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Last night at San Francisco's The Chapel, Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) and many others (Christopher Owens for one) paid tribute to the dear departed poet/singer Leonard Cohen. I was not able to go - it sold out instantly, but here is a video from someone lucky enough to be there. And here's Christopher Owens...
Delaney & Bonnie and Friends were a popular touring band in 1969/1970, and their friends included Duane Allman, Gregg Allman, George Harrison, Leon Russell, Dave Mason, Rita Coolidge, and Eric Clapton. Bonnie Bramlett co-wrote this song with Leon Russell in 1969. Delaney Bramlett, Bonnie's then husband and musical partner, was originally credited as well, but it appears the bulk of the composition was by Bonnie and Leon. (I'm seeking clarification, as I've read articles that have said all three of them wrote it together, and others that said that only Leon and Bonnie, or only Leon and Delaney, composed the song.) She introduces the song here with part of Leon's "A Song For You" then launches into a long, torchy, emotional salute and send-off to her dear friend at his Tennessee memorial ceremony (there was another memorial service in Leon's hometown of Tulsa as well).
Over the course of his career, which began in his teens, Russell wrote enduring classics like “A Song for You,” “Superstar” and “Delta Lady,” served as part of the legendary “Wrecking Crew” collective of session musicians, collaborated with artists like George Harrison and Joe Cocker, released his own solo records and was inducted into the Rock and Roll and Songwriter Halls of Fame.
During the two-and-a-half hour service, friends—often through tears—sang and shared memories of Russell as a mentor and a musician without peer as well as a devoted family man who adored his wife and children.
“Leon was a pure and true genius,” said music executive Jim Halsey, one of the speakers. “Part of what he did was offer healing to the world (with his music).”
Steve Ripley, who worked with Russell for decades, smiled as he remembered his time as a monitor mixer for one of Russell’s tours in the late 1970s. One night, the star’s post-show feedback included a teasing nickname: “You’ll get it right someday, Mickey Monitor.”
“Leon Russell changed my life,” Claudia Lennear said after the service. Lennear, who flew in from Los Angeles to attend the service, was one of Russell’s Shelter People. She sang with him on his 1971 live album, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour and George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. “Leon and the influence he’s had on me …has just been the fabric of my life since the '70s, and something I will always cherish, will always remember, and will eternally be grateful to Leon for his wonderful music, his great leadership…I can only say ‘thank God for Leon Russell,’ and may he rest in peace.”
A number of artists who could not be present, including Bruce Hornsby, John Cowan and Jackie DeShannon, sent messages to be read aloud at the service. Elton John’s letter paid tribute to the man he first admired, then collaborated and toured with: “I can’t imagine a world without Leon’s music…He was everything I wanted to be as a pianist, vocalist and writer.”
Another memorial service will be held for Russell, an Oklahoma native, on Sunday in Tulsa.
“Dear Uncle Leonard,” the email from the boy began. “Did anything inspire you to create ‘Hallelujah’”? Later that same winter day the reply arrived: “I wanted to stand with those who clearly see G-d’s holy broken world for what it is, and still find the courage or the heart to praise it. You don’t always get what you want. You’re not always up for the challenge. But in this case — it was given to me. For which I am deeply grateful.”
The question came from my son, who was preparing to present the most irresistible hymn of our time to his fifth-grade class and required a clarification about its meaning. The answer came from the author of the song, who was for 25 years my precious friend and comrade of the spirit. Leonard Cohen was the most beautiful man I have ever known.
His company was quickening in every way. The elegance and the seductiveness were the least of it. The example of his poise was overwhelming, more an achievement than a disposition, and much more than an affair of style.
He lived in a weather of wisdom, which he created by seeking it rather than by finding it. He swam in beauty, because in its transience he aspired to discern a glimpse of eternity: There was always a trace of philosophy in his sensuality. He managed to combine a sense of absurdity with a sense of significance, a genuine feat. He was hospitable and strict, sweet and deep, humble and grand, probing and tender, a friend of melancholy but an enemy of gloom, a voluptuary with religion, a renegade enamored of tradition.
Leonard was, above all, in his music and in his poems and in his tone of life, the lyrical advocate of the finite and the flawed. As he wrote to my son, who was mercifully too young to understand, he was possessed by a lasting sensation of brokenness. He was broken, love was broken, the world was broken.
But “Famous Blue Raincoat” notwithstanding, this was not the usual literary abjection, or any sort of bargain-basement Baudelaireanism. Leonard’s reputation for bleakness is very imprecise. His work documents a long and successful war with despair. “I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair/ With a love so vast and shattered it will reach you everywhere.” The shattering of love has the effect of proliferating it.
Leonard had an unusual inflection for darkness: He found in it an occasion for uplift. His work is animated by a laudatory impulse, an unexpected and profoundly moving hunger to praise the world in full view of it. His attitude of acceptance was not founded on anything as cheap as happiness.
Leonard sang always as a sinner. He refused to describe sin as a failure or a disqualification. Sin was a condition of creatureliness, and his feeling for our creatureliness was boundless. “Even though it all went wrong/ I’ll stand before the Lord of song/ With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!”
The singer’s faults do not expel him from the divine presence. Instead they confer a mortal integrity upon his exclamation of praise. He is the inadequate man, the lowly man, the hurt man who has given hurt, insisting modestly but stubbornly (except in “I’m Your Man,” when he merrily mocked himself) upon his right to a sacred exaltation.
Leonard wrote and sung often about God, but I am not sure what he meant by it. Whatever it was, it inspired “If It Be Your Will,” his most exquisite song. He sought recognition for his fallenness, not rescue from it. “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” He once told an interviewer that those words were the closest he came to a credo. The teaching could not be more plain: fix the crack, lose the light.
All this gave Leonard’s laughter an uncommon credibility. He put punch lines into some of his most lugubrious songs. He delighted in expressing serious notions in comically homely ways. (On ephemerality, from an unreleased early version of a song: “They oughta hand the night a ticket/ for speeding. It’s a crime.”) We laughed all the time. At the small wooden table in his kitchen the jokes flew, usually as he prepared a meal. While he was genuinely in earnest about the pursuit of truth, Leonard had a supremely unsanctimonious temperament. Whether or not darkness was to be relieved by light, it was to be relieved by lightness. Before Passover, which commemorates the biblical exodus, he sent this: “Dear bro, happy Pesach. I miss Egypt! Love and blessings, Eliezer.” Before Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah in the desert, he sent this: “Dear bro, See you at Sinai. I’ll be wearing headphones! Love and blessings, Eliezer.” The laughter of the disabused was yet another of his gifts.
Eliezer was his Hebrew name. We sometimes read and studied together, Lorca and midrash and Eluard and Buddhist scriptures and Cavafy. We could get quite Talmudic, especially with wine. In Judaism there is a custom to honor the dead by pondering a text in their memory. Here, in memory of Eliezer ben Nisan ha’Cohen, is a passage on frivolity by a great rabbi in Prague at the end of the 16th century. “Man was born for toil, since his perfection is always being actualized but is never actual,” he observed in an essay on frivolity. “And insofar as he attains perfection, something is missing in him.
In such a being, perfection is a shortcoming and a lack.” Leonard Cohen was the poet laureate of the lack, the psalmist of the privation, who made imperfection gorgeous.
Correction: November 16, 2016
An Op-Ed article on Monday about the death of Leonard Cohen rendered Mr. Cohen’s Hebrew name incorrectly. It is Eliezer ben Nisan ha’Cohen, not Eliezer ben Natan ha’Cohen. It also misstated the title of a Cohen song. It is “I’m Your Man,” not “I’m in Your Man.”