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  • Writer's pictureDr. Lloyd

Leonard Cohen – A Journey, A Song

A documentary review by Dr. Lloyd Sederer

Source: Official Leonard Cohen Website

For a spiritual journey follow your sense of God.

But if you have left behind a religious affiliation or otherwise cannot find or reach God, what’s to be done?

Fewer than half of U.S. adults today say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, a dramatic diminution in religious affiliation among all age groups, with Catholics showing the greatest decline (76% twenty years ago, 63 % today). *

“But … the decline of churches and denominations and the

rise of deinstitutionalized spirituality — means that more and more religious lives are lived in between worldviews, in experimental territory…{without} coherence…” **

You are not alone if you are without markers on your spiritual journey, as I am as well. So look for messengers from an inexplicable cosmos, like the one movingly depicted in Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Life (streaming on Netflix).

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) was born into an orthodox and prosperous Jewish family in Montreal, Canada. His travels in search of meaning and grace emerge in his, if cryptic, extraordinary poetic songwriting and singing. Globally, he was honored by induction into the Canadian Music, the Canadian Songwriters and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

His formative years with his family etched Judaism into his life, which he lived as an observant Jew, raising his children in the faith, and upon his death he was buried in the Jewish tradition. Cohen described his graduate education at McGill Law School and the Columbia University School of General Studies, as "passion without flesh, love without climax" (Nadel, Ira Bruce (1996). Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen. Toronto: Random House. p. 51). Which is to say his intent to explore and live a life of desire and sexual passion was well on its way.

Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song is great tribute to his arduous artistry. In a short scene in the film, he is talking with an older Bob Dylan (who was singing some of Cohen’s songs in his concerts) who asks him how long it took for Cohen to write his signature creation, Hallelujah? Cohen replied, “several years”, not wanting to admit to the five? seven? he spent crafting the song. He asked Dylan, in turn, how long it took him to write a song? His teasing reply was “15 minutes”.

Ratso (Larry) Sloman, a Rolling Stone reporter who chronicled different times in Cohen’s life, said that Cohen had written “maybe 80, 180” verses for Hallelujah. When the documentary portrays Cohen’s innumerable notebooks brimming with scrawled verses you believe it.

The song has two versions, biblical and secular. The first version’s lyrics begin with, “I heard there was a secret chord That David Played and it pleased the Lord”. In Hebrew, Hallelujah means “Praise The Lord”. The latter version, which changes the first three verses and retains the fourth, was ‘scrubbed’ of anything that might alarm a prim adult or a child and was popularized by a scene in the film, yes, Shrek. This 2-hour documentary uses Hallelujah as its lens and arc, taking us through Cohen’s creative orbit that leaves an indelible place in our soul, while making room for many of his other heavenly and dark songs, like Suzanne, So Long, Marianne, and Bird On A Wire.

Watching Leonard Cohen perform his music feels like being in a temple suffused with sublime music, as you will see if you view this film. New York Times critic A. O. Scott wrote that "Cohen wasn't one to offer comfort. His gift as a songwriter and performer was rather to provide commentary and companionship amid the gloom…". (NYT, June 22, 2022)

In time, Cohen’s spiritual search brought him to Buddhism, which can co-exist with Judaism. He spent extensive time over three decades in silence and meditation at a California Zen Buddhist Monastery on Mount Baldy, under the Master Sasaki Roshi. Cohen’s Judaism must have wanted for yet another path to the heavens.

When Cohen was 70, at the "foothills of old age” and having amassed a great deal of money, he lost about all of it to his manager, who swindled him, leaving no savings that would have made for financial security in his dotage. He picked up his pen and notebook which, once again, flourished with creativity. He went on World Tour for 16 months, playing sets that lasted 2 ½ hours. He wrote and sang many a new albums until shortly before his death at 82.

As this documentary’s cover photo depicts, when performing Leonard Cohen always wore a hat. A fedora. So long, Leonard Cohen, Hats Off To You.


* Gallup Poll, Jones, J, US Church Membership falls below majority for first time, March 29, 2021

**Ross Douthat, NYT Op-Ed, 2.1.2023


Dr. Lloyd Sederer is a psychiatrist, public health doctor and non-fiction writer.

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