New Video: Leonard Cohen Recites “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot”

“God is Alive, Magic is Afoot” – The Origins1

For those unfamiliar with the origins of this prose-poem, the following explanation from Take This Longing From My Tongue by Sean Elder (Salon Jun 15, 1999) is helpful in providing context:

Indeed, his first poetry collection was called “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” and his celebrated second novel, “Beautiful Losers” (1966), told the story of three (or maybe four) lovers who seemed to exist in a world of their own making. The narrator, an amateur anthropologist trying to reconstruct the myth of his life long after the others are gone, is driven and vexed by the memory of his best friend, F. — who, true to his initial, fucks everything that moves: the narrator, the narrator’s wife, the last surviving female members of a Native American tribe the narrator is studying. F. ends up “in a padded cell, his brain rotted from too much dirty sex,” but before he dies he leads the narrator to a revelation, “the sweet burden of my argument”:

God is alive. Magic is afoot. God is alive. Magic is afoot. God is afoot. Magic is alive. Alive is afoot. Magic never died. God never sickened. Many poor men lied. Many sick men lied. Magic never weakened. Magic never hid. Magic always ruled. God is afoot. God was ruler though his funeral lengthened. Though his mourners thickened Magic never fled …

In this ecstatic passage (which Buffy St. Marie later recorded as a sort of incantation), Cohen has it both ways — god and shaman, mystic and the pagan — and he didn’t need Timothy Leary to guide him. (Hydra, where he wrote “Beautiful Losers,” was full of pleasure-seeking expatriates then, with visitors that included Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, and Cohen had made the acquaintance of LSD back in New York.) He had his own myths. He didn’t need anyone else’s.

This passage2 was itself later published as an illustrated book called “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot.” The blurb for that volume includes this description:

In the middle of the novel comes a short section that begins with the words. ‘God is Alive. Magic is Afoot.’ The 400 or so words that follow are arguably some of the finest Cohen has ever written. In them he has created an inspirational mantra that explores the real meaning of Magic and God.

Leonard Cohen Recites “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot”

My working assumption is that this audio clip originated with the September 1967 Camera Three program on CBS, described in this excerpt from Diamonds in the Mine:

Cohen was featured on this CBS Sunday morning cultural affairs program. From The New York Times (1968): “He sang a few songs, read some poems, and was pictured peering sensitively into several tawdry Broadway store windows. The impression he made was strong enough to elicit the greatest audience response in the show’s fourteen-year history. One viewer berated the network for “letting this cancer loose” on the Sabbath, but most of those who wrote wanted to know more about Cohen. Who was this ambiguous and tortured poet who prowled the urban slag dump proclaiming God is alive. Magic is afoot?”

From a post on the LeonardCohenForum: “The program ran for 30 minutes. One unique thing about the program was that it contained a performance by Cohen of the song God is Alive, Magic is Afoot, which has never appeared on an album or CD. The Camera Three program was very well done — I think it borrowed some footage from Ladies & Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, but it also contained an interview segment done expressly for Camera Three and some poetry and songs performed by Mr. Cohen. “

The words Leonard Cohen recites in this 1967 performance was a passage from his 1966 novel, “Beautiful Losers.” This passage was itself later published separately as an illustrated book called “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot.”  Buffy Sainte-Marie first released “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot” on her album, Illuminations,  in 1969.

Because Leonard Cohen’s recitation is taken from the “Beautiful Losers” instead of the book, “”God is Alive, Magic is Afoot,” it  includes a final section absent from the Buffy Sainte-Marie version:

Old friend, aren’t you happy? You and Edith alone know how long I’ve waited for this instruction.
–Damn you, Mary Voolnd spits at me.
–What?
–Your hand’s gone limp.

Leonard Cohen – “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot”
Video by Allan Showalter

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  1. Much of this material was originally posted at Heck Of A Guy as Leonard Cohen, Buffy Sainte-Marie, God, Magic, & Monty Python.  That entry also includes a video of discussion of Buffy St. Mari’s performance of her version of “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot.” []
  2. The complete passage follows:

    God is Alive, Magic is Afoot
    Lyrics by Leonard Cohen

    God is alive, magic is afoot
    God is alive, magic is afoot
    God is alive, magic is afoot
    God is afoot, magic is alive
    Alive is afoot, magic never died
    God never sickened
    Many poor men lied
    Many sick men lied
    Magic never weakened
    Magic never hid
    Magic always ruled
    God is afoot, God never died
    God was ruler
    Though his funeral lengthened
    Though his mourners thickened
    Magic never fled
    Though his shrouds were hoisted
    The naked God did live
    Though his words were twisted
    The naked magic thrived
    Though his death was published
    Round and round the world
    The heart did not believe

    Many hurt men wondered
    Many struck men bled
    Magic never faltered
    Magic always lead
    Many stones were rolled
    But God would not lie down
    Many wild men lied
    Many fat men listened
    Though they offered stones
    Magic still was fed
    Though they locked their coffers
    God was always served
    Magic is afoot, God is alive
    Alive is afoot

    Alive is in command
    Many weak men hungered
    Many strong men thrived
    Though they boast of solitude
    God was at their side
    Nor the dreamer in his cell
    Nor the captain on the hill
    Magic is alive
    Though his death was pardoned
    Round and round the world
    The heart would not believe

    Though laws were carved in marble
    They could not shelter men
    Though altars built in parliaments
    They could not order men
    Police arrested magic and magic went with them
    Mmmmm…. for magic loves the hungry
    But magic would not tarry
    It moves from arm to arm
    It would not stay with them
    Magic is afoot
    It cannot come to harm
    It rests in an empty palm
    It spawns in an empty mind
    But magic is no instrument
    Magic is the end
    Many men drove magic
    But magic stayed behind
    Many strong men lied
    They only passed through magic
    And out the other side
    Many weak men lied
    They came to God in secret
    And though they left Him nourished
    They would not tell who healed
    Though mountains danced before them
    They said that God was dead
    Though his shrouds were hoisted
    The naked God did live
    This I mean to whisper to my mind
    This I mean to laugh within my mind
    This I mean my mind to serve
    Til’ service is but magic
    Moving through the world
    And mind itself is magic
    Coursing through the flesh
    And flesh itself is magic
    Dancing on a clock
    And time itself
    The magic length of God
    []

6 responses to “New Video: Leonard Cohen Recites “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot”

  1. This video is in itself a piece of magic-thank you so much Allan, I’ve shared.x.

  2. I’ve now scrolled down the page and have seen the full lyrics so thanks for these too.x.

  3. Nice piece.
    I’m curious; if you don’t mind offering the info, where and when was the picture of you and LC taken? You look to be ‘old buddies’.

  4. Came across this yesterday. If ever there was a Valentine…