Only yesterday I got to know who was the author. It says:
ring the bells that still can ring– Leonard Cohen
forget your perfect offering
there is a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in
I didn’t really know who was Leonard Cohen. Music was never really my thing. I was intrigued to find out more about him only because a couple of years ago I listened to Pico Iyer mentioning him in an OnBeing episode, recounting that Cohen gave up everything to become a zen monk for five years at the peak of his career. I was very drawn to zen back then, and also the idea of having the courage to renounce everything, so I made a permanent mental note. What he didn’t mention was that Cohen was in his 60s when he reached the supposed peak of his career.
I came across an instagram picture of a Cohen book last week which made my interest pique again, so this time I started reading his biography. I finished it in one day yesterday. It is epic to me in many ways: covering a lifespan that lasted 80+ years. Cohen was first and foremost a poet, only becoming a musician in his 30s (because poetry doesn’t pay the bills), writing a few novels along the way, the US didn’t care about him for a few decades but strangely he was popular in Europe and the UK. He made music that his label in the US didn’t like but somehow they continued to release his records because they could still sell in Europe. He came from the upper middle class, but he seemed to enjoy living in some form of austerity. His place in Hydra, Greece didn’t have electricity or water for a long time.
He was depressed for his entire life, until his zen monk stint and a stay in India. He himself couldn’t explain why the depression went away. There were a few things that made my skin shiver when I read his biography. He struggled for 30+ years till he was in his 60s before he was really considered a success – in the middle he made a few albums that were considered flops. I mean, most people would have given up in less than a decade if nothing worked out. He persisted in making his music, and he was not classically trained which seemed to become an advantage in the long run. He loved playing for people who stayed in mental asylums, and suicidal people would claim that his music saved their lives.
What blew my mind was the fact that he was forced to go on a 2.5 year tour in his mid 70s because his manager took all his money. Can you imagine being 70ish and still sing for over 3 hours to a crowd? I would collapse before the first hour is up, much less for 2.5 years. That tour that he was forced to go on to, made him wealthier and more popular than ever. But the most important part of it was that he finally – after 40+ years – truly enjoyed performing. Previously he was so uncomfortable with it, hating so much that he had to drink a ton of alcohol and be on several drugs while on tour.
He wanted to let it go. The money. He didn’t want to pursue the case or be caught up in a lengthy lawsuit. But he couldn’t, because they told him he had to pay the hefty taxes that was drawn out of his retirement account even though he didn’t spend it.
These days I am very skeptical of the hero and the hero’s journey, but I can’t help but be enamoured with this story. He wasn’t perfect (nobody ever is) and he was probably terrible to his romantic partners, but the difference is, he knew. And he wrote about it in his poetry and songs.
He put in the work. For years he did long zen meditation sessions, and served his teacher as an attendant. He said that there is something about hard work that makes one forget oneself:
“They just work you to death so that you forget about yourself,” Leonard said, “and forgetting about yourself is another kind of refreshment. There is a strict sense of order, but I like that sort of thing. Once you overcome your natural resistance to being told what to do, if you can overcome that, then you begin to relax into the schedule and the simplicity of your day. You just think about your sleep, your work, the next meal, and that whole component of improvisation that tyrannizes much of our lives begins to dissolve.”
Overall, for me this is a story about a man who had a singular purpose: to really be capable of reaching, knowing and living who he truly is. He took five, ten years to write, record and produce a single song because they just didn’t sound right or true enough to him. He would become disillusioned with his recorded music because they didn’t turn out like what they were supposed to sound like. He couldn’t describe what was missing, but perhaps he meant the elusive essence of something authentic, and expressed in a form as pure as one can get.
Maybe this is what most artists aspire to do. One gets an inkling of something transcendent, true and raw, and one tries to express it into a form that is as faithful to the feelings we had felt when the original idea had arisen.
It wasn’t explicit, but he achieved this state in the ripe old age of his 70s. Prior he would be severely blocked, tortured, and he took five, ten years to release one album. In the last five years of his life, he released 3 albums.
How many people can release a significant work at 82? He would die in the same year.
I think this is the gift of age. To have enough time to work out all the conflicts of our personalities, to truly understand one can never reconcile life’s paradoxes, yet to develop the capacity to bear one’s fortune and misfortune – to become the rawest version of who we are.
A few days ago my partner asked me what would be the greatest regret if I die in the next moment (we often have these morbid conversations), and my response to her was: not being able to know who I would have become. She asked, isn’t this true of any age though? I think it is, but I guess if we are lucky, if we truly work on it, age is an exponential factor. For me, my 30s was all about trying to understand why I suffer, to attempt to remove the invisible chains around my ankles. If I work hard enough, perhaps I could be a little freer in my 40s, and by my 50s I would learn how to walk without those chains, and in my 60s I can only hope my spirit can operate in a space of an agency as close to free will one can possible get to in an interdependent existence.
The story of Leonard Cohen – perhaps in a biography one can never get close to the truth and one can only derive the truth from what has existed and what exists, his work and what it made people feel – taught me that one can look forward to the gifts and curses of ageing, that life is short and also long, that as long as one keeps on trying to really live there will always be a spectrum of possibilities, that it is possible to live through misfortune at what looks like the end of life and still end up thriving a long time after it.
His life is an exception of course. Most of us would never be an accomplished musician even if we spent the next 50 years trying. But for me it wasn’t his success or fame that is the whole point of this story. It was that he kept on searching, kept on creating, kept on trying to uncover words and sounds that were true to him. The bonus was leaving behind a story and a full body of work that would continue to remind others of what living one’s truth can be.
Note: It only occurred to me recently that writing attempts to express ideas, thoughts and feelings in a form as close to the original stream as possible but perhaps it is never possible to transmit something in its entirety, and yet we can only persist to try. So here I try to share what I have felt from reading a book, but it still comes across a fragmented experience.