For the greater part of 82 years, Leonard Cohen wrote, recorded and performed a sometimes bleak, sometimes joyful, soundtrack of our times. Even from his deathbed.
Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)
by Bruce Mason
Just before the profoundly sad news of his death went viral in November, many were listening to Leonard Cohen’s latest recording, You Want It Darker (released October, 2016), eerily prophetic and highly acclaimed as among the best of his 14 albums. As the world became darker and more inexplicable and absurd, the numbers grew into the millions, as others reached out and briefly retreated into his beloved canon of musical meditations on ‘big questions.’
My own initiation began with a few dollars left over from purchasing first-year university textbooks, spent on Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), published when Cohen himself was an undergraduate. Its intellectual and spiritual hunger, melancholy and black humour were the most easily understood and accessible in the campus bookstore. Through dog-eared and thumb-worn poetry collections – The Spice-Box of Earth, Flowers for Hitler, Parasites of Heaven – and novels – The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers – I followed along on his quest for what he called a “state of grace, a kind of balance in the chaos of existence.”
In an engrossing New Yorker profile in October, “confined to barracks” from a modest second floor in L.A., Cohen confessed in his final interview, “I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”
For the greater part of 82 years, Leonard Cohen wrote, recorded and performed a sometimes bleak, sometimes joyful, soundtrack of our times. Even from his deathbed. A handful of informal guitar lessons in his twenties served him well: “Six chords and a guitar pattern, that has been the basis of all my songs and all my music,” he said. And he eventually tamed his performance anxiety after pursuing Zen as a discipline and a practice of investigation.
Five decades ago, Cohen was as big and celebrated as it got in Can-Lit and culture. He befriended fellow poet Irving Layton, later recalling, “I taught him how to dress; he taught me how to live forever.” In 1960, restless and relentless, he retreated to the Greek island of Hydra where cars were banned and mules carried water up steep paths to houses. With a small inheritance, he purchased a simple, whitewashed space for $1,500 and shared it with one of his many muses, Marianne Ihlen, and her young son.
“I met him in the mid-’60s,” Judy Collins told me (Both Sides Now, Common Ground, April, 2013). “He’d been in Greece and was unaware of the folk boom, heading to Nashville from Montreal, with a notion of pursuing country music to supplement his income. In my living room, he apologized for his singing and guitar playing, even doubting that what he was writing were songs. I was mesmerized, wanted more.
“After he finished writing “Suzanne,” he sang it over the phone and I invited him to an anti-Vietnam War town hall. I dragged him onstage, but he stopped partway, pleading, ‘I can’t go on.’ “I pushed him back to the mic and the crowd went wild.”
Cohen was 33 when his recording debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), was released. He was an original voice, haunting, hypnotic, a whisper-like rasp, unconventional, unprecedented and more economical. Critics’ labels included “godfather of gloom,” “poet laureate of pessimism,” and “music to slit your wrists to.” “Sometimes, I stumble out of bed, look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘Lighten up, Cohen,’” he told audiences, which grew to as many as 600,000 at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. Speaking of concerts, he said they made him feel like “some parrot chained to his stand.”
His Hallelujah – years in the making and released in 1984 – is possibly the most-sung-all-occasions-song of this century, played at weddings and funerals, repeatedly on VH1 after 9/11, at the state ceremony for NDP leader Jack Layton, and at the opening of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. It has been recorded so often that Cohen jokingly called for a moratorium. Two weeks after his death, Hallelujah made its first appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and garnered four million US streams in the week ending November 17, 2016.
Nobel laureate Bob Dylan has compared Cohen’s songs to “prayers… great songs, deep and truthful, multidimensional, surprisingly melodic, they make you think and feel.” Hallelujah is “beautifully constructed and the point-blank I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself aspect has plenty of resonance for me.”
In 1992, Cohen released The Future. Included on the album is Anthem, which took 10 years to complete – “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” – and Closing Time, in which he shifted out of the darkness in single stanzas: “All the women tear their blouses off. And the men they dance on the polka dots.” Or, “I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get? Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet. But I hear him coughing all night long, floors above me in the Tower of Song.”
For five years, he retreated from the public eye, spending it in deep meditation and silence – three years near L.A. and two in Bombay. Meanwhile, his manager and former lover, Kelley Lynch, embezzled his life savings. He would be awarded a symbolic $9 million while she received 18 months’ jail time and five years probation for harassment. Broke, he went back to the studio and toured from 2008 to 2014, his spiritual strength evident in four-hour performances and an unmatched late-life renaissance.
Last summer, when he learned she was dying, Cohen scribbled, “Well, Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. Now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye, old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
After burying his father in an unadorned pine box in a family plot in home-town Montreal, his son Adam, a musician who co-produced Cohen’s last album, posted, “As I write this, I’m thinking of my father’s unique blend of self-deprecation and dignity, his approachable elegance, his charisma without audacity, his old-world gentlemanliness and the hand-forged tower of his work.”
Now, one for the ages, Leonard Cohen is gone, leaving behind a lifetime of inspired offerings, a rich, polished, timeless legacy for those who seek inner peace, especially in troubled times.
Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. firstname.lastname@example.org
Last words from Leonard
Twenty-five years ago, his song, The Future, prophesied, “And now the wheels of heaven stop. You feel the devil’s riding crop. Get ready for the future: it is murder.” Weeks before his death, he shared some insights:
“I know there’s a spiritual aspect to everybody’s life, whether they want to cop to it or not. It’s there, you can feel it in people – there’s some recognition that there is a reality that they cannot penetrate but which influences their mood and activity. So that’s operating. That activity at certain points of your day or night insists on a certain kind of response. Sometimes it’s just like, ‘You are losing too much weight, Leonard. You’re dying, but you don’t have to cooperate enthusiastically with the process. Force yourself to have a sandwich.’
“What I mean to say is that you hear the Bat Kol. The divine voice. You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it. Even when I was healthy, I was sensitive to the process. At this stage of the game, I hear it saying, ‘Leonard, just get on with the things you have to do.’ It’s very compassionate at this stage. More than at any time of my life, I no longer have that voice that says, ‘You’re fucking up.’ That’s a tremendous blessing, really.”
photo of Leonard Cohen by Takahiro Kyono Creative Commons