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How Leonard Cohen found duende

Anita Roy | Updated on January 15, 2018 Published on November 18, 2016

Deep dives: By the end of Leonard Cohen’s life, the darkness of defeat had been transformed into a deeper darkness—an embrace of the mystery of this mortal life Photo: Reuters

Anita Roy   -  BUSINESS LINE

The late singer and poet had a deep affinity for Federico Garcia Lorca and a certain heightened spiritual state that the Spanish poet had written about

I didn’t realise he was dying. That unmistakable voice, alchemical mix of growl and sigh and prayer, had for so many years sounded like a man heading that way, I shouldn’t have been surprised when, a few days back, the news came in that Leonard Cohen was dead.

His final album, You Want it Darker, was released three weeks previously, and I’d been listening to that lush chiaroscuro title track. I’d also been reading his 2006 collection of poetry and drawings, Book of Longing, and listening to an older, much-loved track, ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’:

The ponies run, the girls are young

The odds are there to beat.

You win a while and then it’s done

Your little winning streak.

And summoned now to deal

With your invincible defeat,

You live your life as if it’s real,

A thousand kisses deep

The ultimate invincible defeat of death? What he called his “deep association and confraternity” with Federico Garcia Lorca led me to reread a speech given by the poet in Buenos Aires in 1933 — the year before Cohen was born. In it he struggles to articulate what is meant by duende. A Spanish term, profoundly connected to flamenco music and dance, it is variously translated as ‘the spirit of evocation’, of ‘having soul’, a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity, or the mysterious power of art to deeply move a person. “I have heard an old guitarist master say: ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende surges up from the soles of the feet.’” Lorca calls it, “This ‘mysterious power that everyone feels but that no philosopher has explained’ is in fact the spirit of the earth.”

Addressing an enraptured and august audience in 2011, Cohen delivered an acceptance speech for the Prince of Asturias prize for literature, in which he acknowledged the profound debt of gratitude to Spain. “Everything you have found favourable in my work comes from this place. Everything that you have found favourable in my songs and my poetry are inspired by this soil.”

He spoke of the fragrance of his guitar — a Hernandos Conte fashioned from the cedar wood that grew there — and of its helium lightness. He spoke of the young flamenco guitarist who taught him his first few clumsy chords, the foundation upon which he built his tower of song. And he spoke of Lorca, who gave him “permission to find a voice, to locate a voice, (...) to locate a self: a self that is not fixed, a self that struggles for its own existence.”

Editor and translator Christopher Maurer identifies four elements in Lorca’s description of duende: “irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical.” Add a touch of sardonic wit, and that’s a fair description of Cohen’s oeuvre.

Lorca relates an occasion in a small bar in Cadiz when an Andalusian flamenco singer known as La Niña de los Peines, got up to sing. The passage reads like pure Cohen. “With her voice of shadow, with her voice of liquid metal, with her moss-covered voice and with her voice entangled in her long hair. She would soak her voice in manzanilla, or lose it in dark and distant thickets. Yet she failed completely.” Goaded by the audience’s sarcastic silence, La Niña “got up like a woman possessed, broken as a medieval mourner, drank without pause a large glass of cazalla, a fire-water brandy, and sat down to sing without voice, breathless, without subtlety, her throat burning but with duende. She succeeded in getting rid of the scaffolding of the song, to make way for a furious and fiery duende, companion of sand-laden winds, that made those who were listening tear their clothes rhythmically, like Caribbean Negroes clustered before the image of St Barbara.”

‘Getting rid of the scaffolding’ was a life-long project for Cohen. He spent almost 40 years with Buddhist monk Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, or Roshi, as he was known.

In his last recorded interview, with New Yorker writer David Remnick, Cohen describes his monastic life as a “bootcamp”. The aim of it all, he says with a gentle laugh, was “basically to get you to stop whining. It makes whining the least appropriate response to suffering.” Or, as he put it in his Asturias speech: “if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.”

When Remnick heard Cohen sing, in one of the concerts he gave after his long years of meditation and retreat, he didn’t quite tear off his clothes rhythmically — but only just. “I caught one of those concerts at Radio Hall and I must say it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” he says. “I’d always admired Cohen’s songs but I’d never been quite… swept away. The studio recordings especially sometimes seemed a little rinkydink in their rendition, too much synthesiser, not quite worthy of the songs. But that tour was a triumph. Leonard Cohen had an astonishing band now and his voice, his voice was as deep as the ocean.”

The darkness of defeat had been transformed, by the end of his life, into a deeper darkness — an embrace of the mystery of this mortal life; the “dark sound” that Lorca says is at the heart of duende “the roots thrusting into the fertile loam known to all of us, ignored by all of us, but from which we get what is real in art.”

You want it darker? Cohen asks us, in his final farewell, delivered with his signature dignity, grace and beauty: well, it is now.

Anita Roy is a writer, editor and publisher; www.anitaroy.net

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Published on November 18, 2016
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