Penning a tribute to Leonard Cohen brings on a strong awareness of my inadequacies as a writer. The artiste has scripted various renderings of his elegy, from before I was born. Cohen’s final submission with You Want It Darker (2016) concluded the continuum of hesitant departures in his songbook. I had the fortune of being entranced by Cohen at his last concert at the Madison Square Garden, New York City in 2012. Cohen could have dawdled on through the night—with a barely-there prance in his step and gentle nods acknowledging the bass-note shifts—but he had my attention. The slim crescent from the fedora shadowed his eyes. His head was often downcast, as if in observance of the power of song, while he courted the mic in his tender clasp. Cohen looked frail but his voice and intent belied his physical form. He emphasized how humbled and grateful he was for this audience, and performed an exhaustive set. His modesty reminded me of lines from Alexandra Leaving: “And you who had the honour of her evening/And by that honour had your own restored”. I felt deeply honoured that night, L. Cohen.
Cohen was a mercenary to the poet and a proselyte to the popular songwriter, and until his death he maintained that curious fluidity. His salving cadence graced the solemnity of patiently marinated verses. The singer’s delivery was rarely triumphant or assertive. Many of Cohen’s songs worked best as sluggish incantations, coaxing a fiery latency like that of slow-burning embers. There could be suggestions of influences in Cohen’s art, the shocking moral honesty of Irving Layton and Allen Ginsberg, the devotional gravity of a “synagogue cantor” (of Cohen’s own admission), the storytelling of the folk tradition or the tremulous fervency of European balladeers ala Jacques Brel. But he never adhered quite convincingly to any of these associations, including the beat movement within which he began to flourish as a songwriter. He was always a bit aloof, notably an outlier.
For a ladies’ man, Cohen’s distinction was marked by the compassionate confessions of a lover, entwined with the debasing candour of unspent desire. His enshrinement of love was not devoid of the paramour’s inherent bestiality; an emotion rightfully owed to Dionysian impulse as much as sanctified will.
The taint of moral destitution bled into Cohen’s messianic psalms. In doing so, his spiritual tenor was most pronounced. In my life, Cohen’s writing made leaving and being left behind easier, the anguish of every love lost was redeemable in song. This was Cohen’s dignified—not resigned—acceptance of the life given to him. For the non-believers, Cohen offered the most convincing narrative of spiritual aspiration, of a divinity blissfully married to the torments of mortality.
In his novel, Beautiful Losers (1966), which was plagued by controversy—in the vein of William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch, only not as cult—Cohen had already recognized his spiritual creed:
“What is a saint? A saint is someone who had achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of balance in the chaos of existence. A saint does not dissolve the chaos; if he did the world would have changed long ago. I do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a man setting the universe in order. It is a kind of balance that is his glory. He rides the drifts like an escaped ski.”
Through his lifetime, Cohen very much rode drifts like an escaped ski, from his time spent practising Buddhism under the tutelage of master Roshi (Joshu Sasaki) to his revisiting his Jewish heritage and the politics of his people, his association with fame to his various romantic relationships, the commitments were always tenuous. There were no grand epiphanies to be found in his writing, for he was assured of his humanity. The journey was deeply informed and embalmed by Cohen’s travels through various cultural and spiritual centres of the world. In many of his songs there was a submission to the shapeshifting—sometimes love, sometimes sex, sometimes war—god of human bondage. The liturgical references were altered to repudiate the holy order. In all of this, Cohen’s greatest talent lay in his transference of intimacy in song. The incarnate voice that urged me on through the treacherous terrain of love, mortality and spirituality.
A Cohen playlist
To list five songs that could capture Cohen’s oeuvre is a bit of an injustice, but in the service of a brief playlist to remember him by, here are a few songs that hopefully highlight different facets of him. (I consciously chose to leave out some greatest hits like Hallelujah, Bird On The Wire, Chelsea Hotel No. 2, First We Take Manhattan, Tower of Song and Suzanne, as they have received sufficient attention.)
If It Be Your Will (Various Positions, 1984)
The sparse arrangement of this song charges the lyrics, which cast silent surrender as subversion. Cohen’s deceitful reverence is unnervingly powerful: If it be your will/that I speak no more/and my voice is still/as it was before/I will speak no more/I shall abide until/I am spoken for/If it be your will.
The Stranger Song (Songs Of Leonard Cohen, 1967)
Songs from Cohen’s debut album had some critics carelessly dismiss him as a Bob Dylan masquerader. The Stranger Song was his first attempt at reaching for mythological resonance in his songwriting. This was the beginning of Cohen fine-tuning his poetic ardour to folk rhymes.
Famous Blue Raincoat (Songs Of Love And Hate, 1971)
Cohen’s love letter to a friend is the highlight of Cohen’s autobiographical streak (found in other tracks like Suzanne, Chelsea Hotel No. 2 and So Long, Marianne). This literary masterpiece is in resplendent form with the dry acoustic semblance of a winter of betrayal and coveted love.
Paper Thin Hotel (Death Of A Ladies’ Man, 1977)
This was part of an unseemly collaboration with Phil Spector. This song is a celebration of Cohen’s sexual crudity in songwriting. The seedy quality of Spector’s Wall of Sound unwittingly compliments Cohen’s slurring delivery, the taunts of an ineloquent lover. A revelation.
You Want It Darker (You Want It Darker, 2016)
The heart of this funereal hymn burns with all of Cohen’s discontents, as he writes of his peaceful exit. It is also a testament to the bleakness of our politically fraught times. The darkness lingers with us into the silence following the song.