Leonard Cohen wrote with a mature poet’s sense of compression and depth and with the rueful wit of the seeker who has come to the limits of searching.
By Matt Hanson
According to his family, Leonard Cohen died (at the age of 82) before Tuesday’s election results came in, but if he had spent his final hours watching the results he might have responded by drawing on the apocalyptically dry wit of some of his own songs, particularly the later work, such as the devastating “Everybody Knows.” The lyrics prophetically appeared a few times on my social media before and after the election decision came in: “Everybody knows the war is over/Everybody knows the good guys lost/ Everybody knows the dice are loaded/ Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.”
The Nobel committee proclaimed that Bob Dylan’s songwriting should be considered a form of literature, and I have no philosophical beef with that (even if I do wish the prize had brought due attention to some humble scribbler who wasn’t already world-famous). Still, it’s Leonard Cohen who may be one of the most authentically literary singers of all time. What other songwriter made their name as a writer of literature before picking up a guitar?
As a young man, Cohen wrote novels like the madcap Beautiful Losers, as well as several controversial collections of poetry, before becoming a singer/songwriter. The decision must have seemed odd at the time, given that he was over thirty and lacked the customary qualities for traditional pop stardom. Cohen had a slightly nasal singing voice that turned to an authoritative bass in his later years and he often choose dark, deeply personal subject matter. But if his songs reached you, it was impossible not to be seduced, in the same way that great poetry casts its spell over readers.
Cohen could indeed be mesmerizing. As the closing act at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, following no less a performer than Jimi Hendrix, he was woken up at 4 a.m., threw a coat over his pajamas and performed in front of half a million angry concertgoers who had been living in their own filth for several days. Promoters feared the worst. Kris Kristofferson had already been booed off stage, but he was shocked to see that Cohen not only calmed the crowd but kept their rapt attention throughout his hour-plus set.
His lyrics irresistibly reflected the intimacy of his style, part soliloquy and part incantation, supported by the distinctive flair of his flamenco-trained guitar. Cohen wrote about the eternal topics — sex, death, God, longing, departure, alienation, joy, and despair. But what set his songs apart from the general run was their literary skill and craftsmanship; for every verse you heard on the record, there were dozens more left behind in the notebooks. He was prone to long bouts of extensive revision — the result was decades of silence between records.
Cohen wrote with a mature poet’s sense of compression and depth and with the rueful wit of the seeker who has come to the limits of searching. In the middle of “Famous Blue Raincoat” — when he delicately asks his wayward, cuckolding friend “did you ever go clear?” – it’s as if he can’t decide whether it is a rhetorical question or not.
Consider the spine-tingling character studies of “The Stranger Song” and “The Partisan” or the eroticism of “The Sisters of Mercy” and “Suzanne” or the harrowing “Story of Isaac” and the transfiguration of the Rosh Hashanah prayer into the haunting “Who By Fire.” Whatever Cohen wrote about — whether about himself as subject or someone else — you always got the sense that he had put a lifetime of experience into his lines: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget about your perfect offering/ There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.”
The songs took years to be written, yet that patience made the finished product as elegant and durable as one of his iconic suits. Hundreds of musicians have covered him over the years, including the ubiquitous “Hallelujah” which, to my mind, is better performed in its numerous cover versions than the original. It’s one thing to be a poet on one’s own terms, but it takes the rare gift of the visionary to inspire poetry in others. With stronger, more adventurous singers Cohen’s songs could take on an entirely new life. My favorite cover version of a Cohen song is Antony’s ecstatic “If It Be Your Will” from the “I’m Your Man” tribute concert, which turns an ambivalent prayer into a tremulous hymn to hope.
Cohen’s spirituality was deep and abiding but never dogmatic. His family had roots in Montreal’s Jewish community, and he took inspiration from the prayers of the synagogue as well as the mystical poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. In the nineties, Cohen spent several years training to be ordained as a Buddhist monk on Mount Baldy in California, meditating and working in the monastery from morning to night, eventually acquiring the impressive nickname “the silent one.” I consider the fact that he occasionally snuck down the mountain to have sex as a testament to his humanity rather than hypocrisy. Desire comes in many forms, as does enlightenment.
All that solitude eventually meant Cohen needed to tour, if only to replenish the bank account his manager had drained while he meditated. These grand world tours, years after Cohen had been serenely out of the game, were a smashing success, three-hour shows performed in front of adoring audiences. Cohen seemed genuinely touched, if a little bemused, by all the praise. In his last years, he released a series of records that proved he had a significant amount left to give, including a new collection of poetry and drawings with the perfect title Book of Longing. He once said that every man should aspire to be an elder, and this he became, though he almost seemed to have taken on that role from the beginning.
For much of his career, Cohen’s songs weren’t always greeted as warmly as they are now. People joked that his records should come with razor blades, and there is some truth to this. His records aren’t about partying, yet the accrued gravitas of Cohen’s often somber body of work attracted a devoted fan base. Once, after submitting a new record to his label, the head brass listened and said “look, Leonard, we know you’re great, but we’re just not sure if you’re any good.” If there’s a way of knowing that an artist is on the right track, surely this is one. It’s a testament to the enduring power of Leonard Cohen’s artistry that this question has been pretty well settled, definitively, and for all time.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.