The Leonard Cohen Commencement Speech Experience: “I didn’t come come to Joplin Junior College to fool ya”

2020 Update: As explained below, when I first published The Leonard Cohen Commencement Speech Experience in 2014, college commencement speeches had already become an iffy proposition. The 2020 coronavirus lockdown has further exacerbated the situation, making The Leonard Cohen Commencement Speech Experience an even more valuable asset.

The Commencement Speaker As Endangered Species

College commencement speaker has become a high risk profession. Recent examples of prominent victims of student and faculty protests include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the head of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, and Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, all of whom have backed out of graduation gigs at prestigious universities. Adding to the confusion, students, especially those at elite institutions, express loud disappointment if the speakers don’t reek of status. This instance, excerpted from Elite college students protest their elite commencement speakers by Amanda Hess (Slate: May 14, 2014) [bolding mine], outlines the problem:

When Smith announced that former president Ruth Simmons would be replacing Lagarde as commencement speaker, some students claimed that the choice of Simmons was equally offensive (when she was president of Smith College in the run up to the financial crisis, Simmons also served on the board of Goldman Sachs). But others expressed disappointment that their commencement had been downgraded to “forgettable.”

In short, educational institutions today face a commencement crisis – finding speakers for graduation ceremonies who will prove

  1. Acceptable to students and faculty who enthusiastically survey the records of scheduled speakers in hopes of finding evidence of political misdeeds and
  2. Important, famous, powerful, or, preferably, legendary enough to serve as indicators of the power and prestige of the inviting university.

It’s considered a bonus if the speaker is capable of delivering a sentient talk.

Not unsympathetic to the plight of these silver-spooned graduates-to-be, DrHGuy, whose college commencement speaker was Dennis Weaver, best known for his roles as Chester Goode, Matt Dillon’s trusty aide in Gunsmoke, and as the titular star of McCloud,1 has devised a solution that will confer upon any commencement ceremony the required dignity, elegance, erudition, apolitical appeal, and prestige – all at a reasonable cost: The Leonard Cohen Commencement Speech Experience.

How The Light Gets In

Now, as Mr Cohen himself recommends, one should forget what would be a perfect offering – i.e., convincing Leonard Cohen to give any speech of substance, let alone a commencement speech, turns out to be quite the task. (First of all, Leonard was hardly a model student – see “If there had been the kind of horizontal support for dropping out as there is today, I would have dropped out.” Leonard Cohen As Student). When he won, along with Chuck Berry, the first PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award, his acceptance of the prize from Salman Rushdie, including the smooch with Rushdie and a speech consisting of a joke about his age, a thank-you, and two Chuck Berry compliments, took less than 2.5 minutes to deliver. His acceptance speech into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (March 10, 2008) was primarily a recitation of the lyrics of Tower of Song. Think an honorary degree will do the trick? Cohen turned down a proffered honorary doctorate from the University of Ghent. He did show up to accept the 2012 Glenn Gould Prize with its $50,000 check – then he donated the money to the Canada Council for the Arts and gave a four minute speech, most of which was an anecdote about his inability to write up his 1963 interview of Glenn Gould followed by his assurance to those about to perform in his tribute concert that they need not worry about singing his songs in front of him because “I go into an immediate, childish ecstasy and paroxysms of gratitude … whenever anyone covers one of my songs.”

So, convincing Leonard Cohen to give a live speech is a daunting task and, frankly, were I that persuasive in dealing with the Canadian singer-songwriter, we would be talking about Mr Cohen warbling tunes in our backyard rather than chatting to a group of folks wearing robes and mortarboards. Consequently, the living, breathing icon that is Leonard Cohen is presented symbolically by what we like to call …

The Leonard Cohen Figure Of Speech

The Cohencentric Leonard Cohen Commencement Speech Agency has contracted with Dominique BOILE, owner of the reasonable facsimile of Leonard Cohen (shown below), to rent the figure to speaker-challenged colleges for display during the commencement address. (We anticipate the availability of Leonard Cohen holograms for future graduations.) The use of the cardboard representation not only offers availability (including simultaneous appearances at multiple commencements) but also generates a considerable decrease in expenses (e.g., the cost of a FedEx Overnight Package Vs the cost of a United Airlines First Class Seat).

Of course, an implicit requirement for The Leonard Cohen Commencement Speech Experience is a speech. To wit,

The Leonard Cohen Prefigured Speech

DrHGuy has constructed, from quotations by Mr Cohen, a suitable speech, chock-full of advice set forth in the eloquent yet pithy style favored on such occasions to be read by a dulcet-voiced narrator standing behind the representation of Cohen. The basic outline, with subject headings added but sans segues, follows.

Update: Lessons From Leonard Cohen – A Manual For Living With Defeat

Greeting

I didn’t come to [insert name of institution] to fool ya.2

On Education & Culture

What our training, what our culture, our religious institutions, our educational and cultural institutions should be about is preparing the heart for that journey outside of the cage of the ribs. You know, I think we’re doing pretty well. I mean, it’s not the worst culture that I’ve ever heard about. We’re not, you know, dumping people in volcanoes.3

On Work

This is one’s work. Everything else is kind of shipwrecked, bankrupt. So all you have left is your work – and that’s what you’re doing most of the time. That’s the only area which you can somehow govern or clarify. All other things remain somewhat mysterious and messy.4

If a man doesn’t have a standard of excellence his work becomes meaningless.5

Advice

There are some people who come to me for some illumination on their problems, I guess they feel I’m writing about some of the things they themselves are going through. But I don’t usually have much help to give – there isn’t much you can say to someone in the midst of their own crises.6

If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day7

My advice is to learn a trade.8

Hang in there kid. [Advice the Leonard Cohen who created Ten New Songs would give the Leonard Cohen who created Songs of Leonard Cohen]9

Never make a decision when you need to pee.10

[The best advice I ever received:] The older you get, the lonelier you become and the deeper the love you need – It’s something I can validate.11

My advice is highly valued. For instance, don’t piss on a large pine cone. It may not be a pine cone. If you are not clear about which spiders are poisonous, kill them all. The daddy long legs is not a true spider, it actually belongs to the Seratonio crime family. Although insects value their lives, and even though their relentless industry is an example for all of us, they rarely have a thought about death, and when they do it is not accompanied by strong emotions, as it is with you and me. They hardly discriminate between life and death. In this sense they are much like mystics, and like mystics, many are poisonous. It would be difficult to make love to an insect, especially if you are well endowed. As for my own experience, not one single insect has ever complained. If you are not sure which mystics are poisonous, it is best to kill the one you come across with a blow to the head using a hammer, or a shoe, or a large old vegetable, such as a petrified beet.12

I don’t like taking advice. It’s not that I don’t like it, it seems that I somehow can’t assimilate it when I get it. I never know when I’m getting advice whether it’s good or bad advice.13

This is the real human predicament. This universe is only to be tolerated, it’s not to be solved.14

The Future

First of all nothing will happen
And a little later
Nothing will happen again15

You may believe you have some control over [your] decisions, but certainly not the consequences. But you live your life as if it’s real … as if you’re directing it, but with the intuitive understanding that it’s unfolding as it should and you are not running the show.16

The dismal situation and the future – there’s no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities towards your self and your job and your love. Ring the bells that still can ring.17

People ask “What’s your advice on the future?” – and I say, “Duck!”18

Conclusions

This is not the place where you make things perfect. Neither your marriage nor your work nor anything. Nor your love of G-d nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect, and, worse: There is a crack in everything that you can put together — physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But, that’s where the light gets in; and, that’s where the resurrection is…that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation with the broken-ness of the thing.19

Closing

And I lift my glass to the Awful Truth
which you can’t reveal to the Ears of Youth
except to say it isn’t worth a dime20

I guess that’s it friends. I had so much to tell you but it’s closing time. I hope you have the blessings of love, surrounded by family and friends throughout your life. But, if this is not your life, may the blessings find you in your solitude21

I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted May 18, 2014 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric.

__________________________

  1. Dennis Weaver is arguably the most famous alumnus of Joplin Junior College. Joplin Junior College became, some time after Weaver graduated, Missouri Southern State University, which, by an incredible coincidence of Thomas Hardy proportions, is DrHGuy’s own alma mater. []
  2. From stage version of “Hallelujah” []
  3. From Leonard Cohen Interviewed by Anjelica Huston. Interview magazine: November, 1995. []
  4. Leonard Cohen quoted in marketing material for Tower Of Song tribute album (1995) []
  5. From The Sounds Interview 1971 by Billy Walker. Sounds: October 23, 1971 []
  6. Suffering For Fan And Profit – The Return Of Leonard Cohen by Mick Brown. Sounds: July 3 1976, Accessed 26 April 2014 at LeonardCohenFiles []
  7. From Good Advice For Someone Like Me by Leonard Cohen []
  8. From “Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two” by James L. Harmon. See Leonard Cohen’s Advice To Youth. []
  9. Online chat with fans in October 2001 []
  10. From Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen []
  11. Q Magazine, September 1994 []
  12. From Book Of Longing By Leonard Cohen []
  13. From An Interview with Leonard Cohen by Michael Harris. Duel: Winter 1969. []
  14. From Interview / Leonard Cohen By Alan Twigg. Essay Date: 1979, 1984, 1985. ABC Bookworld []
  15. From Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen []
  16. From Look Who’s Back at 67: Gentle Leonard Cohen by Frank DiGiacomo. New York Observer: Oct 15, 2001. []
  17. Leonard Cohen’s The Future Interview by Bob Mackowitz. Transcript from a radio special produced by Interviews Unlimited for Sony Music, 1992. The transcript was prepared by Judith Fitzgerald. []
  18. From Maverick Spirit: Leonard Cohen by Jim O’Brien. B-Side Magazine: August/September 1993. []
  19. Leonard Cohen’s The Future Interview by Bob Mackowitz. Transcript from a radio special produced by Interviews Unlimited for Sony Music, 1992. The transcript was prepared by Judith Fitzgerald. []
  20. From Closing Time by Leonard Cohen []
  21. Final blessing at Oct 31, 2012 Leonard Cohen concert in Austin []

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