When David Bowie passed at the start of this year, one crumb of comfort was that I should not feel as despairing about the death of a famous person for a long time. It was as if another light could not be extinguished so soon after, there must be a way that these things balance out, we can’t lose greatness on a frequent basis. That was until this morning, when we learned of the death of Leonard Cohen. This has been a year so rotten it is difficult to know where to begin. The loss of someone as eloquent, intelligent, and brilliant as Leonard Cohen almost feels like a microcosm of recent events. He died on Monday, the day before the US election. His timing, as ever, was impeccable.
This is a difficult feeling to describe. This is not a man being cut down before his time, it is not a man who feared death. Cohen spoke with an extraordinary clarity about the topic earlier this year, when his muse Marianne Ihlen was on her deathbed. In a letter than now takes on extra poignancy, Cohen wrote:
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.
It is extremely rare that someone can face their own mortality with such lucidity, yet it is just what we should have expected of a man who has affected so many with his wisdom, wit and character. On a personal level, Cohen’s music and poetry (he was a brilliant poet before he ever became a musician) has had a profound impact on my life. As a young teenager, Cohen’s music had an immediacy and beauty I could not easily find. While great novels unfurled over extensive periods, Cohen was able to condense remarkable tales and splendour into a few minutes. His voice, so effortlessly cool and wonderful (“I was born with this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice” as he sang, tongue firmly in cheek on ‘Tower of Song’), was a conduit for the most incredible poetry. While Dylan had a major influence on me when I was young, Cohen was unparalleled in his mastery of language, and his marrying of poetry with music. The great exponent of the couplet, his work made me realise the beauty of language, it was a huge inspiration in my choice to study English, and to write.
Cohen was able to tackle such disparate themes and styles with such dexterity. His lyrical prowess could express ideas in a unique way; he has been seen by many as a doom-monger, but there is so much that is wonderful about his work. He was able to convey love and passion with such creative, stunning language: “Hungry as an archway through which the troops have passed, I stand in ruins behind you with your winter clothes, your broken sandal straps. I love to see you naked over there especially from the back”; “thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes, I thought it was there for good so I never tried”; “lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove, dance me to the end of love”; “We met when we were almost young deep in the green lilac park. You held on to me like I was a crucifix, as we went kneeling through the dark”.
Yes, his work was tinged with poignancy and often sadness, but there was tremendous wit in his lyrics. I saw him live in 2009, a 3 and a half hour gig that stands among the best I have ever seen, and what was clear was the humility and warmth of the man. In all interviews, you can see how genuinely nice and funny he was, and this comes across in his work. “If you want a lover I’ll do anything you ask me to, and if you want another kind of love I’ll wear a mask for you”; “Give me crack and anal sex, take the only tree that’s left, and stuff it up the hole in your culture”; “Everybody knows that you love me baby, everybody knows that you really do. Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful, give or take a night or two. Everybody knows that you’ve been discreet, but there were so many people you just had to meet without your clothes, and everybody knows”. Cohen paired his acerbic wit with the aforementioned eloquence about romance in the wonderful Chelsea Hotel No. 2, a song about a liaison he had with Janis Joplin. No one else could write lyrics like: “You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception. And clenching your fist for the ones like us who are oppressed by the figures of beauty, you fixed yourself, you said “well never mind, we are ugly but we have the music”.”
It is tempting to just list every lyric that Cohen ever wrote, and indeed it would be infinitely better than anything I can add, but I will just pick one more favourite. Cohen’s brilliance came from his inimitable style, the unmatched poetic nature of his lyrics, their slight obtuseness married with a strong sense of understanding and relatability. In Last Year’s Man, one of the great man’s greatest songs, we find the bizarrely evocative:
I came upon a wedding that old families had contrived;
Bethlehem the bridegroom,
Babylon the bride.
Great Babylon was naked, oh she stood there trembling for me,
And Bethlehem inflamed us both
Like the shy one at some orgy.
And when we fell together all our flesh was like a veil
That I had to draw aside to see
The serpent eat its tail.
While he was undoubtedly a great, much overlooked, melodicist, it was this turn of phrase, this unique command of the intricacies of language, this detail, that separated Cohen from all others. This death hurts, this death really hurts the world, but what he has left behind is a body of work that will stand the test of time, and a body of work that has had a remarkable effect on so many people. Many focus on the depressive elements of his music, but far more important is the impact they have had in saving many depressive people.
The man was a genius, and he will be remembered as such. I spent the morning crying about what we have lost, but like Bowie, Cohen went out on his own terms. In his fantastic new album, he sings “I don’t need a reason for what I became, I’ve got these excuses, they’re tired and lame. I don’t need a pardon, there’s no one left to blame, I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game”. In trying to remain positive in the midst of despair, we should remember what the man himself sang: “there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in”.
Now, someone wrap Brian Wilson, Joni Mitchell and others in cotton wool please.