All men shall be sailors…

Sailing and freedom

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo by Vladimir Brezina

“All men shall be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them…” — Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne”

I’ve been listening to a lot of the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen lately. I’m not alone in this; he’s experiencing an (in my mind deserved) groundswell of popularity in the 14 months since he died.

His themes are universal and serious: the inevitability of loss, imperfectability of human nature, the ephemeral transcendence of love.

His fundamental stance is religious, but while it’s rooted in his native Jewish tradition (he remained devout all his life), it draws from a broad set of perspectives, with a pragmatic bent. He once told the New Yorker:  “Anything, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, LSD, I’m for anything that works.”

He wasn’t joking. Over the years, he studied Scientology, became an ordained Buddhist monk, and studied at an Indian ashram—along with pursuing various intoxicants (from acid to alcohol) and ascetic practices (particularly fasting). His goal was less the abstract pursuit of enlightenment than to ameliorate the bouts of depression that struck him throughout much of his life.

Sylvie Simmons wrote a wonderful biography of Cohen in 2012, “I’m Your Man,” One of the interesting paradoxes of Cohen’s life is that although he was deeply embedded in the contemporary cultural matrix  to a degree that’s almost Zelig-like, his essential formality was fundamentally out of step with the “anything goes” ethos of the times.

The Jewish magazine Forward has an insightful obituary that highlights this: “The “absence of the casual” may well be one of the singular characteristics setting Cohen’s work apart from his so-called contemporaries,” writes Seth Rogovoy.

And it paid off in the long run—Cohen is one of the rare artists who pursued his craft with intensity and diligence all his life, and  peaked as a performer in his 70s.

In a surprising twist that serves as a hopeful beacon to us late bloomers, after his business manager embezzled his money and left him broke early in the 2000s, he decided to go on tour to support his ex-wife and children. Although he had previously hated performing, he put together a stellar backup band and collaborated with them to develop innovative arrangements of his work.

The result was almost a decade of some of the best live performances in popular music history (you can find many of them in YouTube). Cohen not only accomplished his goal of earning back a fortune, he left a shining legacy that touches millions.

That “absence of the casual” is perhaps the most appropriate response to the inevitable tragedies of life, which may be one of the reasons Cohen’s work is experiencing a renaissance.

The lines above (“until the sea shall free them”) particularly resonated with me because the sea has always been associated in my mind with freedom. Towards the end of his life, my father (who was a naval officer)  turned to me and said, “The open ocean is closer than they led us to believe.”

He was referring, of course, to his imminent death, but what struck me was that he associated it with the open ocean—and freedom.



18 responses to “All men shall be sailors…

  1. Being from Canada, Leonard Cohen is an icon here. All of his music has so much depth and honesty. I’ve seen him in concert twice – once in the early 90’s when “The Future” album was released, and then with my wife in 2013 when he was on his final tour. That evening I can say now was truly transcendental. He was on stage for at least 3 hours which is so amazing and generous considering his age at the time. One of the things I recall from his CBC interviews and his concert monologues is how humble he was. I am sure you’ve heard his final album that was released after his death, and it is probably so especially meaningful for you Johna, also considering the passing of Vladimir last year. I really enjoyed this post and the photo too. It brought back good memories.
    (I am going to try to copy a photo I took of Leonard Cohen in that concert – not sure if it will work) ….
    Cheers, Bruce

    Liked by 1 person

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Bruce, that is an amazing photo and you are lucky to have it! Wish I could have seen one of those concerts. He really put everything he had into them… and yes, out of a spirit of humility and generosity.

      He was a great Canadian. And a great man.


  2. Jonha, Enjoying your writing and it keeps getting better. thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m another fan of Cohen and so pleased to read your Post. Maybe it will attract more people to his work and grow the fan base.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks for reading and posting! I think he is finally getting the recognition he deserves. Amusingly, I first learned about him by reading Patricia Harmon’s midwife memoir (she’s written two, not sure which one it was).

      Music is constant theme of her life and she often mentions which pieces she plays in different moods. When she mentioned “Halleluja” by Leonard Cohen, I thought “Hm, I’ve never heard that! Is it classical?” So I listened to it on YouTube and a fan was born… :-)


  4. There is an enormous Cohen retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal. We have yet to see it but is getting rave reviews. Lots of music.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Leonard Cohen was amazing. This is a very beautiful post, Johna.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Listening now…


    • Johna Till Johnson

      What a FANTASTIC interview!!! At first, I was thinking, “Well, I’ve read most of these stories! What else is knew?”

      … but then I noticed what a lovely velvety speaking voice he has… and how strong his Canadian accent is (“hoos” and “aboot”)…

      … and then there are the snippets of music interspersed…much loved, but given new resonance in the context…

      And then I hear him say things like this: “I only know that if I write enough verses, and keep discarding the slogans, even the hip ones, even the subtle ones, that something will emerge…”

      “Keep discarding the slogans”. Words to live by, from a dying man!

      Thank you for the link!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Johna, you’re such a terrific write. I’ve loved Leonard Cohen for years but did not learn about his life, other than a few odd details, so this made very interesting reading. The notion of the absence of casual is an interesting one in these times!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thank you! I highly recommend the biography I mentioned, the one by Sylvie Simmons (not the other one).

      And yes, the “absence of casual” makes everything coalesce. Not my observation, as noted, but it struck me, as well.

      Thanks as always for reading, and posting…

      Liked by 1 person

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