Speech at the Unveiling of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Made of Athy’ plaque
Kildare Centre for the Unemployed, Athy, Thursday, 2 May 2019
It is a real pleasure to be here today for the unveiling of this plaque dedicated to Leonard Cohen, an artist who has left a profound footprint on our musical landscape, and on the tradition of song, and is without doubt one of the finest examples of the poet songwriter in the history of contemporary music.
May I first congratulate Colm Walsh and the team behind the Made of Athy initiative, which is such a strong and contemporary example of Irish community-led activism, celebrating, as it does, people who have links to the town and who have achieved international acclaim in the music industry. The project celebrates the sense of place in the town, the sense of community and, as many of the recipients of the awards can attest, a sense of belonging. It is one of the primary human needs to have a feeling of belonging, of connectedness, and the social cohesion that this makes possible is of tremendous benefit to wider society.
Leonard Cohen’s link to the town of Athy in particular is through his collaboration with Kildare award-winning writer John MacKenna on the script for the requiem, Between Your Love and Mine, which uses Cohen’s songs, words and poems. It was inspired, in particular, by his hope-filled lines:
“Behold the gates of mercy, in arbitrary space, and none of us deserving the cruelty or the grace, o solitude of longing where love has been confined, come healing of the body, come healing of the mind.”
Poignantly, Cohen approved the final draft just two weeks before his death in November 2016.
I had the privilege of being among the first to view the requiem when it premiered at the George Bernard Shaw Theatre in Carlow in 2017, while the requiem of course was also performed in Áras an Uachtaráin two years ago for Culture Night.
Thematically, Leonard Cohen’s work explored spirituality, politics, social justice, isolation and romantic relationships; his lyrics expound universal human emotions which explains how he commands the attention of critics and musicians, both young and old, more firmly than perhaps any other musical figure from the 1960s who continued to work in the 21st century.
He managed to capture not just feelings of loneliness and loss, but also the very essence of human life and the human condition. Cohen reminded us that popular music does not have to be made amenable to the lowest common denominator, but rather can be resolutely intellectual, subversive and transcendental.
The Academy of American Poets have commented more broadly on the significance of Leonard Cohen’s work, stating that Cohen’s mastery lies in his successful blending of poetry, fiction, and music, elucidating:
“while it may seem to some that Leonard Cohen departed from the literary in pursuit of the musical, his fans continue to embrace him as a Renaissance man who straddles the elusive artistic borderlines.”
Bob Dylan – another musical maverick of similar social, political and cultural standing – is an admirer and has described Cohen as “the ‘number one’ songwriter of their time”. He correctly identifies how Cohen’s melodies often embodied a celestial character, with chord progressions that are classical in shape.
However, it is Cohen’s words for which he is, perhaps, most loved.
Thar na blianta agus ceithre albaim déag de cheol den scoth, d’fhill sé ar téamaí eitice, polaitíochta, agus ar ceartas sóisialta ina shaothar, agus tá sé suntasach go bhfuil na téamaí seo níos ceannasaí sna h-amhráin a chum sé ag deireadh a shaoil.
What is interesting, however, is that, despite his melancholic lyrics and sombre vocal delivery, Cohen remained an idealist and even a self-confessed “closet optimist”, believing in the power of an ethical, enlightened and progressive society. I think of his lines,
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That is how the light gets in”.
In the song “Democracy”, he both acknowledges political problems but also celebrates the hopes of reformers:
“From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA.”
He made the observation in “Tower of Song” that “the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor/ And there’s a mighty judgement coming.”
In the title track of The Future, his 1992 studio recording, he recasts this prophecy on a pacifist note: “I’ve seen the nations rise and fall/ ... / But love’s the only engine of survival.”
Of particular resonance in light of the recent tragic events in Derry, Sri Lanka and New Zealand is his composition “Villanelle for Our Time”, in which there is an allusion to people coming together in the aftermath of tragedy to repudiate violence in an attempt to create a better future:
“From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain,
We rise to play a greater part.
This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again (…)
We rise to play a greater part
Reshaping narrow law and art,
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part.”
Cohen remained fascinated by the human condition and human relationships, and commented, “It is a beautiful thing for us to be so deeply interested in each other”. However, even when dealing with matters concerning human relationships and sexuality, Cohen often added layers of complexity and meaning. Deeply moved by encounters with Israeli and Arab soldiers, he wrote the song “Lover Lover Lover” which can be interpreted as a personal renunciation of armed conflict, and ends with the hope that his song will serve a listener as “a shield against the enemy”.
Cohen’s crafted, powerful and emotionally resonant lyrics are often at odds with the sometimes-vacuous nature of lyrics in popular music. In more recent years, Cohen commented that he sees his music as providing a “manual for defeat”: “I think the ‘manual for defeat’ is to first of all acknowledge that everyone suffers, that everyone is engaged in a mighty struggle for self-respect, for meaning, for significance. I think the first step would be to recognise that your struggle is the same as everyone else’s struggle, and that your suffering is the same as everyone else’s suffering... Unless we recognise that each of us suffer in the same way, there’s no possible solution, political or social or spiritual. So that would be the beginning, the recognition that we all suffer.”
Cohen’s music has touched many playwrights, not least John MacKenna, but also Bryden MacDonald who launched Sincerely, A Friend, a musical revue based on Cohen’s music in 1991.
Made of Athy reminds us of how music is profoundly interwoven into the fabric of Irish life, and has been since the very dawn of Irish culture. I welcome that well-known names including Johnny Cash, Johnny Marr of The Smiths, and traditional Irish musician Liam Óg O’Flynn have been recognised over the last number of months through Made of Athy.
There is no doubt that Leonard Cohen has left a truly lasting legacy and his large body of poetry, songs and prose will continue to inspire current and future generations.
As anyone who had the good fortune to have been present at one of Cohen’s many late-career performances he gave in Ireland over the last decade, the mutual affection and bond between audience and artist, the grace within which he introduced his fellow performers, was both demonstrative and palpable. His work with writer John MacKenna has now reinforced his place in Irish music and culture, and it is fitting and correct that we should honour this great man of words with a plaque in his honour.
May I conclude by thanking and commending the Made of Athy team for this undertaking, and for creating this most attractive plaque which we unveil here today, a fitting tribute to the man. I would also like to congratulate John MacKenna once more for his collaborative efforts with Mr Cohen and for producing such a fine script for the requiem.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir.