There’s a phone ringing incessantly somewhere nearby, and even though I know it’s not the sound my telephone makes, and even though I know my phone is right next to me and thus would produce a much louder sound were someone to actually call, I keep glancing down at the thing, convinced that no one but me ignores that many rings in a row, that many calls.
Today I came to a realization, one that cleared up about fifteen years of conscious misunderstanding. The interims during which my mom and I and whoever else was around played happy family when I was a kid were graced with a really specific soundtrack, as there were only so many albums that my mother and her diversely wayward progeny could compromise on. At the top of the short list were The Best of Leonard Cohen and the Eagles’ Greatest Hits (disc II more often than disc I). (When we were feeling more cooperative, my mom could sometimes slip Bonnie Raitt on; when she was open to something a bit wilder, Hootie and the Blowfish might have made an appearance.) Given the capacity of a child’s memory and the general effectiveness of repetition as a mnemonic tactic, it is no exaggeration to say that I will never forget the lyrics to the unskipped songs on those albums. I will be a wizened, crotchety witch with a killer case of Alzheimer’s, and I will hum my houseful of cats “Susanne” while rocking them to sleep.
And so I love Leonard Cohen in the inescapable way I love Jif peanut butter, which I now eschew in favor of the hippie shit whose oil separates from the nut paste, which my cohabiter will never, ever touch, because that’s gross. (More for me.) But if you were to slip a spoonful of that cloyingly sweet Jif, the color whose name escapes me but surely orientalists would use to describe a Mediterranean beauty’s skin tone, into my unsuspecting mouth, I couldn’t resist the pleasure of it. And if I hear a Leonard Cohen song at a restaurant, or if I get tickets to his show for my birthday one year (!), I’m overcome by the beauty of his lyrics, no matter how many times I’ve heard them, no matter how much my taste in music has changed.
His lyrics; that’s where this all began. During one of those idyllic evenings spent doing dishes and listening to The Best of, I worked up the courage (I was maybe eleven?) to ask my mom about the following line from “Famous Blue Raincoat,” my (still) favorite track:
Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair. / She said that you gave it to her /
the night that you planned to go clear. / Did you ever go clear?
What, I had wanted to know for as long as I could remember, did “to go clear” mean? My anxiety about asking was related to the fact that I was a wordly enough tween to have caught on to a good bit of the sexual content of Cohen’s music, which was one of the reasons I enjoyed listening to it to begin with. I was worried that to go clear meant something like to get off, in which case I’d be putting both myself and my mother into one of those uncomfortable situations we collectively tried our best to avoid.
“I don’t know, honey,” she responded. My mom always called us sweet things like honey and sugar pie. “But I think it’s something like to get clean.”
For whatever reason, at that age I knew what getting clean was, so she didn’t have to clarify that that meant to stop using drugs. At least that’s the way I recall it. And it made sense; it fit the song, as least as far as I could tell, and it added this new element of addiction and suffering, which was fine by me. And I continued to believe that interpretation without questioning it, sang along with that translation in my head when I saw him in glorious concert two years ago at an open air theater in Istanbul, and may even have informed innocent bystanders of the meaning of that phrase, all the while blissfully ignoring the words “I don’t know” that my dear mother started her sentence with.
Today’s revelation: “to go clear” does not mean “to get clean.” In fact, the phrase is even “to go clear;” it’s actually “to go Clear.” And before you object, there is a world of difference between the two. Because to go Clear, capital C Clear, is the initial step in becoming a serious Scientologist, a fact that was revealed to me in the Valentine’s Day issue of the New Yorker (mail is a bit delayed here) in Lawrence Wright’s profile of a former Operating Thetan VII (the second-highest rank in Scientology) who renounced the organization. This is what Wright says about going Clear:
The concept comes from “Dianetics”; it is where you start if you want to ascend to the upper peaks of Scientology. A person who becomes Clear is “adaptable to and able to change his environment,” [Scientology founder and crazy man L. Ron] Hubbard writes. “His ethical and moral standards are high, his ability to seek and experience pleasure is great. His personality is heightened and he is creative and constructive.” Someone who is Clear is less susceptible to disease and is free of neuroses, compulsions, repressions, and psychosomatic illnesses. “The dianetic Clear is to a current normal individual as the current normal is to the severely insane.”
Leonard Cohen was talking about Scientology! The man who stole Leonard Cohen’s lover away was a Scientologist?!
My entire understanding of his music, my childhood, my very self has been torn asunder.
Truly, I lack even commentary about this; I’m still in shock.
Now, politely excuse me while I go listen to “Desperado” on repeat and bang on the wall until my neighbor picks up her goddamn phone.