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Lyrics and Life

Advent blues

By Caitlin Ward

12/10/2014

Almost Like the Blues
Leonard Cohen


I saw some people starving
There was murder, there was rape
Their villages were burning
They were trying to escape
I couldn’t meet their glances
I was staring at my shoes
It was acid, it was tragic
It was almost like the blues


I have to die a little
Between each murderous thought
And when I’m finished thinking
I have to die a lot
There’s torture and there’s killing
There’s all my bad reviews
The war, the children missing
Lord, it’s almost like the blues


I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot
My father said I’m chosen
My mother said I’m not
I listened to their story
Of the Gypsies and the Jews
It was good, it wasn’t boring
It was almost like the blues


There is no G-d in heaven
And there is no Hell below
So says the great professor
Of all there is to know
But I’ve had the invitation
That a sinner can’t refuse
And it’s almost like salvation
It’s almost like the blues

 

©2014 Leonard Cohen

 

Look, you guys. I don’t want to be oppressively dark right now. It’s Advent. It’s nearly Christmas. It’s not supposed to be like this. And yet, as I sat down to write this article on a pretty snowy evening, the questions I wanted to ponder were not pleasant. They ranged from, “hey, why do we so readily forgive domestic abusers if they happen to be good artists?” to, “how many policemen are going to walk free from killing people of colour before something changes?”

In that state of mind, the answer to both of those questions was, I’m afraid: people are all terrible. Christ came to tell us to be good to one another and we totally killed him. And then he came back, and we built a religion around him, and then we started killing people in his name. And you know why?

Because people are terrible.

I don’t mean it, really. But it’s been a long fall and winter thus far, my friends. I’ve spent the better part of it walking with a cane, one of the community partners I work with was dealt a devastating financial blow, and there’s something about the onslaught of the 24-hour news cycle that gets to you, especially when your back hurts all the time. A lot of depressing and dark things happen in this world. One of my colleagues said to me this past week, “last time I saw you, you just looked so sad.”

I was likely in pain at the time, but I may have been sad, too. I won’t get into a litany of all the things that have been making me sad, but I will tell you they largely revolve around people being terrible. Because, man, people are really terrible.

At this point in the article, there is supposed to be some sort of shaft of optimistic light that comes into my psyche. I’m meant to say something like, “but people are wonderful, too. They do all sorts of nice things.” Well, that may be true, but I’m not going there, today. Instead, I’m going to think of the Blues.

I don’t mean the Blues simply as a musical genre originating in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. No, I’m going to think of them the way Dr. Cornel West thinks of the Blues, if I may be so bold.

I’m going to think of the Blues as a way of reading reality, of being in reality, of raging against reality and accepting it at the same time. It’s hard to pin down, exactly, when you’re not as quick as he is. Dr. West has said, in various ways and at various times, that the Blues are a tragicomedy, both grand and mundane, both sad and absurd. They are a sensibility that rejects the idea that humans alone will create a utopia, but also rejects the complacency of believing in a God who’ll save everything for us. In action, the Blues are a compassionate response to catastrophe. In 2013, Dr. West said, “as a blues-inflicted Christian, the cross is at the centre of the Blues.” And what was the cross, if not a compassionate response to the catastrophe that is humanity? Rather than focus on Calvary, though, Dr. West has pinned his philosophy on the Saturday between death and resurrection: a day when humanity was bereft and alone.

I don’t know if Leonard Cohen was pondering Dr. West’s idea of the Blues when he wrote Almost Like the Blues for his new album, Popular Problems. I don’t think it’s out of the question that he was. At the same time, though, looking back on his career as musician and poet, it’s easy to argue that Leonard Cohen had pretty similar ideas to Dr. West, anyway. Since the 1980s, at least, Cohen’s music has been darkly funny: not quite cynical, but rarely hopeful, either. Almost Like the Blues is a tragicomic song, and like Dr. West’s Blues, it is grand and mundane, sad and absurd: “There’s torture and there’s killing / There’s all my bad reviews / The war, the children missing / Lord, it’s almost like the blues.”

These are not easy ideas, or simple things. Yet, for both Dr. West and Cohen, there is something for which to move forward — something in which to believe. Dr. West said, “the cross is at the centre of the Blues,” but the second half of that quotation is, “the resurrection is at the centre of the Gospel.” Though Cohen’s words are dark, and self-implicating, they end with, “But I’ve had the invitation / That a sinner can’t refuse / And it’s almost like salvation / It’s almost like the blues.”

For me, this Advent, that’s maybe the point — not that everything is sweetness and lightness, because Lord knows it’s not. Rather, that there is something to push forward to, something to work for, something to believe in. It’s not optimistic or cynical; it simply is. Advent is an invitation that a sinner can’t refuse.

 

Ward is a freelance writer and aspiring documentary filmmaker based in Saskatoon. You can find her short bursts of insight and frustration at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings