For many of us, this past week has been the apotheosis of a truly terrible year, one in which our cultural and political institutions feel debased to a devastating and perhaps irrevocable extent. Much of that is the result of pure emotion and passions run amok, as grim headlines pile up with uncanny persistence, creating the illusion of a world that is almost certainly spinning insanely off its axis. Leonard Cohen, who passed away yesterday at 82, would likely have found all of this pretty funny.
Cohen, the decorated and justifiably fetishized Canadian poet and songwriter, spent fifty years excavating the humor and mercy from the subterranean valleys of the human experience. Essentially beginning with the premise — to borrow a phrase from his friend and literary rival Bob Dylan — that everything is broken, Cohen's great theme was the beauty of imperfection, the small salvation attainable only to the desperately flawed and wounded, which is all of us. "There is a crack in everything," he wrote, "That's where the light gets in."
Buttressed by the enormity of his talent as well as a fair amount of birthright privilege, Cohen lived a truly literary life, the kind that is now a quaint antiquity, but which was once possible when popular music and even poetry were financially valued commodities within the culture. After earning a name for himself as a novelist and poet in the Montreal literary scene, he sought adventure and mind expansion, traveling to Greece and soaking in the beauty and exoticism in an echo of Burroughs and Bowles. Turning his attention to folk music, he worked deliberately, only releasing his debut album Songs Of Leonard Cohen in 1967 at the age of 32, ancient by the standards of the time.
As a classicist largely untroubled by or unaware of the trends of the day, a painstaking pace would become a hallmark of Cohen's output throughout his career. While his peers rushed to bring product to market, Cohen marinated in his songs, often for years. The effect was to provide his material a sense of timelessness, shot through with notes of transcendentalism, mysticism, and a heavy note of Talmudic searching. Cohen, infamously adroit with the opposite sex, also had a great deal to say about the sputtering, yearning mechanics of romantic love. On this topic, as with many others, he could be bleakly fatalistic, seeming to regard the most stable or passionate of affairs as just mere moments away from core meltdown. However, debonair and courtly in the extreme, his day-to-day life seems to have been replete with long-lasting and nourishing relationships, filled with far more kindness then cruelty.
From the outset of his songwriting career, Cohen produced canonical classics: "Sisters Of Mercy," "The Stranger Song," "Bird On A Wire," "Avalanche," and "Famous Blue Raincoat," from his first three albums, are all standards. Partially owing to the richness of the material coupled with the often spare nature of its presentation, Cohen's songs have been reinterpreted again and again from the very beginning of his career, to variously ecstatic and aggravating effect, although there is no consensus as to which version is which. (I am in a minority that loathes Jeff Buckley's over the top prettification of "Hallelujah," and would vote Roberta Flack's wondrously soulful reading of "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye" as my favorite Cohen cover.) With its slow-burning tales of tortured wanderers, mysterious muses, and heedless, unfeeling nature, there was always a filmic quality to Cohen's writing, and indeed Robert Altman's employ of some of his best early material in his brilliant 1971 western McCabe And Mrs. Miller is perhaps the greatest ever example of the narrative union between cinema and sound. Then there is Cohen's penchant for plain-spoken, visceral detail, evident from the beginning and rivaled by possibly only Lou Reed in terms of lurid oversharing in popular song. Famously reminiscing on a one-night stand with the tragically doomed Janis Joplin on 1974's "Chelsea Hotel #2", Cohen begins:
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
You were talking so brave and so sweet
Giving me head on the unmade bed
While the limousines wait in the street
Almost completely unique among his peers, Cohen simply got more interesting with age. Physically and intellectually restless, he traveled the world in search of spiritual enlightenment, making deep dives into Buddhism and even spending years in a monastery. He relentlessly explored his Jewish identity and traveled to the front to entertain troops during the Six Day War after having been refused admission to the Israeli army. He made an insanely strange and unlikely album Death Of A Ladies Man with Phil Spector producing, during which the lunatic producer pulled a pistol on him and pointed it at his chest. (The story goes that the addled Spector held the gun on him and said "I love you, Leonard," to which Cohen responded with unflappable cool, "I hope you love me, Phil.") Most of all, his songs became deeper, more spiritual, the stakes ever higher. In the classic "Tower Of Song" he muses about his own place in the firmament of great composers and concludes he is someplace just below Hank Williams.
The late '80s and early '90s were Cohen at his darkest, funniest and most visionary. The albums I'm Your Man and The Future — filled with brilliant songs and bizarre production flourishes — are a Vegas review set in Hell. Cheap-sounding drum machines and cooing female background singers provide an eerie backdrop as Cohen sings of life as a rigged game, murderous terrorists stalking the earth, love as a transactional misery, and a future that can be describe in one word: murder. As his voice — never a conventionally attractive instrument — lowers ever further into a deep croak, he wrings malevolent mirth out of the human species fecklessly playing out its final foolish days. Jocular and harrowing in the extreme, there is nothing else in the tradition of popular music remotely like it.
Cohen was working, and working on a high level, until virtually the day of his death, as evidenced by the frequently wonderful recent album You Want It Darker. In particular, the title track is a grave work of genius, part summation and part capitulation, simultaneously castigating a human race desperate to invent its own doom and offering himself to the afterlife with awe and supplication. Amidst a backdrop of violence and depravity on Earth, he mocks a deranged mankind with a wry wisecrack: "You want it darker?" Wish granted: "We kill the flame." Then a Hebrew chant and a prayer for release: "I'm Ready Lord." Cohen the seeker tells us what he has learned, the full wisdom gained in his life pursuit. In doing so he evokes the words of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes: "Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless." He does this with a discernible smile.
Maybe it's a sad week, but Cohen's passing is not a sad event. It is difficult to imagine a life more fully lived, a journey more expertly undertaken, an outcome more fitting. If ever a man did it right it was Leonard Cohen. He drank what there was to drink, smoked what there was to smoke, sucked the very marrow out of the human experience and found it diverting but ultimately wanting. He's on to his next bit of business. We're still here attempting to figure it out: Do we want it darker? Where does the light come in?