I can feel it when you breathe: SJD, Samuel Flynn Scott and Bill Manhire on Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen has died. Sean Donnelly, Samuel Flynn Scott and Bill Manhire reflect on his music and life.

I stepped into an avalanche
It covered up my soul

In trying to write something about ‘Avalanche’, I’m listening to it and, again, I’m just floored by it.

As a songwriter, I want to ask him which came first: The sinister ur-melody that nags at his vocal chords? The words? Calling up a dark personage whose side you strike “by accident as you go down for your gold”. Maybe words and tune arrived together, awoken by the flickering steel-string arpeggio and blackly bittersweet chord progression. Who is this character? A god or some kind of devil? Some human wreckage crushed under the weight of spiritual pride or grandiosity – “the pedestal / for this ugly hump at which you stare”.

Your pain is no credential here
It’s just the shadow, shadow of my wound

It’s a song I’d always known was there, even before I heard it.  Like a worrying lump under the skin. Inside its black record sleeve, patiently waiting. And once heard, never unheard….putting me in my place again and again.

Tensions and contradictions. His voice, guttural and aggrieved, self-important bu  t relentlessly deprecating, desperate yet majestic, clawing at the air.  The melody simple and ancient but made strange as a carrier for an eternity of stored rage and longing. This is before Leonard found the effortlessly low notes of his latter career. He’s still digging downwards and torturing his larynx on the way.

You who wish to conquer pain
You must learn, learn to serve me well

As with all early-Leonard, the arrangement kills me every time. The slowly crescendo-ing strings, dawning on me with every twist of the knife. Leonard’s gypsy guitar ‘chop’, all angst, all tension – snapping at the bass string as he admonishes the penitent “do not dress in those rags for me/ I know that you are not poor”.  These minimal elements conspire to paint a universe of dark order, beyond chaos, beyond beauty or ugliness.

In this single cut, Leonard proves himself the greatest of all songwriters.  Once again, he proves himself the greatest of all songwriters.

You say you’ve gone away from me
But I can feel you when you breathe….

– Sean Donnelly, SJD


Leonard Cohen is poet, an actual poet, and a novelist, and a charmer. His lyrics are so good that he’s been able to fly quite free musically in his own subtle way. I’m Your Man is the album that really influenced us. The sinister MIDI seemed so out of date in 2002 (or whenever it was that Luke first played me this relic of the 80s) and that out of date feeling was so warm and comforting and arty. Now it sounds thoroughly contemporary, of course, but imagine how confused the folkies would have been when this came out. Forget about Dylan going electric in the 60s, Cohen going midi that is the revolution. ‘Jazz Police’ is a trip. I doubt the world will ever see again such a talented, handsome, Jewish-Buddhist, Canadian poet ever again.

– Samuel Flynn Scott, The Phoenix Foundation

Buddhist Rain

The captain switches on the seatbelt sign:
I think that means we’re flying.
The turbulence feels quite insane:
the cabin crew are crying.
And clouds are piling up again.
I’m going to find some Buddhist rain.

It’s falling on Elizabeth
It’s falling on Elaine
It’s falling in the lover’s heart
and other dark terrain

I’m walking to the temple
to find some Buddhist rain

Be near me when my light is low
And all the wheels of Being slow
Be near me when my light is low

I closed up my umbrella
and stood there in the rain
I told her that I loved her
She told me much the same

And Buddhist rain is falling now
in Africa and Spain
It’s falling in the silences
that reason can’t explain

It fell on Alfred Tennyson
It fell on Kubla Khan
and Buddhist rain is falling now
on Leonard Norman Cohen

Be near me when my light is low
And all the wheels of Being slow
Be near me when my light is low

I’m pouring out my life to you
I’m pouring out champagne
I’m pouring out my misery
in the Buddhist rain

I’m walking to the temple
I’m walking there again
I’m coming down by parachute
in the Buddhist rain

 – Bill Manhire

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