For a fairly introspective 17 year old the music of Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) drew me with a fascination bordering on obsession; I can still remember sitting alone in my bedroom listening to ‘Bird on a Wire’ on repeat. The phase soon passed, and I only recently came to appreciate the depths of this song ‘Anthem’, from Cohen’s 1992 album ‘The Future’.
‘The Future’ contains references to traumatic historical events, including Hiroshima and the Second World War. The massacre of students in Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin wall both happened in 1989; it was a time of massive upheaval and uncertainty in the world.
Listening again in late 2019 you have to ask, has much has changed? Just thinking about our own country (quite apart from the rest of the world!) Britain is facing a bewildering parliamentary election, Brexit is unresolved, the country has more Foodbanks than McDonalds….. there surely still is ‘a crack, a crack, in everything’, but Cohen leaves us with a note of hope, ‘that’s how the light gets in’. We need the light, in our national and our personal lives, as never before.
Currently it is Advent, traditionally the time for preparing for the coming of Christ. For me this song provides a kind of transcendence, bringing hope into the apparent hopelessness of our world. The parallels are obvious I hope.
This is the title track from the 1967 Beatles album and film of the same name. The ‘plot’ was structured around a merry band of travellers and strange characters who sign up to a mystery coach trip one day – destination unknown. Over the journey they get to know each other better, have their minds opened and enjoy … adventures. The film gets a mention in the definitive hippy narrative The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which also tells the tale of a band of ‘Merry Pranksters’ travelling the country in a converted school bus and spreading their message of liberation as they understood it.
The link to the idea of Christian life as a pilgrim journey of mystery is too delicious to avoid. Over history, some branches of the church have been architecturally and socially austere, while others have been plush with colourful decor and ornament. Some groups focus on The Word and doctrine, while others find connection with the mystery of God in experience through art and symbolism.
So if that could work for you, this is the invitation – roll up for the Mystery Tour.
Wolfe, Tom, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (London: Vintage, 2018) p.211
In the YouTube discussions on this song someone has said “If God had a ringtone, it would be this”.
Sung here by Dave Gilmour, the lyrics were written mainly by Roger Waters and made famous originally by Pink Floyd with their album of the same name. This performance is from the Meltdown Festival at the Royal Festival Hall, London in 2001.
I heard this song recently at a pub open mic night and it reminded me of how powerful and emotionally relevant it is for so many people. And it shows how a strong song can be performed successfully with minimal accompaniment, which is why I chose an ‘unplugged’ version to share.
The main theme is lament – an expression of grief for a lost person, a lost relationship or maybe a lost future, if only life had taken a different turn.
I find the words “did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?” a personal challenge, as I try to live a worthwhile life, and think about whether I take enough risks – or in religious language, whether I have enough faith.
In the Bible there is a song written by David (of David and Goliath fame) after he hears that his very close friend Jonathan has been killed in battle. 2 Samuel 1:17-27. Wish you were here.