When I texted a friend last week about the passing of Leonard Cohen he responded with perfect succinctness: “Poetic timing, Leonard.”
I’ll return to the “timing” aspect of that remark at the end of this piece; for now I want to focus on the “poetic.” Because that was Cohen’s defining characteristic: with a singular poetry the Canadian musician fashioned a deep and at times disturbing portrait of the universe in which the wild extremes of existence are united in beauty, longing, and mystery.
“Poetic” has frequently been abused as an adjective to vaguely describe almost any lyrical content beyond that of the clichéd love song, but Cohen was an actual poet before he became a musician, and his music itself is suffused with poetry. It’s fitting that Songs of Leonard Cohen, his masterful debut album, was released at the tale end of 1967, the Summer of Love year that also saw debuts by the Doors and the Velvet Underground, the first rock bands to immerse themselves in dark poetry. Like the Doors and the Velvets—and like Dylan, the only other solo artist in his league—Cohen drew lyrical connections between the beatific and the bawdy, between liberation and oblivion, between apocalypse and salvation, all while constructing narratives of lovers and losers aching for transcendence that were richer than most novels. But whereas the Doors, the Velvets, and, to a degree, Dylan often drove their music to the point of chaotic or hypnotic fervor, Cohen laid down in his debut and its equally stellar follow-ups, Songs from a Room (1969) and Songs of Love and Hate (1971), somber, contemplative acoustic ballads—featuring strategically implemented instrumental ornamentation—as haunted as they were gentle. Simply put, Cohen was the melancholic troubadour of the counterculture, the wandering minstrel who seduced by way of wry soulfulness and mournful humor.
Much has been written of the poetry in Cohen’s signature songs from his early period, many of them made popular through cover versions by other performers: “Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Famous Blue Raincoat.” But Cohen’s catalogue is a treasure trove of deep cuts. Take, for instance, “Stories of the Street” (from Songs of Leonard Cohen), a vision of violent political upheaval in which escape from physical danger through erotic abandon leads back to moral doubt. Lyrical images include Cadillacs, poison gas, broken cities, hunters, marching armies, apples, slaughterhouses, and an infant—the offspring of “The Age of Lust”—who is by its umbilical cord “hauled in like a kite.” As an eerie organ threads through layered acoustic guitars that strum and pick at minor chords, Cohen works up to a bleak yet somehow still hopeful expression of personal desire amidst global, even universal confusion: “With one hand on a hexagram and one hand on a girl/I balance on a wishing well that all men call the world/We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky/And lost among the subway crowds I try to catch your eye.” It’s perhaps the quintessential Cohen lyric: melding archetypes, encapsulating a worldview, and resting on an everyday occurrence as amusing as it is tinged with sorrow.
Over time Cohen’s life became as legendary as his art. He lived as a globetrotting bohemian in his youth and entered into several romantic and sexual relationships that he then immortalized in song—a recent New Yorker article chronicled his beautiful final correspondence with Marianne Ihlen, the muse behind “So Long, Marianne” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” (Ihlen passed away earlier this year). While his artistic reputation (if not his album sales) grew during the 70s and 80s, Cohen was at times stymied by stage fright, alcohol dependency, and severe depression. From these he found refuge and healing in spirituality, which sustained him into a 21st century renaissance that saw five albums and two enormously successful world tours. Famous musicians frequently open themselves up to charges of religious dilettantism, but Cohen was completely hardcore in committing to Zen Buddhism in the 1990s, when he quit music to become an ordained monk. Likewise, he never concealed or downplayed his Jewish upbringing and discipline (he kept the Sabbath), which was heavily informed by his rabbinical grandfather.
This, of course, brings us to the spiritual dimension of Cohen’s work. Don’t worry, I won’t analyze any more lyrics: just listen to Cohen’s rendition of “Hallelujah,” by far his most well-known song (off 1984’s Various Positions) from its 8,529 cover versions and movie/TV appearances. The soul of the song—which likens sexual and spiritual union without using a single platitude—is in Cohen’s gravelly, wisdom-drenched voice. Cohen never pretended to be a technically proficient singer; instead he expressed depths and spectrums of feeling through slight modulations of tone and intonation that more polished vocalists would never consider. When he talk-sings through the bookends of “Joan of Arc”—Love and Hate’s concluding treatise on the mistake of conflating spiritual purity with sexual abstinence—the result is spine-tingling. When he begins snarling and screaming in “Diamonds in the Mine”—his Old Testament cry of indignation against the ignominy of our fallen world—the effect is absolutely startling.
I could go on and on and on about Cohen’s artistic brilliance. It’s all there in the songs: “Sisters of Mercy,” a gorgeously tender promise of renewal; “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy,” a sparse, bone-chilling portrait of a young woman’s suicide; “Sing Another Song, Boys,” a bitter yet compassionate elegy for a relationship ruined by sexual and emotional selfishness. Those are from the first three albums, his best, but great work lies far beyond. You might have to forgive the not-infrequent chintziness of the later records’ synth-heavy production, but, again, the songs are there, in the eclectic and percussion-tinged New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974), in the redemptive and eschatological hymnals of The Future (1992), and in everything all the way up to You Want It Darker, the culmination of Cohen’s reinvention as a world-weary yet ever-seeking lounge singer that was released just before the official end of Western civilization.
On that note: many others will likely find symbolic correspondences in the death of a humble, authentic, and open-hearted creative genius only a day after the election of an ignorant, fascist, megalomaniacal con artist (and, possibly, Russian stooge) to the most powerful political position on the planet. About this I will simply quote Cohen’s short poem “They Locked Up a Man: “They locked up a man/Who wanted to rule the world/The fools/They locked up the wrong man.”