The minor fall/the major lift

Ask a writer why she writes and she’s bound to say it has something to do with her love of the places reading has always taken her. Stories are what we live by. Great writers tell them in ways that move us with profound insights—not to mention unforgettable characters. Then there’s the music of words into phrases/phrases into sentences/sentences into paragraphs.

Maybe the music that infuses my day-to-day existence is a setup for some other vocation I’m intended for in a future life. Who knows?   In this life I have my CDs and LPs, playlists and radio to get me through each day. And my piano. Lately it’s one song I’m needing to have my fingers know by heart.img_0560

God knows it’s a song I’ve listened to more times than I can count—in all its glorious, aching, ultimately simple incarnations.


With the year just days from disappearing, the surreal results of the election are, alas, indelibly linked in my brain with Leonard Cohen’s death a day before and Kate McKinnon’s moving, brave Hillary-at-the-piano rendition of his song on SNL a few days later.


However many times it comes up in liturgy as an expression of joyful praise of God is no match for the understated power it takes on in Leonard Cohen’s hymn of longing and loss. I may hear more of the minor fall than the major lift when I listen, but how can I help smiling at his wry, deft touch?

There was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
Now you never show that to me, do you?

51gtdeoragl-_sx325_bo1204203200_The history of the song—the changes in lyrics by LC himself and other singing artists who have covered it—makes it all the more a hymn for the times in which we live. Alan Light’s The Holy or the Broken, a virtual ode to the song, is filled with illuminating tidbits: its musicality may have been the prime reason k.d. lang included it in Hymns of the 49th Parallel, but she came to see it as “a song for meditating, for pondering bigger issues, moral issues.”

The dust may never truly settle on how our presidential election played out, but as I sift through it, the anger at learning there was very serious foul play gives way to a very deep distress at something women of a certain age, like me, feel ever so acutely.

An accomplished, extremely bright woman loses out to an incompetent, boorish, completely unprepared boy for the most important job on the planet.

Why does this have echoes of an old high school scenario, even if the consequences are galaxies greater?

Princess Leia dies at 60, her mother a day later. Big fans, like my daughter, worry about what will happen to Carrie’s dog, with his famous tongue.640_debbie_reynolds_daughtercarrie-fisher-9

Prince is gone.

David Bowie is dead.

Sharon Jones. Leon Russell. Gwen Ifill.

Gloria Naylor. Elie Wiesel.

And Leonard Cohen.

On some levels, maybe it’s true, we’ve come a long way, baby. But after the forward movement, how do we live with those two steps (if not more) backward? We build ourselves up, make language our own, call ourselves bitches with all the connotations of kick-ass strength.

But when a man uses the word, it’s as ugly as it ever was.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, I envied anyone who had anyplace to be on a regular schedule. Comfort in commiseration. Yes, I have my husband to listen to me bitch and cry since we both work at home but the freedom of days with routines of my own making, mostly a gift, had me lost at sea. Miserable. I could not even sit down to write. Weeks later I can—with a quiet determination to remain in retreat (not to be confused with denial). There is no denying what I feel deprived of, as a woman who was so sure that finally, after all these years, the bright girl was going to best the jerk. The symbolism is huge. I may still suffer from disbelief.

And even though it all went wrong—big-time—I can’t bring myself to that place of looki51ehslyjvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_ng at what was in an attempt to come to grips with what is. Survival (again, not denial) has me reading exquisite fiction sparked by the spirit of creativity and resilience instead of pundits analyzing how what didn’t seem possible came to be.

Hallelujah. Hillary.

It pleases my poetic heart to place these words side by side, even if the Hallelujah at my fingertips is not the joyful one I thought I’d be singing.


The holy or the broken

It’s taken me a long time but I think I’ve figured it out: my mom’s affinity for musicians who are good songwriters and poets but TERRIBLE singers has something to do with her being a writer. Let’s be real for a second … when you think of a “good” singer you think of someone like Etta James or Justin Timberlake, not Leonard Cohen or Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan.

If you read our blog (reasonably) regularly, you’ve also probably been able to tell that I grew up in a very musical household. You can only imagine what it must have been like hearing these very jarring voices (okay really just talking about Leonard Cohen here) that could be considered the stuff of nightmares to some children. I think because I grew up in a creative household, I was sometimes able to see past it and see the poetry behind it all BUT to say that I always tried and often succeeded in dominating the car stereo on drives is a huge understatement.

After stumbling upon an excerpt in an old Rolling Stone Magazine, I picked up a copy of The Holy or the Broken by Alan Light. You have one guess as to what it’s about. More than one friend seriously made fun of me for reading a book about the cultural significance of one song, but after reading it, I can say that it was one of the most compelling journalistic books I’ve ever read (and one of the more interesting books I’ve recently read during a summer in which I somehow survived The Casual Vacancy and Wicked). I’ve always known the song to be culturally significant, but reading about how it actually came to fruition and publication and then decades later, popularity, got me thinking about my own experience with the song. What’s so unique about it is that it’s almost like a Shakespearean play – beautiful poetry that can be performed and interpreted in so many ways. There have even been different recordings that include or don’t include different verses, giving the song new meaning each time.

Obviously as I read, I had to listen to as many recordings as possible (I’m glad that it’s a common understanding by Bono and those of us unfortunate enough to hear his cover that he blasphemized the song with “trip hop”), only to realize that I can’t honestly remember ever hearing Leonard Cohen’s version.

I’m sure I did, right Mom? The truth is that it’s so underplayed and has taken on such different shape since it’s original recording that each reinvention really feels like an entirely new song. Apparently it became widely popularized because of the movie Shrek (fun fact: John Cale’s version appears in the movie, but the soundtrack has Rufus Wainwright’s recording). If I’m being honest, though, it’s Jeff Buckley’s version from the Season 1 finale of The O.C. that sticks out most in my mind in pop culture (and subsequently at the end of Season 3, Imogen Heap’s chilling cover when Marissa dies). It’s become SO synonymous with TV and film as well as in tributes to disasters (natural and humanly inflicted). There’s no denying that it’s never not effective, but what’s so fascinating is that, like any poem or piece of art, we all find something different in it.

Famous ukulele player Jake Shimabakuru does a beautiful cover that doesn’t convey any sort of sadness, almost just a spiritual reflection.


In one of my favorite “versions,” Adam Sandler wrote a parody to the tune of “Hallelujah” for the 12.12.12 concert with the refrain “Hallelujah / Sandy Screw ya’/ we’ll get through ya,’/ ‘cause we’re New Yorkers.”

What I think is so cool about the song is that you rarely hear of anyone hating it. Maybe people get sick of the song being overplayed in pop culture, but there are enough covers of it that almost anyone can identify with it in a way. There are countless lists that rank the different versions and there are very, very few songs that could be covered in so many different ways and beloved in so many different ways. While I may have desperately tried to change my mom’s cassettes back in the day to Spice Girls or Green Day, there were times where I was forced to listen to the harsh sounds of Leonard Cohen.

Did I know that she was trying to inject me with a spirituality other than what’s learned via religion? Of course not. I wanted Green Day. But if you think about, isn’t music 100 percent spiritual, in a way? We listen to it to the point where we know it by heart. The only thing missing from the movie Inside Out is the part of our brains that is somehow eternally filled with lyrics to songs we don’t need to remember. We sing them back to our favorite musicians at their concerts, where we just want to be one with them in that moment. We silently reflect on music in our cars, or in our living rooms, or while making dinner. We develop our own connotations with different melodies and lyrics. These songs that might not be liked across the board, or sometimes, with a song like “Hallelujah” that might be unanimously appreciated — we find a connection to them by being in a certain space at the time at which they come to us.

. . . And that’s how I felt when I first heard “Dammit” by Blink-182. My poor, poor parents.

*Photograph © Abe Frajndlich