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It was the sort of autumnal, oh, what the hell, apocalyptic, week that Leonard Cohen could’ve written a brilliant verse about, in one of his many black-hued, black-humored songs. All about how a coarse, over-moneyed, totalitarian type, who should have been locked away years ago, somehow appealed to peoples‘ worst instincts, and improbably, was chosen to become the most powerful man in the world. Leonard Cohen would’ve made it much more succinct, melodic and metrically-precise than I just did. But you will have to accept my poor take on the hellish period we have just entered. Leonard Cohen can’t sit down and write something suitably grim and narcotically-funny about it all.
Because Leonard Cohen has died. He was 82.
And as incisive, fearless and oddly-comforting a songwriter as the world has ever known. But before we deal with the music, first, a brief bit of the man’s literary history.
Born in 1934, in the ritzy area of Montreal known as Westmount, Cohen came from a distinguished family, that was openly, proudly Jewish and he seemed headed for a more traditional, bourgeois career than the one he finally found in his 30s. With a gift for verse and a fine education, he published his first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956. No doubt his loving, smothering mother (his father died when Leonard was a boy) figured he would eventually become a professor, or maybe a rabbi. But more books of poetry came. Then two novels. Drugs, travels, beautiful women. In other words, beatnik yearnings. Soon it was clear that Cohen was not going to settle for the life of a nice Jewish boy. Things went well for him, except in that all too impossible-to-understand world of money. The prose and poetry were praised, but they didn’t “pay the rent,” as Cohen put it. Having always written songs and sung them (even if many, many, many people who heard him wished he hadn’t), Leonard discovered Bob Dylan one day, figured you didn’t have to be Caruso to make it as a vocalist and headed to the states to join that strange new tribe of hybrids: the singer-songwriters.
After a little starving in Manhattan, Judy Collins finally heard Cohen’s song, “Suzanne,” and recorded it and a couple of other songs by this darkly handsome, brooding artist. Who sort of resembled Dustin Hoffman’s more mystical brother. And who no matter what stage he was in his career, was simply irresistible to women.
John Hammond, the man who signed Bob Dylan (the two Jewish hep cats would eventually develop a deep, mutual respect), sat on Leonard’s bed in The Chelsea Hotel one night, heard this almost tuneless singer, who nonetheless wrote great tunes, sing several of them, and exhorted, “Leonard, you’ve got it!”
Cohen said he wasn’t sure if that meant talent or a contract with Columbia Records. Both, of course.
He was, at 33, sort of an old dude for the youth-obsessed hippies, when he released his self-titled debut in 1967. But somehow, Cohen connected with the counterculture. The record featured his version of “Suzanne,” with its hypnotic visions of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a woman both seductive and dangerous and Cohen’s lifelong obsession with the suffering and loneliness of Jesus Christ. It also sported “Sisters of Mercy,” which was used to bleak perfection in Robert Altman’s masterpiece, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
It was a strange, paradoxical situation at first. Cohen was popular, he developed a devoted cult following, but rock critics of the time, most notably the usually insightful Greil Marcus, simply hated the guy. They thought Cohen too precious, precise, sad, hypersensitive, annoyingly erotic. In other words, everything that had nothing to do with rock and roll. By the ‘70s, the audience seemed to agree with these simplistic assessments. He seemed, like, oh, Donovan. A indulgent little trifle from the past, an embarrassing artiste, who was only good to listen to when you were stoned and had incense burning, or as background music when you were about to slash your throat. Still Phil Spector made an odd, wonderful record with Cohen in 1977, that had to be one of the weirdest collaborations in music history.
Then, in the ’80s, on his way to obscurity, something very strange happened. Cohen’s spiritual children, who included Nick Cave, Morrissey, Michael Stipe and others, began to sing the praises of this sex-and-death obsessed, deep-voiced avatar. They loved his dark take on things, his wicked wit, his tailored suits, his openness about being suicidally depressed, his periodic stays at a Zen monastery in Northern California. With his 1988, synth-drenched I’m Your Man, Cohen started having….Dance hits (like “First We Take Manhattan”) and he became exceedingly hip. Not long after that, a song he had recorded in 1984, “Hallelujah,” was covered by Jeff Buckley and John Cale. When it was used in Shrek, it became a global sensation. Then, years later, the bane of American Idol judges and Bar Mitzvah attendees everywhere.
By then, it didn’t matter. Big fame affected the Zen-calm Cohen about as much as his faltering cultishness had. He went about his business and made several more superb records, the most recent (and, most likely last) You Want It Darker, just about a month ago. Although Cohen was rumored to be be quite ill, he insisted there would be another disc or two. Still ‘Darker,’ has the the feeling of a valediction. Or would, if our man from Montreal hadn’t been literarily preparing for his death since he was a boy.
It’s become a terrible, imprecise cliche, back in the day, to call every singer-songwriter who can warble a bit about love or drugs or the moon, a poet. But Cohen really was one. When he wrote his poetry or when he sang it. His sense of cadence, his startling rhymes, his wisdom, his profundity, have now affected millions of people. There are many examples of these traits. But what keeps playing in my ears today, are a few lines from “Sisters of Mercy” — a song Cohen wrote about two teenage girls who slept in his hotel room one snowbound night. And one which he wrote uncharacteristically fast, finishing it by morning.
Coming at the end of this heartbreaking, infuriating, stupid, tragicomic week, these lines seem so healing:
If your life is a leaf / That the seasons tear off and condemn / They will bind you with love / That is graceful and green as a stem.
It’s not just this stupid fucking election, of course. Life tears us up, pulls us off our vines and scatters our leave-like selves no matter what is happening in the world. But you know what makes up for it? Leonard Cohen’s words. Which gracefully put us together, and allow us to grow and blossom once more. At least, until the next rough season, when we are windblown and ravaged once again. But don’t worry. Leonard Cohen has a song for when that time comes too.