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The iconic song was born in the cultural ferment of the early 1990s, but it was conceived much earlier, and its creation was a complicated process. This is an oral history of how it happened

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Leonard Cohen is shown in 1994, two years after the release of The Future, an album born from years of turbulent social change.Bridgeman Images/Bridgeman Images

Embroiled in a civil rights case connected to violence in the Indian village of Koregaon Bhima, the journalist and human-rights activist Gautam Navlakha had his bail plea rejected by India’s Supreme Court this past March. Afterward, he issued a public statement that ended with a plea to listen to Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, with special attention paid to the song’s chorus:

Ring the bell which still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack, a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in

Released as the beacon centrepiece to Cohen’s The Future in 1992, Anthem is particularly alive in 2020. In a shattered, calamitous time, the song’s spoken-word solace serves as go-to quote material for social-media philosophers and embattled social-rights activists alike. Swelling and almost optimistic, the redemptive hymn from the Poet of Brokenness resonates universally.

The Future was birthed in an especially turbulent time. The album’s Democracy referenced Tiananmen Square and was “occasioned,” according to Cohen, by fall of the Berlin Wall. Closer to home, when the Los Angeles-based Cohen looked out his window, he noticed riots and earthquakes. “I’ve seen the future, brother,” he foretold on the title track. “It is murder.”

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The then-recent fall of the Berlin Wall and Los Angeles's Rodney King riots in 1992 were just part of the cultural upheaval in which The Future appeared.John Gaps III and Nick Ut/The Associated Press

Oddly, early reviews of The Future often failed to even mention Anthem. The album’s unlikely hit ended up being Closing Time, with its boozy swing. Anthem eventually earned an iconic status, but its progress came in fits.

Inspired by Kabbalistic mysticism, the song preaches the acceptance of imperfection. Yet, after an earlier version of Anthem was mistakenly erased in the studio in 1983, Cohen reworked it laboriously. “Anthem took a decade to write,” Cohen told author and musician Paul Zollo in 1992. “And I’ve recorded it three times. More.”

In the end? “There’s not a line in it that I couldn’t defend,” Cohen said in another interview.

In tribute to the song, The Globe and Mail has collaborated with arts organizations across the country on a video of dance pieces set to an original arrangement of Anthem by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

What follows below is an oral history of the song, culled from Cohen’s own words and from the recollections of those who spoke to The Globe. In short, a breakdown of how the light finally got in.

What became Anthem first appeared during the recording of Cohen’s 1984 album Various Positions. Leanne Ungar was the engineer for those sessions, and for the recording of The Future at Village Recorders and Capital Studios in Los Angeles.

Leanne Ungar: “I don’t think it was originally called Anthem when we recorded it for Various Positions. It may have been called Ring the Bell, but I’m not sure. The intro was erased in error by a studio technician. Of course I was devastated and wanted to repair it. But Leonard said, “No, it’s a sign. It’s not meant to be. I’m going to put it away and look at it later.”

Leonard Cohen, in 1992: “I listened to it ... there was a lie somewhere in there, there was a disclosure that I was refusing to make. There was a solemnity that I hadn’t achieved. There was something wrong with the damn thing. All I knew is that I couldn’t sing it. You could hear it in the vocal, that the guy was putting you on.”

Producer Yoav Goren specializes in soundtracks for film and television. In the early 1990s, he was working in a small music shop in Santa Monica when a famous songwriter walked in.

Yoav Goren: “Leonard was shopping for a keyboard. He was fond of a certain kind made by Technics, a less-sophisticated version of a synthesizer. Leonard loved that kind of stuff. He bought one and asked me to deliver it to his house.”

Behind Cohen’s house in Los Angeles was a smaller two-story building used as a home studio for song ideas. Unable to grasp the nuances of the computer-recording software, Cohen asked Goren to help lay down the demos for The Future.

Goren: “I remember asking him [if] he would mind me taking a shot at arranging Anthem for him. He said, ‘Go for it.' I came up with a medley and an arrangement. Ultimately none [of] it was used.”

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Cohen and actress Rebecca De Mornay, backstage at the 1993 Juno Awards.Bryce Duffy/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Credited as the song’s co-producer is actor Rebecca De Mornay, Cohen’s companion at the time. Her role in Anthem was cited in Sylvie Simmons’s biography I’m Your Man.

Cohen: “I had played many versions of Anthem to her – fully completed versions and overdubs, and none of them seemed to nail it – and while I was revising it for the 100th time, at a certain point she stopped me and said, ‘That’s the one.' It was quite late at night and we managed to find a studio ... we produced the session that night. The basic track and the basic vocal.”

The new version was different than the discarded one from years earlier.

Ungar: “The verses were similar and the chorus still began with, ‘Ring the bell.’ But the line about the light getting in was new.”

In charge of the song’s string section and the L.A. Mass Choir was David Campbell, the Winnipeg-born arranger (and father of musician Beck), who has his credits listed on hundreds of gold and platinum albums.

“There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in," are memorable lines from Leonard Cohen's Anthem. To shed some light in these distanced times, dance groups from across the country perform to a rendition of the song to celebrate Canada Day, with music by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and vocals by the Canadian Opera Company.

The Globe and Mail

David Campbell: “It could be frustrating. Producer Steve Lindsey would try to get Leonard to forget about the stuff he did on the keyboard and start again. Leonard’s tendency was to strip things down. You kind of had to because he had such a low voice. You needed to make room for it.”

The people who helped Cohen create Anthem were struck by its wisdom and gravitas.

Back-up singer Julie Christensen: “I was about four years into recovery at the time. The reprieve in Anthem wasn’t lost on me. I could have been lost to the world. But there I was in the studio, singing that song.”

Campbell: “It had an optimism, but in a tarnished way. It seemed like the most realistic view.”

The last word goes to the songwriter himself.

Cohen: “I think it is one of the best songs I have written, maybe the best,” the songwriter told music critic Robert Hilburn in 1995. “I knew that song was everything that my whole work and life had somehow gathered around. It is absolutely true to me.”

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Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

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