The name of Sedgeford poet Gareth Calway’s website Bard on the Wire is a homage to Leonard Cohen’s famous song Bird on the Wire. Here he pays tribute to the Canadian folksinger, whose death was announced last Friday.
Standing on Purfleet Quay by the statue of George Vancouver (born Lynn June 1757) and his painfully achieved coastal chart of North West America feels like the perfect place to remember Canadian folk singer Leonard Cohen. It’s all there.
Cohen’s use of water to convey the spiritual depths beneath urban experience (“Now Suzanne takes your hand/ And she leads you to the river/ She is wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters”); that sense of a great outside world washing up in the silt in every harbour (“heroes in the seaweed… children in the morning”); the spirit’s life as a sea-adventure (“And Jesus was a sailor/ When He walked upon the water,”) sudden epiphanies penetrating the clouds. (“And the sun pours down like honey/On Our Lady of the harbour.”)
Countless bedsit dwellers all at sea in the 1970s tuned in to Cohen’s life-buoy psalms. I always scorned the parrotry that he made ‘wrist-slashing’ music. It was the chirpy cheep cheeps that depressed me.
His lyrics were as deep as his voice later became. “I was born to this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice” he joked as he plumbed ever-lower registers in the autumn of his life. More like the rust-gold on an old sinking battleship.
Cohen faced the realities of love and mortality like some prophet off an Old Testament mountain, applying the scriptures once sung by his rabbi grandfather to illuminate real life. “Dance me to your beauty like a burning violin” was more Song of Solomon than Tin Pan Alley; “Hallelujah” as much actual gospel as gospel music.
He brought ancient wisdom to the relationships, gender and social politics of our day, gave them eternal context. He inhabited the world of popular music for more than six decades avoiding the empty noise of its shallower vessels. He once quoted the Bible on a passport application “If I forget thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”
He may not have had a secret chart for the ‘smoky’ life of the spirit but in his 20 album new-old testament, he has left one for the rest of us. Like Vancouver he charted a complex and enriching map.
“Doin different - 39 new ballads from the East of England” by Gareth Calway (Poppyland publishing) is on sale in Waterstones, True’s Yard and Hanse House in King’s Lynn.