3 examples of spiritual content in Cohen’s songwriting, 1/3: Who by Fire (1974)

Following yesterday’s post on the role of the spiritual in contemporary art, before building on those ideas, I will go through three examples of how Cohen put into practice what he preached in his 1964 speech. There are certainly more examples, this is just a productive selection that spans his career as a songwriter. Each song uses a biblical story or song as a departure. Cohen approaches Judaism like it’s just one ancient suggestion for how to feel the warmth of contact with the absolute. He doesn’t try to interpret what the bible is saying to make it into something it’s not, but he also doesn’t discard it; he drags the book on his back from history into the present but takes liberty to add marginalia, colorful notations and redactions that still allow the original to seep through.

He said that he avoided narcissism when it came to personal reflection and detail in his art and manages to produce something universal because he filters those details and feelings through thousands of years of tradition (I will find and link to this reference at some point). These songs represent that statement well. I will post one each day for the following two days. The first is a B-side track from the aptly-titled album New Skin for an Old Ceremony (1974). Note that Cohen uses references and materials from countless sources, and was certainly not restricted to the Old Testament or one religious tradition. I focus on the references to Judaism because they relate to the talk I posted, and because I am most equipped and therefore inclined to explicate these as opposed to others.

After seven years of Hebrew school I developed a genuine interest in religion only after I entered public school, which was when my father introduced me to Cohen’s music. My cultural and religious education had felt until then like a straightjacket: sets of rules, laws, punishments, so outdated and divorced from contemporary life that I would escape by daydreaming my way out. Then, here was a Jew singing about Christ (Suzanne, 1967). That was oddly transgressive in itself (as Jews are not supposed to recognize the existence of other religions).  But it was Who by Fire (1974) that really blew my mind–not on the first listen, or even the hundredth.

It was when I was sitting in synagogue during Yom Kippur. On a rare occasion in which I was actually following the service in a bilingual siddur (prayer book) and not zoning out through the stained glass windows, I realized the song was based on the Unetanneh Tokef, a liturgical poem written at the end of the 12th century that entered the traditional service for high holidays at some point within the last centuries. He took the English translation, which was facing the version which is sung in the service in Hebrew, (“the language of my spirit is English … Jewish experience–contemporary Jewish experience for the majority of Jews alive today is English.), created a new melody, and mixed in his own lyrics and adapting some of the original.

Note how his use of classical guitar functions in this song like English punctuation, with opening progressions played in a way that creates a feeling of a struggle followed by strummed “ellipses”, repeated notes, that lead into the chant and then reappear at the end of the verse to connect to the following.  At the end of each line, he picks out an emphasizing set of chords with consistency to echo the placement of the question mark, with varying inflections. Often he uses women’s voices in place of instruments in his songs, which was one of his unique features. However, in this song, the women sing along with him. They chant together like a congregation.

Below, I’ve pasted the full translation of the Unetanneh Tokef, then embedded a youtube video of the audio of this song, then the lyricsThe poem introduces other services during the High Holidays, when the New Year begins and explains how in these days our fates for the coming year are sealed.

Who by Fire is an example of what great art can do, and one of the earliest examples I can recall of art which gave license and permission to think and feel something to which I previously had no access, and didn’t even know existed. There is a blasphemous element to the act of appropriating something holy and inserting his own lines which refer to love, heart break, drug abuse, and even suicide. At the end of each verse he flips around the subject in the original, in which “who” refers to the congregants, and addresses God. By asking, “And who shall I say is calling,” ostensibly he is not in the mood to answer the call of a higher power, and requests that “the maker” take a message, which he might return or not return later. This coupled with the line to “who by his own hand” questions who controls our fate and doesn’t simply repeat the accepted reverence of God; instead he is honest about his own ambivalence and just lays it all out on a table.

What is magical about Cohen’s work, and this is one of the greatest examples, is that when he uses traditional texts, his poetry takes a jack to the tight scriptures and pumps life into them through reference to the taboos and human fallibilities of contemporary life, creating a space between the ancient lines large enough to curl up in and take shelter. That is how he underscores the truth that spirituality cannot be divorced from desire.

Translation of Unetanneh Tokef, screenshot from chabad.org which lists: Text courtesy of the Kehot Publication Society‘s Annoted Machzor for the High Holidays. Copyright by Kehot Publication Society, all rights reserved.

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Leonard Cohen, Who By Fire in New Skin for an Old Ceremony, Columbia Records, 1974.
And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt
And who by avalanche, who by powder
Who for his greed, who for his hunger
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident
Who in solitude, who in this mirror
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand
Who in mortal chains, who in power
And who shall I say is calling?
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by fire who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?
And who shall I say is calling?

 

Image caption: the introductory image is an original woodcut from De Alchimia Opuscula [Rosarium Philosophorum, or Rosary of the Philosophers, a key alchemical treatise] posted by the University of Glasgow Library from their Special Collections Department (Sp Coll Al-y.18). A version was used as the first album cover for New Skin for an Old Ceremony, designed by Teresa Alfiera.