted, auto-pilot mode. Often in my own practice it’s this step, the one involving an encounter with the moment of death, the moment Cohen has, with rueful humanity, re-christened the moment of boogie street.

Boogie Street, Ten New Songs Leonard Cohen, Sony 2001

The aim of such “impermanence” meditations is hardly morbid – these practices do not enervate so much as provide relief and release, and are actually among the most energizing and liberative meditations. We are turning to confront in its purest form one of our shaping anxieties, an anxiety that has always hovered at the edges of our conscious awareness. Under the tent of that encounter we can finally assess what we are to each other, how we should behave, even what music is worth the investment of time.

So come my friend, be not afraid

We are so lightly here

It is in love that we are made, in love we disappear…

Listening recently to Ten New Songs I was struck by the sophistication of what Cohen has accomplished, and by the way authentic understanding can permeate simple artistic forms. The rap about Cohen was always that he was a published poet first and a songwriter second. It always seemed to me Cohen used his literary credentials to inoculate himself against those aspects of pop celebrity that would have been a burden, preserving himself from the parade of shtick that got in Bob Dylan’s way, for example. But with this new work I found myself appreciating the songs on a purely poetic level. My sense was that Cohen’s celebrity was now serving to protect that essential poetic quality of repose in the grip of tension, a quality that now seems in danger of receding from our world. Who has time to read poetry anymore? Who has the mental space required for that contemplative experience in a world defined by frenzied business of the internet? Well, we still know how to tap into iTunes and Cohen’s ten songs are waiting for us there. The strength of the commodification that had drawn me away from commercial music seemed suddenly providential – a gift preserving our link to the essence of that more vulnerable literary cousin. Cohen’s voice, the  deeply embodied way it lays back into the shadow-ground of love and mortality to give form to the simple truths it finds there, now seems to make a powerful case for the relevance of poetry in general. Along with the repose comes insight and compassion, life as a song full of sadness and glory.

Oh Crown of Light, Oh Darkened One

I never thought we’d meet

You kiss my lips and then it’s done

I’m back, back on Boogie Street

Boogie Street – Leonard Cohen

Comments

  1. Susan Martin says:

    Ten New Songs is one of my all time favorite albums. I would take to the desert island. I am fairly new to meditation and while I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead back in the Leary/ Alpert daze, I never made the connection to the poetry of Boogie Street. I look forward to listening with a new perspective. Thank you. I look forward to your contributions to TQ.

  2. Stephanie says:

    I have always love Leonard Cohen’s music although I knew nothing about him as a person so I had no idea he studied and practiced meditation. Thank you for new insights into an album and artist that I love.

  3. C. Skolnik says:

    Reminds me of a Canadian genealogy, out of Cohen . . . including Robbie Robertson and Blue Rodeo (and my high-school obsession with Glenn Milchem’s identical twin . . . the one the voyeur’s right, go figure).

    http://www.clubzone.com/events/178369/vancouver/livecity-yaletown/blue-rodeo

  4. Thanks for this, Guy. Your piece inspired me to listen to Leonard Cohen’s Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 concert (free on Spotify, and by the way, I am loving Spotify)… the introductory first track is particularly atmospheric.

  5. Jaune Evans says:

    Beautiful dive into the dharma and the music, Guy. Boogie Street is one of my favorite songs of all time. Do you credit his songwriting partner, Claudia Robinson, with co-writing it? There is a fantastic rendition of it (with her singing) on the Leonard Cohen Live in London DVD — a truly great viewing experience (invite your friends over). Thank you for your artistic sensitivity and for the lushness of your writing.

  6. Jaune, many thanks for correcting the record regarding Claudia Robinson. She clearly deserves part of the acclaim and I’ll look forward to watching that DVD as well.

  7. Richard straub says:

    Very thoughtful and appreciated article on my all-time favorite artist.
    A needed comment correction ….. His co writer and marvelous singer in her own right is Sharon Robinson.

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