Listening to Leonard Cohen in the Time of Trump

Usually, when we wake up from a nightmare in the morning, we are relieved to find the light of day dispels the fears of the night, but what happens when we experience the reverse? What happens when we wake up, and a pleasant dream melts away, and the day reveals that we are living in a nightmare?

Welcome to this so-called presidency of Donald Trump.

The question is: How do we cope?

During election week, of all times, I had a surprising insight about how we stayed sane during horrors of the Vietnam War: Our musicians who saved us – and specifically, our folksingers.

This came to me in an odd way, because the day before Trump was elected, Leonard Cohen, one of the great prophetic musical voices of our times, passed away. It seems too harsh to say he died, because his mournful, meditative incantations seemed to presage his passing for years. Compared to his sensibility, his end seemed incongruously mundane. Apparently, he fell during the night of Monday, Nov. 7, went back to bed and drifted off into what his son called a “sudden, unexpected and peaceful” death.

Those younger than me might remember him the old man with a black fedora, groaning out his lines on stage, speaking his poetry more than singing it, but for those who remember him at the beginning, back in the mid-1960s, he was the mysterious image-maker behind the transcendent voices of singers like Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell.

As I read the outburst of tributes, so full of affection and gratitude for Cohen’s life, in the same week I was absorbing the anguished predictions of the Trump nightmare, I retreated his music, now on YouTube, and found myself transported back to the moment when I heard a Leonard Cohen song for the first time.

It was 1967, and we were gathered at Sally’s house, 16-year-olds on the brink falling into this allegedly adult world, and we were sitting around a dining room table, trying to make conversation, somewhat embarrassed to be together in our adolescent way. Sally was chattering as she put on a record, In My Life, from by one of the new folk-singers when suddenly, out of the silence between tracks, a voice emerged as delicate as a child’s first song and feminine as the sky is blue: 

Suzanne takes you down,
to a place by the river.
You can hear the boats go by,
You can spend the night forever. 

And you know that she’s half-crazy
that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
that come all the way from China.

We stopped talking and were carried along by the mystery of words we had never heard before and a human voice more beautiful than I could ever imagine possible.  We felt a presence, a beauty that invited us into a place of tenderness, a haven for us to inhabit in the midst of anxiety, a place of solace:

And just when you want to tell her
that you have no love to give her
She gets you on her wavelength
And lets the river answer
that you’ve always been her lover 

And you want to travel with her,
and you want to travel blind,
And you think you maybe trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body
with her mind.


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Slideshow image by Olivia Wise.


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