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The Bird on the Wire has finally flown – sing Hallelujah


Leonard Cohen © Rama

Leonard Cohen was iconic for rebellious teenagers growing up in 1970s India, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

Leonard Cohen has passed on. From around the globe, tributes pour in. To paraphrase, someone said, ‘Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, you get the news Leonard Cohen has gone.’ Another fan writes, ‘2016 is just the most horrid year of my life and this week is the worst ever.’ The morning his death was announced, I woke up to phone messages carrying Cohen’s obituaries. It was as though an old friend or close relative had passed.

Yet, as I sat reading the obituaries, it struck me: this man was both poet and prophet. Only recently, he wrote to Marianne, beloved friend and muse of several decades: ‘I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye, old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.’ Mere months later, he followed her. A fitting end to a life that pined to be free.

I heard my first Cohen song when I was around 17 years old, in the 1970s (yup, we’re all heading to ‘When I’m sixty-four’ now!). It was ‘Like a Bird on a Wire’. We pored over the lyrics. Dylan and Cohen were poets who hit our generation hard. They wrote out of the box. So ‘like a bird on a wire, Like some old fashioned midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free’ was a completely new genre. Dylan and Cohen were incomprehensible to the old greats – Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Dean Martin, my mum’s favourite singers – both in terms of lyrics and music. Like them, my mother would say, with genuine disbelief, ‘That’s music?!!’

For us, trying to be ultra-savvy, refusing to own up to sometimes being as baffled as our parents’ generation at unfathomable, difficult-to-comprehend new poetry, listening to Dylan and Cohen made us in some way, if not part of the revolution, at least definitely not part of the establishment. We were making a statement with bell-bottoms and blue jeans. We read Sartre – well, a potted version at first, with existentialism explained to us by a young Jesuit, newly minted from the Sorbonne. Jeans-clad Father Cyril Desbrulais announced, radically for the 1970s, ‘For Christ’s sake, call me Cyril! I’m not your father, I assure you.’ We took pleasure in dressing funny, singing different and debunking the establishment. With the unmitigated arrogance and complete certainty of youth, everything old was hypocritical and loathsome. The generation gap was announced in our times. Cohen was iconic. A students’ revolt happened in Paris. It trickled south to Asia, to India, to us.

We listened to his lyrics carefully: new, hitherto unknown, forbidden ideas for 1970s Indian teenagers brought up almost in Victorian mode. We were the last relics of the Raj. ‘I remember you well in Chelsea hotel. You were famous, your love was a legend.’ Exotic, sometimes erotic, passion and pathos combined. And he still managed to be profound. All in that gravelly, melancholy, mesmerizing voice. I read somewhere that Cohen was called ‘the high priest of pathos’ and the ‘godfather of gloom’. That he certainly was. But he spoke to a generation that was trying to find itself. Searching for its soul in a time when merely chasing money was so not cool. When protesting unjust wars was what students did. He expressed the torment and confusion, the innermost turmoil young people were experiencing in the 1960s and 1970s. People who had rejected the establishment but not found anything to replace it.

His ‘Songs of Love and Hate’ was my favourite record. ‘Hallelujah’ took the world by storm more recently. And now my kids love it. Cohen looked inward into our deepest feelings. Into our darkest moments, possibly because he struggled with depression for decades. He embraced Zen Buddhism, which apparently helped him give up his quota of four bottles of wine a day and dispelled the dark depression.

Cohen refused to behave like an 82 year old. He continued composing and singing until the very end, releasing his 14th and epic last album, ‘You Want It Darker’, just last month, to rave reviews.

His attitude to life is best summed up by his son Adam. ‘This old man,’ Adam recalls, ‘who was truly in pain and discomfort, would at some intervals get out of his medical chair and dance in front of his speakers. And sometimes, we would put on a song and listen to it on repeat just like teenagers, with the help of medical marijuana.’

It’s the final irony. The kind of dream ending Cohen would have laughed at. What more could anyone, poet or philosopher, have asked for? He certainly did it his way. So we, his fans, should celebrate his life. Sing. Because our generation was privileged with icons who soared above the ordinary.

Yes indeed, we must sing Hallelujah! Nothing else will suffice.

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