King David was Leonard Cohen’s most influential artistic ancestor. As the supposed author of the Book of Psalms, David wrote poetry that was meant to be sung. And not just any poetry, but poetry that commingled two sorts of deep longing, one for women and one for God. Leonard Cohen saw King David as the first and most important model of what he wanted to do. Leonard Cohen, that is, is best understood as a psalmist.
It is no wonder then that Cohen’s most famous song, “Hallelujah,” begins with David playing his secret chord to God. David’s is a Biblical story of lust leading the King (in the Bible, though not in the song) to arrange for the death of the husband of the woman he desires. Cohen’s song combines a praise of God with very explicit sexual references.
If we think of Cohen as a psalmist like David, we can understand his focus on both the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the sexual, in his songs. And we also understand the impetus to get the words exactly right. Cohen reportedly sometimes took years to get every word and phrase the way he wanted it. As a psalmist, he was writing for and to God and so offhand efforts were blasphemous. (There were also practical reasons for such precision: he was proud of his language and he knew he would have to sing the song for a long while and wanted to feel it was the best he could do).
The practical side of him was important. Cohen was no fool. He worked and wanted success in an industry feeding on an audience’s endless hunger for songs about desire, true love, romantic longing, and painful loss. It made no sense to isolate questions of spirituality. His songs use the spiritual as a flavoring, but the focus, for the audience at least, was most frequently on the romantic. He kept his own spiritual experiences and beliefs private.
And yet the spiritual resources he drew upon for his songs were plentiful. He found in Jewish, Christian, Sufi, and Buddhist traditions, among others, an enriching way of understanding a path to embracing the transcendent. It should be emphasized that Cohen didn’t shed one religion for another. Even as he stayed in a Rinzai Zen monastery, he continued to identify as a Jew.
He was a Jew who tried on different spiritual garments. He drew from a variety of different Jewish sources. Some songs, such as “The Story of Isaac,” come from the Bible. Some songs come from Jewish liturgy. “Who By Fire” is adapted from Unetanneh Tokef, the central prayer of the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “Dance Me to the End of Love” was inspired by a story Cohen read about involving Jewish concentration camp inmates who continued to play music despite the horrors of their lives. Cohen wrote “Lover, Lover, Lover” (also known as “Lover Come Back to Me”) when he performed for Israeli troops during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. After that war, Cohen said, “I’ve never disguised the fact that I’m Jewish, and in any crisis in Israel I would be there. I am committed to the survival of the Jewish people.”
He absorbed a desperation from Jewish history, but a hope as well, a belief, as he put it, that there was a crack even in despair and in that crack some light could enter. He wrote until the end. His last album, only the fourteenth of his career, was titled “You Want it Darker.” It was an album of resignation in both senses of the word. He was ready to resign from life, but he was resigned to his fate. “Hineni” [in English "here I am"] he calls out to God. He announces his readiness to meet the Almighty.
The Bible records 150 psalms by King David. And now we have Leonard Cohen’s psalms in the Tower of Song. Both sets of psalms bring us peace, beauty, a sense that we will survive through the pain, and that we can, if we wish, hear the still, small voice of God.