Tag Archives: leonard cohen

The Venus Flytrap: Dancing To The End Of Love

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When Leonard Cohen, whose legacy will probably live forever, died last week, public mourning was more withdrawn than usual. Perhaps it had to do with all the other news of that week, and how the luxury of emotional reactions seemed futile against humanity’s folly. So people shared songs without musings. And goodbyes without eulogies about when they first heard hello. But even if he had passed away in less fraught a week, these responses may have been the same. His lyrics had a way of saying everything necessary, at once personal and all-encompassing.

Leonard Cohen’s words often found us in intimate moments, or more precisely, led us to them – gently swinging the door open for intimacy to wander in and close it promisingly behind her. I thought over the songs that had imprinted themselves on the corridors of my memory and blushed. There were rooms in low light, there were roofs in moonlight, there were regrets turned rosy by what that poet’s baritone made us believe. There were reasons. And there was no reason to reveal them.

There were other kinds of poignancies too. A new friend with whom “Suzanne” was drunkenly sung, still demurely seated at a just-cleared lunch table in Calicut, who passed away not long after and who the song now always reminds me of. But I can’t write about him without feeling that it would anger the old friend, who is no longer one, the one who he actually belonged to.

But like songs, or like secrets, does anything ever only belong to one person alone? The answer is yes, but only that which rests on a palm, not inside a fist.

There will be many people who know only one song of Cohen’s, and they know it in someone else’s voice. They know it from Jeff Buckley’s dulcet rendition or they know it from Shrek (or one of the hundred and one TV shows or films that elevated any scene at all through “Hallelujah” alone). And to them, I say: there’s so much more. Begin with the ones that feel like you’ve heard them somewhere (you have), but maybe weren’t listening as intently then: “Famous Blue Raincoat”, “Bird On A Wire”, “Dance Me To The End Of Love.”

And then – if you’re still interested – find my rare favourite, “The Gypsy’s Wife”, with the wild woman, the Salome-Kali dancing with a decapitated head on the threshing floor in the liminality between light and dark. Go further – chase Cohen’s words from the audial to the page. Read his poems. Read his novel, Beautiful Losers, on the Native Canadian saint Katherine Tekatwitha, one of the last things he authored before a nervous breakdown led him to realise he needed to move towards the stage.

Go talk to someone else who loved his work so much they ruined some of his songs for themselves by giving them away, and this is what you’ll learn: still, because they are simply too beautiful to not share, they’ll give them away again. That’s Cohen for you: a spiritualist who knew that transcendence was not in renouncing the world, but in taking its hand, reading its open palm.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 17th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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The Venus Flytrap: Unsentimental Fool

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Sometime last year, after a lifetime of oversensitivity and a positively medieval sense of the tragic, I thought I had finally become unsentimental. Which meant, in optimistic terms, that my days of weeping in restaurants might finally have been put behind me. I was quite relieved about this. I had spoiled a lot of mascara crying over spilt milk.

I thought I had become unsentimental about, for instance, Leonard Cohen, the artist formerly known as my downfall. So what was I doing at four in the morning, at the end of December, riffling through page after page of Agha Shahid Ali’s collected works to correctly source the poem from which the line that had haunted me all that day had come from – just so I could put it in a letter? And not even a real letter, the kind that sensible people write in order to communicate, but one of those hopelessly twee things I’ve called a postcard: a poem not even sent to its intended, but left in the open (because actual communication would be, you know, too much for the nervous system).

I thought I was over Cohen, but he was in my subliminal impulses, as every thing that ever crosses one’s way becomes. And there I was, having perfectly internalized his mythology, playing it out without a thought.

In any case, I could not find the line anywhere in the book. “I’ve seen how things/ that seek their way find their void instead”. I fell asleep to the realization it wasn’t at all from Ali, but from Federico Garcia Lorca, a hero both of mine and – incidentally – Cohen’s. Fitting, considering that my new year’s resolution is to fully inculcate my complete demonic self, demonic the way Lorca meant it, which is to say – not so much to consume with a mad passion, but to once again also let myself be consumed, be possessed, to stop standing in the way of life, and love, and ferocious intensity.

Which, as you might correctly surmise, might just be a noble way of saying “start crying again in restaurants, if you like”. But it goes a little further than that. What I’ve learnt from my period of emotional austerity is that yes, unsentimentality is a survival mechanism and its opposite (intensity) is a choice – but to choose to live deeply doesn’t mean to choose to live without discretion. Too much contrived emotion only results in not knowing the difference between god and chemical – every sensation inducible, and hence inauthentic.

Maybe you’ll find what I say next more diffident than demonic, but I’ll say it anyway. Today I bought a gramophone, an impulse acquisition, right off the side of a street. An unthinkably romantic purchase if there ever was one, and one I would never have made ever before. I have neither vinyl nor space for décor – and for the longest time, too much drama about anything resembling a symbolic commitment. I have, however, finally found the space in my life again for a little tenderness, a little twinkling; and enough lines in my head, and enough groove in my body, to provide the music and lyrics – but only the kind that comes of its own volition, not the kind that’s just blank noise interfering in a dense, deliciously loaded silence.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: The Immortal Fallout

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When Eric Maschwitz wrote “These Foolish Things” in 1935, he did so after parting with the actress Anna May Wong – she whose ghost it is that clings in the song’s most affecting lyric. In the dozens of times it has been covered by various artists since, and the millions of lingering memories it’s been on the soundtrack to, the phantoms it invokes have surely multiplied. Still, each time I listen to it (my preference is for Nat King Cole’s crisp cadence), I also remember Maschwitz and Wong, though mostly Maschwitz, possessed by a yearning so consuming it had to be written down. Oh how the ghost of you clings.

Love and heartbreak are the Siamese twin muses for much artistic work, inextricably linked, but even at their most shattering, the works are only byproducts to the fact. The immortal fallout, if you will. If the power of their own work could save them, artists might not have, or obey, such self-destructive impulses (ah, but would they create what they do if they didn’t follow those impulses? A question for another time).

Something about the stories behind songs beguiles me. Pop music doesn’t do anything for me because its lyrics are impersonal, written for mass consumption and therefore with the lowest common denominator in mind. I like music steeped in narcissistic soul-searching and that actually completely universal belief that one’s pain is of a magnitude previously unknown to humankind (I also, if it isn’t obvious, like pain). When the rare pop song does attract my attention, I look up its writer. It was little surprise, for instance, to discover that the aching “Beautiful Disaster”, sung by American Idol Kelly Clarkson, was penned by the singer-songwriter Rebekah, who was briefly notable in the mid-90s.

It has to ring true. When Lhasa de Sela belts out he venido al desierto pa’reirme de tu amor – that she’s gone to the desert to laugh at your love – I believe her. It’s important to me that she can be believed. Experience counts. You can fatten up your work to sound like you know what you’re talking about, but experience is the spine.

Reading Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers, I kept thinking about that most haunting of his songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat”. Like the song’s sleepless letter-writer, its protagonist is tortured by a triangle involving himself, his woman, and a man beloved enough to call brother. The book draped a new layer over my history with the song, and this was both illuminating and unsettling, because it fragmented and realigned some understanding I must have had in my head of what it was about. It changed its pathos, neither for better nor worse. I myself read Cohen because it is his songs that punctuate the landscape of my life; Leonard Cohen is my downfall, or at least, I hold him personally responsible for several of mine.

It’s these downfalls, of course, that inspire my own work. And like the vast majority of artists I fill my life with, the confessional is my instrument. Still, my writing is incidental, not fundamental. Life is more important than its recording. But caught in the act of creating, neither what happens to me nor to the work afterwards are of any consequence. Though sometimes, I’ll grant you this, there are.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Mr. Cohen, I Hope You Live Forever

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Please don’t bother reading this if you are irritated by mad self-indulgence. Actually, you shouldn’t be at this blog at all in that case, so goodbye!

When I was 19, someone I was furious at played me Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man”, and said, “This song is for you.” That was how it began, this blessed affair with the man who was born like that, he had no choice, he was the man who was born with the gift of that golden voice.

Years later, all I remember of that first listen is of being in a room lit in yellow, suddenly aware of something profound lighting up within myself. And then I heard the Cohen Live version of “Hallelujah”. The rest — the poems, the other songs — I didn’t need anyone to introduce to me. I was already initiated. I would find them myself.

I was supposed to have a book published by the end of this month. Like Cohen, I think now, it would have been my first book, released when I was 22.

Some of you know that a crisis that I described as one to do with funding affected this intention. Well, it was funding. But it hit deeper, too. To have the carpet pulled from beneath my feet by a person who seemed to have more vision than I did hit my own vision, hard. A multitude of questions emerged, everything from my ambivalence about the project to its fate. Questions difficult to answer, questions I tried to mollify with statements like “I am just more interested in the process than the project, I suppose.”

I spent some weeks wandering in an existential angst I had never, ever known — a lack of passion. I’m still there, still finding my way out as I try to ascertain how I found my way in in the first place. I began to wonder if I even deserve a book (deserve with all the dramatics). I watched Schnabel’s Basquiat and Before Night Falls back to back, films about extraordinary men, their eternal art, and their short lives. The second one devastated me so much I haven’t been able to watch anything else properly since. Would I, like Reinaldo Arenas, go to prison for my writing, go into exile for it, die for it, I asked myself? Before anyone pipes up and invokes any political scandals I’ve found myself in in the past, let me just say my answer was NO. Then I read this. And realised that also NO — I have no pig in my panties. Not anymore. And then, I heard from the editor of an anthology an essay of mine had been accepted to five years ago, but had never seen the light of day. A new publisher had expressed interest. I re-read that piece, and knew immediately that I had to withdraw it from the collection. I could no longer stand by it. Is that how I will feel about Witchcraft, later? I wondered. Already, I can’t look at some of the poems anymore. Already, I know they are in there because other people love them, because I have a career because of them. But I am a million miles away.

I was no longer on speaking terms with the most passionate person I had ever met — myself.

There’s something I didn’t tell you — I am a very lucky girl.

The funding got sorted out. With the exception of one person, everyone who was behind me has stayed behind me. I have more creative freedom than most people have. I can have a book. A book. Something I’ve wanted, worked toward, assumed would always be mine, since I was seven years old. But only If I want it.

So the only reasons there is no book are purely internal circumstances.

As I write this now, I wonder if I should publish this post at all. Or if I will publish it, then delete it. If I should just email confidantes instead. I am so uncertain about a blog post — can you imagine how much trepidation I feel about my book?

But back to Cohen.

Inspired by recent discussions, I went looking up his poems again. This one I had first heard as a recording, in his own voice, that was inexplicably tacked on to a Tori Amos song I was downloading. I share it only because it is beautiful.

I heard of a man
who says words so beautifully
that if he only speaks their name
women give themselves to him.

If I am dumb beside your body
while silence blossoms like tumors on our lips.
it is because I hear a man climb stairs and clear his throat outside the door.

I kept surfing links, looking over lyrics I already knew, reading anecdotes about the songs. Comparing two versions of “Hallelujah” made me realise, amazedly, that the writer behind the greatest English song in the world was never really happy with it.

If Leonard Cohen has second thoughts, I am perfectly, perfectly entitled to mine.

And then I read this. I’m sorry to look at this so materialistically, but if Leonard Cohen had an evil manager cheat him financially, well into the late stages of his universally-acclaimed career, then the fact that it had happened to me isn’t really that big a deal.

Thank you, Leo. You may not be God, but you are surely a member of the pantheon.

All this while I have been waiting for the voodoo, knowing very well by now that the voodoo is always there, it’s just that I’m not letting myself feel it. I’m not saying I own it yet. I’m just saying that, like the fog-basking Namibian beetle (look, I am not stoned, I’m just short on metaphors, and I had to edit something about this amazing creature at work recently), I’m going to start aligning to the wind.

The Venus Flytrap: Infidelity Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

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Infidelity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The lines we draw and how we negotiate them are all that varies between who we think we are and what we could be capable of. We are all that person.

What wounds me most may be nothing to you; what devastates you may be a mere trifle to me. The trick lies somewhere between hopscotching around the bare nerves in the battlefield of relationships and pretending they don’t exist, or subverting them altogether.

The old rules didn’t work. Women wept, men slept (around). No one asked, no one told. But no one needs that anymore. We are each more independent as individuals today than we have been throughout civilization. Nothing high-maintenance makes it, only that which is straightforward and obvious in its function survives. The single exception to this rule is love.

But what constitutes cheating? It varies from couple to couple, from context to context. The man in the sexless marriage who stays with his wife for the sake of his child but keeps a bachelor pad is no worse than the woman who claims eternal devotion to her boyfriend but has intense emotional affairs with other people. The loving gay couple with the everything-but-the-kiss rule may be truer and more loyal to one another than the anything-but-the-physical rule so many relationships abide by.

Our moral spectrums are like rubber bands. We believe they hold things together, but it shocks us how much they can accommodate. Circumstance and opportunity bend us, reshape us, twist up all we know of ourselves and deliver us – changed but wholly the same.

And yes, we have all seen it – the way the heart shatters, the jealousy, the rumours, the tragedy. We’ve had it done to us, we’ve watched it unfold its heartbreak within our families and the lives of our friends. We believe it is the worst thing anyone could do, a crime against love, the deadliest sin. And then we do.

And then know, in a way we never knew before, a way in which we never dared to know ourselves before: loyalty is not about what one does with one’s body. It’s about what one does with one’s mind.

Once, I knew a man who thought he could believe in an open relationship only in theory, never in practice. Once, I knew a woman who thought she would never be with anyone but him. Today they live in separate countries, and she is Leonard Cohen’s Gypsy Wife. And who he is, whether he too climbs the table in that dark, dangerous café, or remains on the threshing floor with an arm raised for the bride’s bouquet, she does not dare to ask now.

And so what? If that to them is the only way they know how to love (themselves, one another, others), then leave them to it. I’m with the writer Lisa Carver on this one: “We need the guilt, the mystery, the corrosion of our heart and its rebirth.” I can’t speak for the man I once knew, but I know his gypsy wife does.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.