Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, by Matti Friedman (Spiegel & Grau, 224 pp., $27)
Now that rock music is certifiably dead, we can pick through its remains and figure out what mattered. In the 1960s, Canadian poet Leonard Cohen emerged as one of the great lyricists of the rock and roll era.
Though he performed with some of the biggest rock names of the day, Cohen’s songs hardly fit the category—or any category. He was always an outsider, smartly dressed and a full decade older than most performers of the 1960s youthquake. Already a seasoned poet when he made his debut in popular music, Cohen remained a B-lister for much of his career. But while other stars’ popularity waned, his rose as his career progressed.
Cohen wrote evocative, mysterious lyrics honed by just enough repetition to bestow folkloric transcendence. His words are as deliberate, however, as they are evasive. Once the listener discovers the key to the puzzle, every line makes sense.
In Who by Fire, journalist Matti Friedman zeroes in on a mostly forgotten chapter of Cohen’s career: his performances for Israeli Defense Forces soldiers fighting in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Like Cohen’s songs, Friedman’s book is an offbeat work. It’s a word-of-mouth treasure likely to be read primarily by ardent Cohen fans and musically inclined Zionists, but it will likely gain in prominence, as it offers vital insight into Cohen’s trajectory as a songwriter and the scope of his work.
War always fascinated Cohen. But while some men went to war, he went to rock and roll. In “Tower of Song,” he compared performing with fighting: “Now, I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back/They’re movin’ us tomorrow to the tower down the track.”
Unlike Cohen, Friedman has experienced war firsthand, having served in the IDF during the South Lebanon conflict, and his insight is poignant. He explains, for instance, that boosting morale through entertainment—Cohen’s task in Israel—is a civilian scheme. Soldiers at war are in an altered state of mind and often unreceptive to diversion.
When Cohen arrived in Israel in 1973, his life had reached a low ebb. He was considering giving up music, and he was struggling to accept his new role as a father. With no military experience and no idea of what he would do in the war, the middle-aged songwriter soon found himself performing for the Israeli soldiers.
It was by no means a safe job—other entertainers were killed touring. But Cohen did not flaunt his bravery and rarely mentioned his time in Israel. Friedman explains that the songwriter generally avoided discussing politics for fear that doing so might reduce his work to journalistic ephemera. But he wrote a manuscript chronicling it and, as Friedman argues, the experience inspired several of his songs, including the slow-motion megahit, “Hallelujah.”
Cohen is believed to have written only one song while in Israel—“Lover Lover Lover,” which he dedicated to both Israeli and Egyptian soldiers. Nevertheless, its opening verses leave no doubt that it’s a Zionist song:
I asked my father
I said, father change my name
The one I’m using now it’s covered up
With fear and filth and cowardice and shame
The lyrics describe Jewish warriors taking Hebrew names upon arriving in the Holy Land in order to avoid the humiliation of belonging to the diaspora, Friedman writes. Cohen included Egyptian soldiers in his dedication as a challenge to feel compassion for enemy casualties.
Friedman argues that the songwriter’s role as Cohanim (or hereditary high priest), in which he would, in effect, bless the congregation during the Yom Kippur services, inspired later lines in “Lover Lover Lover”:
And may the spirit of this song
May it rise up pure and free
May it be a shield for you
A shield against the enemy
Many listeners imagine these verses being uttered by a woman pleading with her lover to return alive, but Friedman finds them reminiscent of Konstantin Simonov’s poem “Wait for Me,” written when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. But the verses more closely resemble the Russian song “Dark Night,” featured in the 1943 film Two Fighters, which includes the verses: “I believe in you, my beloved friend/And this faith protected me from the bullet in the dark of the night.” Here, the insulating quality of love meets Cohen’s big themes—faith and war. Friedman speculates that the songwriter could have learned the Simonov verses from his Russian-speaking mother, but it’s at least equally as likely that he heard “Dark Night” in Israel, where Russian songs are well known.
After the Yom Kippur War ended in a truce, Cohen returned to his common-law wife and child. Many years later, he spoke of his refusal to marry her as an act of cowardice.
Cohen drifted in and out of depression for most of his adult life. Visiting Israel—his “myth home,” as he put it—during one of its darkest hours did not lift his gloom, but it filled him with knowledge and inspiration. He didn’t retire as promised—in fact, he never retired. The Yom Kippur tour became a second lease on his creative life.
Photo by Hans-Jurgen Dibbert - K & K/Redferns