The moral strength of Leonard Cohen

The moral strength of Leonard Cohen


norman lebrecht

November 11, 2016

I draw your attention to an essay I wrote for the late singer’s 80th birthday in September 2014, underlining the ethical values from which he drew sustenance and art.

Among other things:

Cohen’s lyrics hint forever at alternate meanings. His bird sits on a wire, perhaps the peaceful fence of a domestic property but also a front line, a prison camp, a place of extermination. In conditions of extreme privation and existential threat, Cohen sings of an inner liberation: “I have tried, in my way, to be free.” He described the song with customary duality as “a prayer, and an anthem”. 

In “Story of Isaac”, he is nine years old and his father is building an altar, reversing personal history in a transcendent Freudian narrative. When Suzanne “takes you down”, she is performing several acts at the same time, only one of which is sexual.

“I can’t keep track of each fallen robin,” laments Cohen after a lucky episode of oral sex in “Chelsea Hotel #2”, the robin conveying so many things a man must lose, not least his bird on the wire. In these and countless other metaphors and metonyms, he draws strength — takes a yad — from his grandfather’s teachings.

Cohen’s take on sexual liberation has a consistent ethical foundation. The erotic is explicit in Jewish texts, whether in the prophet Hosea’s ragings at his errant wife (“let her put away her whorings from her face and her adulteries from between her breasts”) or the physical duties of husband specified in the Talmudic tractate Ketubot. Cohen sees no puritan partition between sacred and profane. In “Dance Me to the End of Love”, a decorous wedding song, he prays: “Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone/Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon/Show me slowly what I only know the limits of/Dance me to the end of love.” The end of love is, in Cohen’s apparition, God’s ultimate gift to mankind.

Read the full essay here.



  • Holly Golightly says:

    I’m very sorry to learn that he has died but, by God, his music was dull beyond belief.

  • Miriam says:

    The music is dull but the poetry is wonderful!

  • Robert Dale says:

    Very beautiful!