Sunday, July 5, 2009

Leonard Cohen: In My Secret Life

SONG In My Secret Life

PERFORMED BY Leonard Cohen with Sharon Robinson

APPEARS ON Ten New Songs (2001)/ Live in London (2009)

Leonard Cohen's recent sublime "Live in London" CD, LP, and DVD, as well as other numerous nuggets, contains a spectacular performance of the beautiful and sadly neglected Leonard Cohen classic In My Secret Life that, with help from Sharon Robinson along with the Webb singers and a great band - sounds even better than the minimalist original version.

This magnificent melancholic masterpiece credited to Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson appeared as the opening track on the great Lenny "comeback" LP "Ten New Songs" back in 2001.

Cohen first revealed he was working on a song with the working title 'My Secret Life' way back in 1988, although the song would only make it onto record some thirteen years later! This illustrates the almost pathological perfectionism of Leonard and the painful gestation period of a great Cohen lyric!

Cohen has been quoted in this regard saying "I can't discard a verse until I've written it as carefully as the one I would keep." He's also said, in a 1992 interview with Paul Rozzo,"So to penetrate the chattering and meaningless debate that is occupying most of my attention, I have to come up with something that really speaks to my deepest interest. Otherwise I just nod off in one way or another. So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat."

This one sure must've taken "a lot of sweat"!

The song could in many senses be said to be a tortured summation of the existentialist self, as expressed wonderfully in "Watt" by Samuel Becket with the lines:
My life, my life, now I speak of it as of something over, now as of a joke which still goes on, and it is neither, for at the same time it is over and it goes on, and is there any tense for that? Watch wound and buried by the watchmaker, before he died, whose ruined works will one day speak of God, to the worms."
The starting point for the song is said to be a quote from eminent Jewish philosopher Gershom Scholem who, in a letter to Zalman Schocken in 1937, referred to the Kabbalah as “the Secret Life of Judaism.” And an essential kernel of the Kabbalah is found in the line "A mortal lives not through that breath that flows in and that flows out. The source of his life is another and this causes the breath to flow." There are allusions to this and, as usual, to other elements of Jewish mysticism in Lenny's lyric as well as a very significant Buddhist influence (of course, for much of the extended period during which the song was being sculpted, Lenny was a Zen Buddhist monk at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California where he was called Jikan, "the silent one".) Present too are the influences of modern existentialist writers, especially Samuel Beckett.

Lord Buddha described the human plight - and indeed the essence of existentialism - in the aphorism "It's better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles." The anguished protagonist here has fought many battles but is no closer to conquering himself than when he started.

The tale of his plight speaks of the unending struggle of the soul, the self - all in the context of the unending struggle, the battle of everyday life.

A famous Zen aphorism houses the phrase "Birth and Death is a grave event; How transient is life!" while Lord Buddha said "The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past." The protagonist here however "can't seem to loosen my grip on the past" and thus is doomed to existentialist agony in this transient life.

Regardless of the transience of this life, the song speaks of his continued search for true love, as well as the search for spiritual enlightenment, as expressed in the ambiguous imagery of "And I miss you so much. There's no one in sight." However, as a result of naked necessity in the baseness of this world ("I do what I have to do to get by"), he's a sinner ("I cheat and I lie") but what's worse, he knows he's sinning ("But I know what is wrong, and I know what is right") and this corrodes his soul.

His helplessness at the hands of a higher power is expressed in the ambiguous imagery - at once religious and secular - of being a soldier, a helpless pawn in some vast martial or religious game ... "I finally got my orders. I'll be marching through the morning ... Moving cross the borders." It's a beautiful verse which echoes the imagery of the military machine, so prominent throughout much of Cohen's work, most usually referring to the Nazis and the Jewish Holocaust. The ambiguity is compounded by the phrase "moving cross the borders" which can also be an allusion to the temporary nature of this life and his own imminent death and rebirth.

Lord Buddha asked "What is the appropriate behaviour for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris?" and also said "He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings, and all beings in his own Self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye." And in this vein, the song is a strong commentary with an impartial eye on the dumbness and madness of modern society, the 'piece of debris' to which he clings - a place where the protagonist 'sees his own Self in all beings, and all beings in his own Self'.

This 'piece of debris' is a dark place where "nobody cares if the people live or die", a place where looking through the papers just "makes you want to cry." A place defined and confined by the manipulations of the masses by the few that hold real power (he's obviously not a Freemason fan!) ... "the dealer wants you thinking that it's either black or white." He's rightly distrusting of the machine as per Lord Buddha when he said 'Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense' ... and realises that "Thank God it's not that simple." This echoes what Cohen said in Musician magazine in 1988: "As you get older, you get less willing to buy the latest version of reality."

Although a man of moral fortitude ("I'd die for the truth"), regardless how much he may question the status quo, the corruption of the world ultimately forces the protagonist down ("I bite my lip") and ultimately prevails ... "I buy what I'm told: From the latest hit, To the wisdom of old" (this is also likely a self-deprecating comment on Lenny's own eternal explorations of various schools, philosophies and creeds; various wisdoms of old!)

The protagonist has to reach the bleak existentialist conclusion that he's totally alone and totally unsated, even when with other people ... "I'm always alone and my heart is like ice. And it's crowded and cold in my secret life." It's an echo of Samuel Beckett who, in "All That Fall", beautifully writes:
"I estrange them all. They come towards me, uninvited, bygones bygones, full of kindness, anxious to help ..... A few simple words . . . from my heart . . . and I am alone . . . once more."
He's a slave to the 'piece of debris' to which he clings. His life is a joke which still goes on. A life that is over and still goes on.

-Stupid and Contagious
(Original version at In my secret life)

I saw you this morning.
You were moving so fast.
Can't seem to loosen my grip
On the past.
And I miss you so much
There's no one in sight.
And we're still making love
In my secret life...

I smile when I'm angry.
I cheat and I lie.
I do what I have to do
To get by.
But I know what is wrong.
And I know what is right.
And I'd die for the truth
In my secret life...

Hold on, hold on, my brother.
My sister, hold on tight.
I finally got my orders.
I'll be marching through the morning,
Marching through the night,
Moving cross the borders
Of my secret life...

Looked through the paper.
Makes you want to cry.
Nobody cares if the people
Live or die.
And the dealer wants you thinking
That it's either black or white.
Thank God it's not that simple
In my secret life...

I bite my lip.
I buy what I'm told:
From the latest hit,
To the wisdom of old.
But I'm always alone.
And my heart is like ice.
And it's crowded and cold
In my secret life...


  1. Great song by a great artist!

  2. LC is in a class by himself. When I think that you guys liked him as pre-teens, I know that Mom and I did something right!

  3. I've always been in awe of Leonard Cohen, going back decades. Now I'm in awe of whoever wrote this analysis. Thank you.