Category Archives: Leonard Cohen

Quoting Leonard Cohen: Is “Religion” Synonymous With “Sitting Still?”


This morning, Twitter entries drew my attention to Pico Iyer on What Leonard Cohen Teaches Us about the Art of Stillness by Maria Popova (Brain Pickings: Nov 10, 2014), a post based on portions of Pico Iyer’s book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (Simon & Schuster/ TED: November 4, 2014).  In that volume, Iyer uses Cohen’s experience as a monk at the Mount Baldy Zen Center  to introduce and support his “case for the unexpected pleasures of ‘sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.’”

The following selection from The Art of Stillness is excerpted in the Brain Pickings post (emphasis mine):

Sitting still, he [Leonard Cohen] said with unexpected passion, was “the real deep entertainment” he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. “Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available within this activity.”

Was he kidding? Cohen is famous for his mischief and ironies.

He wasn’t, I realized as he went on. “What else would I be doing?” he asked. “Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”

This sounded familiar. And, it turns out that Iyer has previously used a nearly identical quote, albeit in somewhat reorganized form and with one important word added. The following excerpt is from Leonard Cohen: Several Lifetimes Already by Pico Iyer (Shambhala Sun, September, 1998. Retrieved 11 November 2014 from Speaking Cohen)1 (emphasis mine):

Of course, he says, impatiently, he can’t explain what he’s doing here … “I don’t think anybody really knows why they’re doing anything. If you stop someone on the subway and say, ‘Where are you going–in the deepest sense of the word?’ you can’t really expect an answer. I really don’t know why I’m here. It’s a matter of ‘What else would I be doing?’ Do I want to be Frank Sinatra, who’s really great, and do I want to have great retrospectives of my work? I’m not really interested in being the oldest folksinger around.

“Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Well, I hated it when it was going on” – signs of the snarl beneath the chuckle – “so maybe I would feel better about it now. But I don’t think so.”

“What would I be doing? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”

“I think that’s the real deep entertainment,” he concludes. “Religion. Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available to us is within this activity. Nothing touches it.” He smiles his godfatherly smile. “Except if you’re courting. If you’re young, the hormonal thrust has its own excitement.”

Leonard Cohen On the Mount Baldy Zen Center Experience

It is clear, especially in the 1998 Shambhala Sun article, that the issue being discussed  in these excerpts is not “sitting still” or meditation but instead the more general topic of what Leonard Cohen is doing at the Mount Baldy Zen Center, i.e., “What else would I be doing [if I weren’t at the Mount Baldy Zen Center]?” As Iyer himself puts it, “Of course, he [Cohen] says, impatiently, he can’t explain what he’s doing here.” (emphasis mine)

And, while Cohen’s experience on Mount Baldy included hours of sitting meditation, it also included other elements:

My teacher’s school places much emphasis on work and ordinary life, and is very structured, severe and strict. What happens is that you stop thinking about yourself. It worked for me. I never really understood the Zen philosophy. What kept me coming back was my friendship with Roshi. Like all great teachers, he accommodates all students who come to him. Some seek a teacher, others discipline. I needed a friend and he gave me a great deal of affection. He did not try to give me spiritual instruction, but a solution to the pressures of my life, and it didn’t matter to me if it passed for religion, the kitchen or philosophy.2

Leonard Cohen On Religion

Of more concern is the omission of the word “religion” in the quote from The Art of Stillness:

Sitting still, he [Leonard Cohen] said with unexpected passion, was “the real deep entertainment”

“Religion” was an important part of the quote in the 1998 Shambhala Sun article:

“I think that’s the real deep entertainment,” he [Cohen] concludes. “Religion. Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment.

Now, it is certainly possible that “sitting still” (which appears to be similar if not identical to meditation in the post about Iyer’s book) is subsumed in Cohen’s use of the word “religion,” but – and here’s the rub – it is also possible that Cohen had some other facet of religion in mind.

Heck, Cohen once noted that meditation freed one from religion:

Buddhist meditation frees you from God and frees you from religion. You can experience complete at-homeness in this world.3

He has touched on religion in other interviews as well:

Religion is one of the art forms of mankind – perhaps its greatest art form.4

The relation between man and the divine represents a hunger that humans have. So there’s always going to be some kind of effort to make sense of the whole affair, and religion seems to have been, until quite recently, the technology with which we tried to comprehend the whole affair.5

I don’t ever want to set myself up as an enemy of organised religion because those churches, those mosques, those synagogues, they give comfort and solace to millions and millions of people – real comfort and real solace. I don’t think it serves anything or anybody to become an enemy of organised religion.6

We sense that there is a will that is behind all things, and we’re also aware of our own will, and it’s the distance between those two wills that creates the mystery that we call religion. It is the attempt to reconcile our will with another will that we can’t quite put our finger on, but we feel is powerful and existent. It’s the space between those two wills that creates our predicament.7


I am not attempting to repudiate the thesis that Leonard Cohen supports the concept of meditation/sitting still (that proposition seems reasonable enough – just unproven).  I do, however, object to the manipulative use of a partial quotation by Leonard Cohen to make a point.

  1. Also found at Sun After Dark By Pico Iyer. Penguin Books India, Jul 1, 2005 []
  2. An Intimate Conversation with…Leonard Cohen by Elena Pita. Translated by Marie Mazur (using translation software) and aided by Guadalupe Baquero. Originally posted in Spanish at Magazine, Sunday Supplement to El Mundo: September 26, 2001. English translation posted at Speaking Cohen. []
  3. The Profits Of Doom by Steve Turner. Q Magazine: April 1988 []
  4. Leonard Cohen Press Conference: Reykjavik, 1988 []
  5. Aurora Online With Leonard Cohen by Marco Adria. Aurora: July, 1990 []
  6. Leonard Cohen in His Own Words by Jim Devlin. 1998 []
  7. An Interview with Leonard Cohen by Robert Sward & Pat Keeney Smith. The Malahat Review: No. 77 (1986) []

“Dance Me To The End Of Love” In Jon Stewart’s Rosewater; Leonard Cohen Turns Down Cameo


Leonard Cohen & The Story Of Maziar Bahari’s Iranian Imprisonment

While the specific event that led to this post was Jon Stewart’s attempt to engage Leonard Cohen in his movie, Rosewater, the significance resides in Cohen’s role in the story on which the movie is based, the imprisonment and torture of Maziar Bahari, who was arrested as a spiy in June 2009 while reporting on the presidential election in Iran for Newsweek. Bahari credited his psychological survival, in large part, to being able to create a “parallel universe” in which he could reside apart from his physical surroundings and dire circumstances. Maziar Bahari’s use of Leonard Cohen’s music to create that parallel universe is discussed in Maziar Bahari On The Music Of Leonard Cohen: “Of such stuff is survival made.”

Leonard Cohen & Maziar Bahari’s Samba

Stewart talked about the scene with Marisa Guthrie of Hollywood Reporter:1

The scene ends with Bahari learning that he is having a daughter; his then-fiancee, Paola Gourley, was pregnant when he was arrested. When Bahari is taken back to his cell, his joy pours forth in a languid samba to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” as his flummoxed guards watch on surveillance monitors. Cohen allowed the production to use his music, but Stewart’s original idea was to have Cohen himself in the cell with Bernal.

“That was the thing we could not get him to do,” says Stewart of Cohen. “Which, by the way, is a completely reasonable reaction: ‘Hey, Leonard, do you want to leave your tour, just for the day, fly to Jordan and sit in a solitary cell with a guy and play “Dance Me”? Would that be cool?’

“So I told Gael: ‘I’m going to stick [director of photography] Bobby [Bukowski] in there with an easy rig, and I’m going to play you this song. Knock yourself out.’ And he delivered that dance in one take. He and Bobby created a chemistry in that room that was just wonderful, man.”


Jon Stewart & Leonard Cohen


Stewart is himwself a Cohen fan, who not only attended the April 7, 2013 Radio City Music Hall show but also contrasted Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah With Handel’s to make a nuanced point about the budget proposal on The Daily Show.


Credit Due Department: The animation of the jail cell samba was created from the Rosewater Trailer. The photo of Jon Stewart was taken by Wesley Mann for Hollywood Reporter.


  1. Jon Stewart on Directorial Debut ‘Rosewater,’ His ‘Daily Show’ Future and Those Israel-Gaza Comments by Marisa Guthrie. Hollywood Reporter: Aug 28, 2014 []

Update: Lenny-Mania Six Years Later

Leonard Cohen at O2

The Verdict:
Leonard Cohen – More Popular Than Ever
Lenny-Mania – So Six Years Ago

On Nov 14, 2008, The Telegraph announced Leonard Cohen at the O2: Lenny-mania in London, a headline that triggered my Nov 15, 2008 rebuttal, Why Is Leonard Cohen Smiling – And Who’s Lenny? (reproduced below)

Because the success of Leonard Cohen’s tours and his albums since that article in The Telegraph have resulted the Canadian singer-songwriter becoming more popular than ever, I feared the Lenny-Mania label might have not only survived but somehow found a place in the pop culture press. A Google search seemed to support that outcome, showing 25,800,000 hits for “Lenny-Mania.” Further, there is, in fact, a Twitter hashtag: #lennymania.

A quick review of the findings, however, allayed my fears.  Many of the Google hits as well as #lennymania apparently reference one Lenny Tavárez. Other Lenny-Mania hits link to articles about Leonard Bernstein, Lennie Kravitz, and various other Lenny Not-Cohens.

As far as I can determine, none of the Leonard[Cohen]-Mania references took place after 2008. Consequently, I now pronounce the Lenny-Mania threat has ended. Nonetheless, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom from Lenny-ness.

From Nov 15, 2008: Why Is Leonard Cohen Smiling – And Who’s Lenny?

My initial reaction to Leonard Cohen at the O2: Lenny-mania in London,1 the Telegraph review of the November 13, 2008 Leonard Cohen concert at London’s 23,000 seat O2 arena was “Oh hum, another ‘Leonard Cohen gave a great concert’ article.”2 On consideration, however, I am convinced that at least two elements of the story merit mention.

1. Lenny-Mania?

Lenny-mania has, apparently, run rampant –

… what started with a successful summer tour and a much-lauded appearance at the Glastonbury Festival has turned into Lenny-mania this winter

As far as I can determine from my friend, Google, this is the first designation of Leonard Cohen induced Lenny-mania on the Internet.3

Now, I do not contest a newspaper journalist’s authority to name a mass movement or enthusiasm. Sports writers have long devoted hundreds if not thousands of column inches to informing readers that a city that is home to a sports team in contention for the championship has succumbed to [insert team name]-mania.

Of course, I would also hold that bloggers are authorized and perhaps obligated to pass judgment on the name given to that movement.

And, as for Lenny-mania – I don’t care for it.

Lenny (left) and Squiggy (right)

Lenny and Squiggy

It’s a personal preference, I suppose, but I find it almost impossible to use “Lenny” to indicate Leonard Cohen except in an attempt at humor. In good fettle, I might be able to pull off “Len.”

When I think “Lenny,” I think “Lenny and Squiggy.” That’s Lenny on the reader’s left.

Or Lenny from The Simpsons (pictured below).

Would the headline of this post be regarded the same if it were “Why Is Lenny Laughing?”

As it happens, none of my best friends are “Lenny’s,” but I can imagine having a buddy named “Lenny” and even envision warmly greeting him after a long absence with “Hey, Lenny, you ol’ sumbitch. Long time no see. What’s shakin’?”

Also, I am the first to attest that there are, doubtlessly, batches of talented and wonderful guys known as “Lenny.”

But, on hearing “Lenny,”do I think of, say, the undeniably talented Lenny Kravitz or the legendary comedian, Lenny Bruce?

I do not.

And I certainly do not think of Leonard Cohen.

Also, hasn’t “mania” been a tad overexposed as a suffix indicating a craze among a population segment? In addition to the aforementioned enthusiasm for sports teams, -mania can also be found in references to Cicada Mania, Mini Mania (a passion for Mini Cooper cars), Sarah [Palin] Mania, Monster Truck Mania, Twirl Mania (admiration for baton twirling), Magnum Mania (wildness for all things Magnum P.I.), Collar Mania (obsession with custom dog collars), and Bacon Mania.

Yep, I’m caught up in Anything But Mania-Mania. Surely, we can do better by Leonard Cohen and his manic fans.

What About That Smile?

Leonard Cohen at O2

Leonard Cohen at O2

Leonard Cohen is, after all, the man known as4 the Grand Master of Melancholia, the Godfather Of Gloom, the Master Of Erotic Despair, the Poet Of Bedsit Angst, the Gloom Merchant, the Poet Laureate Of Pessimism, the Apocalyptic Lounge Lizard, the High Priest Of Pathos, the [Biblically lachrymose] Jeremiah Of Tin Pan Alley, … .5

Even in the story accompanying the photo atop this post, the only reference to the singer’s mood is “His bass-baritone voice rumbled through a back catalogue of doom-laden reflections.”

So, what’s with the sparkling (face it, it’s sparking), full fledged, non-ironic smile?

As it turns out, Heck Of A Guy has access to a hot shot psychiatrist for a clinical assessment – and I diagnose a severe case of happiness.

Lenny, ya big lug, I’m sorry for outing you as being happy
and hope it doesn’t ruin your rep or put a damper on
Lenny-mania. Are we OK? We’re still pals, right?

Credit Due Department
The photo of Leonard Cohen is from the Telegraph article already referenced, Leonard Cohen at the O2: Lenny-mania in London


  1. Leonard Cohen at the O2: Lenny-mania in London by Graham Boynton. The UK Telegraph. Nov 14, 2008 []
  2. I should note that Graham Boynton’s piece is well written, insightful, and, except for the Lenny-mania coinage, on the mark. There just isn’t much in the way of new information. []
  3. There is a 1999 “Lenny-mania” citation that references Lenny Johnrose, a English professional football player, and there is at least one individual and perhaps more who use “Lennymania” or its variations as a user name. []
  4. See Leonard Cohen Nicknames []
  5. Yes, I know he is also called Laughing Len, the Existential Comedian, and the Smiling Dada Of Despair, but those don’t do much to advance my point, do they? Besides, this post is running long already; I haven’t the time or space to explain existentialism, the Dada movement, and recognition of sardonic nicknames. []

CanLit Criticism – A Leonard Cohen Resource


CanLit Criticism is “A Directory of Web resources relevant to Canadian Studies” created by David Lucking is a useful site for Leonard Cohen fans but one  that is unknown to many.

Although the directory is, as of June 2005, no longer being updated, it does contain a “Cohen, Leonard” section with links to 14 articles about the works of the Canadian poet-novelist-singer-songwriter.

CanLit Criticism: Cohen, Leonard


Tom Cochrane’s Bird On A Wire Is On Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox


Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox

Biggest Influence on My Music – The jukebox. I lived beside jukeboxes all through the fifties. … I never knew who was singing. I never followed things that way. I still don’t. I wasn’t a student of music; I was a student of the restaurant I was in — and the waitresses. The music was a part of it. I knew what number the song was.

- Leonard Cohen (Yakety Yak by Scott Cohen, 1994)

Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox: Over the years, Leonard Cohen has mentioned a number of specific songs he favors. Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox is a Heck Of A Guy feature that began collecting these tunes for the edification and entertainment of viewers on April 4, 2009. All posts in the Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox series can be found at the Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox Page.


Tom Cochrane’s Grand Bird On A Wire

From CBC Radio Morningside with Peter Gzowski (Nov 18, 1992):

Peter Gzowski: Tom Cochrane has a beautiful  Bird On A Wire
Leonard Cohen: I know he does. It’s grand.

Tom Cochrane, is a Canadian singer-songwriter who fronted Red Rider as well as establishing a successful solo career, winning seven Juno Awards. He is a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and was inducted onto the Canadian Walk of Fame in 2009. Tom Cochrane and Red Rider released their cover of Bird On A Wire on The Symphony Sessions album (1989).

Leonard Cohen & Wilfred Owen Grapple With God – Abraham’s Test Of Faith As A Plea For Peace


Caravaggio’s renowned depiction of the biblical Sacrifice of Isaac

By David D. Fowler

David D. Fowler is a Canadian transmedia artist who blogs at MuseMash on Tumblr. For a preview of Omen Tide, his fantasy project combining words, photos, music and film, click here: MuseMash  – Omen Tide

 The Sacrifice Of Isaac As A Plea For Peace

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”

So wrote Bob Dylan, referring to the Old Testament legend of the Almighty using Abraham’s son to test the faith of Judaism’s founder.

Dylan’s song is really more about surreal roadside shenanigans than about Abraham sacrificing Isaac. While some songwriters tell the Old Testament story straightforwardly, evangelical Christian writers have interpreted Isaac’s ordeal through the filter of the New Testament as a poignant symbol of the sacrificial death of Jesus. Other writers, however, have used this evocative narrative as a most effective metaphor to comment on the scourge of war. The most significant of these, I would say, are Wilfred Owen and Leonard Cohen.

Owen has rightly been called the unofficial Poet Laureate of the Great War. His brilliant work is especially pertinent to Remembrance Day this year, the centenary of World War One. Owen was renowned for hard-hitting depictions of this ghastly conflict in poems such as Dulce ET Decorum Est, Strange Meeting, and Anthem For Doomed Youth. One of his most striking works, Parable of the Old Man & the Young, makes powerful use of the tale of Isaac – so powerful that Benjamin Britten made it a centerpiece of his choral masterwork, War Requiem.

Rather than honor the deep faith of the father figure in the original story, Owen paints a portrait of a psychotic butcher whose action precipitates the catastrophic bloodshed of the Great War. In the Bible, God commands Abraham to slay his son to prove his faith; but just before the patriarch complies, the Lord sends an angel to intercede – offering a lamb for sacrifice in Isaac’s stead, much to the loving father’s relief. Owen, however, turns this on its head in a harrowing passage: “An angel called him out of heaven, saying, ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him. Behold a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.’ But the old man would not so, but slew his son – and half the seed of Europe, one by one.” The dramatic repetition of that final phrase is one of the most chilling parts of Britten’s oratorio.

Leonard Cohen, just as prodigiously gifted, expresses a more complicated view of war than Owen. In 1974, he provocatively told ZigZag magazine,

War is wonderful. They’ll never stamp it out. It’s one of the few times people can act their best, [with] the sense of community and kinship and brotherhood, devotion. There are opportunities to feel things that you simply cannot feel in modern city life. Very impressive.

In the same interview, he says of his composition, Story Of Isaac,

The song doesn’t end with a plea for peace. It doesn’t end with a plea for sanity between the generations. It ends saying, ‘I’ll kill you if I can, I will help you if I must. I will kill you if I must, I will help you if I can.’

It would seem Cohen is not one to join mass peace movements. In Frankfurt, 1972, he introduced the song as one he

wrote to the people who feel it is within their right to sacrifice the young for some purpose which they conceive to be holy or just. It’s a song for them, and it’s also a song for those who would enlist my aid in defeating those men. Because I don’t want to join any program. I don’t want to write my name at the end of any [manifesto].

Cohen has maintained that the song is primarily a commentary on the relationship between the younger and older generations. Introducing it in Frankfurt in 1974, he said:

This is a song about that curious place where the generations often meet: an altar or a butcher’s block.

Nevertheless, he has made it clear that the song is by no means an endorsement of armed conflict. On the BBC in 1968, he said,

Just at the last moment before he was about to sacrifice Isaac, an angel held the hand of the father. But today the children are being sacrificed, and no one raises a hand to end the sacrifice. And this is what this song is about.

Elsewhere, he has emphasized this negative view of killing. At the 1972 Stockholm concert, he prefaced Story Of Isaac with “I sing this song for the butchers and the victims.” In a 1985 performance, he offered a significant variation on one verse:

Shame upon this uniform, the man of peace, the man of war. The peacock spreads his deadly fan.

Based on some of Cohen’s comments, one might be justified in thinking Story Of Isaac is not profoundly anti-war. However, one verse features a clear call for the abandonment of the time-honored tradition of ritual slaughter:

You who build these altars now, to sacrifice these children, you must not do it anymore. A scheme is not a vision, and you never have been tempted by a demon or a god. You who stand above them now, your hatchets blunt and bloody, you were not there before – when I lay upon a mountain, and my father’s hand was trembling with the beauty of the Word.

While I would not go so far as to call Cohen an “anti-war writer” per se, I believe this verse conveys an implicit metaphorical condemnation of the mass carnage resulting from war. The song also says “Have mercy on our uniform,” which I see as a call for compassion on the plight of all soldiers forced to kill. These elements, I feel, could be interpreted as making the song into the very “plea for peace” that he denied in the ZigZag interview – despite his original intentions, or later protestations to the contrary.

Both of these great works appear to express a pessimistic view of the perpetuity of war, but for essentially anti-war purposes; the writers are ultimately hopeful, in the sense that they evidently want war to cease. I would suggest Cohen perhaps demonstrates a cynical acceptance of war as an inevitable part of the human condition. But I would also conclude that he doesn’t like it any more than Owen does. So for me at least, Story Of Isaac remains a stirring anti-war statement.

Old Testament: Isaac & Abraham

Wilfred Owen: Parable of the Old Man & the Young

Leonard Cohen: Story Of Isaac – Isle of Wight 1970

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem

New Testament: Abraham