Not every great artist is an exemplary human being. Most probably aren’t. Leonard Cohen was not only one of the two great rock poets of our time, but the poster child for living sensually, growing spiritually, aging gracefully and dying graciously … and hopefully.
Unlike the other guy, his friend Bob Dylan, Cohen lived a relatively open life, becoming more or less a Jew-dist, proud and respectful of his Jewish heritage while embracing what he and others felt to be a more holistic spirituality in Buddhism.
The two religions fueled his music as well — the philosophical questioning and yearning of Judaism contrasted with the acceptance and meditative calm of Buddhism. Though contrast might be the wrong word since they never seemed in opposition anywhere in the body of Cohen’s gorgeous body of work, from his first album in 1969, “Songs of Leonard Cohen” (with “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne”) to this month’s release of the CD that clearly anticipated his death, “You Want It Darker.”
I have to admit to being slow on the uptake about Cohen. His persona at the outset smacked a little too much of the sensitive, angst-ridden poet surrounded by beautiful women seemingly hanging on his every word. (Or maybe I was just jealous.) I also had read his novel “Beautiful Losers” and found it Beat Lite. And Judy Collins’ early championing of him — covering “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy” and others — made him sound a little pretentious to me.
But I hadn’t written him off entirely, particularly after Robert Altman made such meaty use of his music in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” in the early ‘70s, particularly “The Stranger Song.”
Then, in 1977, I thought his collaboration with Phil Spector, “Death of a Ladies’ Man,” was so hideous — with Dylan and Allen Ginsberg singing backup on “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On” — that I gave up on him altogether. (Like the movie, “Heaven’s Gate,” “Ladies’ Man” has its champions.)
It really wasn’t until the 2002 Columbia/Sony compilation, “The Essential Leonard Cohen,” that I realized what I had been missing. The full majesty of those 31 songs was one of the strongest musical epiphanies I’ve ever had.
The early songs – including “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” and “Bird on a Wire” seemed truer than ever, but then one smartly crafted song after another just kept raising the artistic stakes — “I’m Your Man,” “Everybody Knows,” “Dance Me To The End of Love,” “Alexandra Leaving.” And, of course, the song that has now been covered by the entire musical universe, “Hallelujah.”
But these were all songs to shake the soul, songs that embraced or confronted the world politically and romantically, again without any seeming contradiction. Of course, many people embraced the gospel-like refrain of “Hallelujah” without irony, just as they embraced Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” without realizing it was an anti-war song. But in “Hallelujah” is there anything joyous about:
"But baby I've been here before
I've seen this room and I've walked this floor
You know, I used to live alone before I knew ya
And I've seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah"
Well there is something joyous, in its way. It’s a cry from the heart but it’s a cry that says sadness and love’s mishegas is all an inevitable part of life's grand parade, particularly of a life lived to its fullest.
As his voice got more gravelly over the course of his career, a greater wisdom joined the palette. And when he went back on the stage in 2008 it was with a remarkable set of concerts that lasted for three hours, putting passions old and new into less of a greatest hits retrospective than into a good-humored, soulfully-delivered conversation among a great artist, terrific musicians and adoring fans/friends.
It’s been obvious this past year that the end was coming. There was the incredible note he sent to his dying early love, Marianne Ihlen:
“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. And you know that I've always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don't need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
David Remnick, in his superb Oct. 17 New Yorker piece, all but acknowledged that the end was coming, but really all we had to do was listen to “You Want It Darker,” with his gaunt appearance, failing voice and death-is-nigh lyrics:
“If you are the dealer
I’m out of the game
If you are the healer
I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory
Then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame
I'm ready, My Lord."
Yet it’s hardly a morose CD. And it contains one of his most beautiful love songs, “If I Didn’t Have Your Love.” When some voices age, like Billie Holiday's or Johnny Cash's, they gather nuance and gravity that might have been lacking earlier in their careers. That's the case here.
"If the sun would lose its light
And we lived an endless night
And there was nothing left
That you could feel
That’s how it would be
What the world would seem to me
If I didn’t have your love
To make it real."
No irony here. Just a simple, straightforward acknowledgement that it was closing time for a life lived graciously and artfully. And that it was time for the next chapter.
1. "The Essential Leonard Cohen"
2. "Live in London" (CD and DVD)
3. "Light as the Breeze" (Cover by Billy Joel)
4. "Live at the Isle of Wight" (DVD)
5. "You Want It Darker"