Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)
Published: Nov 11, 2016
Leonard Cohen died. I almost have to smile at his timing. A few weeks after David Remnick’s magnificent profile in The New Yorker. A few days after an election that has been dissected by pundits but not yet by poets. If he was sentient, he had to have a few thoughts about what happened here this week.
Certain songs come to mind, starting — of course — with the most recent, “You Want It Darker.”
“I’m ready, my Lord,” he sang.
“I am ready to die,” he told Remnick.
Those who loved him — and there are so many that I want to say we form a kind of cult, but that’s looking way back to 1968, when some of us found him; now he has an army of fans, and we make up a kind of culture — will hear the news of his death and flash to the most relevant songs. “Hallelujah,” of course.
But this week, for some, surely another. “Everybody knows the fight was fixed/ The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/ That’s how it goes/ Everybody knows…”
If you haven’t heard Cohen, it’s kind of a shock. His range as a composer was narrow; as he noted, “People said I knew three chords when I knew five.” His vocal range was even more limited. A fan got it exactly right when he said, “No one can sing a Leonard Cohen song the way Leonard Cohen can’t.” The dirge-like songs and midnight voice made him an easy target for reviewers. “The poet laureate of pessimism.” “The grocer of despair.” “The godfather of gloom.” “The prince of bummers.” And, inevitably, “music to slit your wrists to.”
But if you’re on the inside of his music, you know different. As someone has said, “You play Leonard after the lovers have left and are in the arms of others.” Not always. Sometimes the women were there, and so was a kind of distress you didn’t understand and didn’t particularly want but couldn’t resist — like a black-and-blue mark you can’t help pressing, I used to think. There was something about that pain. And only Cohen could deliver it.
Is it too much to speak of Leonard Cohen as a prophet? A prophet is more than his words, more than his music. He’s a burning fire, he has personal power. And so what I think of, when I think of Cohen in that way, is a story.
In l967, when he was 32, he started writing songs because he couldn’t make a living as a novelist and thought — quaintly — that songwriting was the ticket. He called Judy Collins one night and sang "Suzanne" through the phone. She knew its measure instantly and promptly recorded it. Later, at Carnegie Hall, she brought him onstage. Gaunt, poetic, handsome in a way that only some women appreciate, he stood there in his suit and shook. “I can’t do this,” he said, and left the stage. In the wings, Collins took his hand, led him in front of the audience again and sang “Suzanne” with him.
In 1970, 35-year-old Leonard Cohen agreed to perform at England’s Isle of Wight music festival. It was not a happy event. Angered that there was a wall to keep out those who hadn’t paid, some of the young festivalgoers rebelled. They tore down fences. They crashed the gates. There were fires and fights. There was garbage.
600,000 people. Living outside. For almost five days.
At 2 in the morning of the fifth and final day, Leonard Cohen was awakened and asked to hurry onstage. There was no piano, no organ. Cohen, in his pajamas, insisted on both. And then he went back to his trailer to get dressed.
At 4 in the morning, Cohen took the stage. He looked into the darkness and, gently, slowly, told a story of going to the circus as a kid and liking only the moment when the audience lit matches in the darkness. He asked the crowd to light matches, and he waited while they did, and then he sang “Bird on a Wire.”
He owned that crowd. He held 600,000 souls in the palm of his hand, and he brought them his brave, sad songs, and they listened to him. As if he were a prophet.
I’ve written a lot about Cohen. If you are unfamiliar with his music and want to make a smart start — well, that’s a problem. Maybe, although I generally oppose anthologies, “The Essential Leonard Cohen.” It’s two-and-a-half hours of music. 31 songs. Only fanatics like me could want more. [To buy the CD of “The Essential Leonard Cohen” from Amazon and get a free MP3 download, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
You might go on to the novel I like: The Favorite Game. And one I like less: Beautiful Losers. And some CDs: Practical Problems and Old Ideas and Live at the Isle of Wight and a much more recent and much better live album.
Why is Cohen such a talisman for me? Because of the remarkable consistency of his vision. Others have detoured into politics, been fooled by chimera. Cohen, from the beginning, insisted on love as his topic. We’re made in love. We disappear into love. We fail, often and gloriously. But the aspiration alone, however doomed, is triumphant. He leaves us, in a blaze of light, standing “before the Lord of Song/
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”
To read Leonard Cohen’s only online chat, conducted shortly after 9/11, click here.