So long, Leonard Cohen
The life and loves of the late great poet and singer
Leonard Cohen passed away in the week Donald Trump, a wealthy property developer prepared to take over as the 45th president of America. The Canadian singer-songwriter, labeled the Godfather of Gloom and the Bard of the Bedsit early on in his career, was remarkably prescient about the shape of things to come in one of his best-known songs, Stories of the Street, from his debut 1967 album, Songs of Leonard Cohen.
In this utterly Dystopian song (though with a happy escapist ending), Cohen sang,
The age of lust is giving birth, and both the parents ask
the nurse to tell them fairy tales on both sides of the glass.
And now the infant with his cord is hauled in like a kite,
and one eye filled with blueprints, one eye filled with night.
That verse is the closest that Cohen has come to anguish. He was born into a well-heeled Jewish family from Montreal, which meant he was never a protest singer—never political in that sense of the term—and never a rebel in an age of rebel poets. Besides, as a lifelong smoker with an unbelievably bass voice, he was fated to ruminate quietly rather than scream out his thoughts.
Handsome, always immaculately dressed, frail and slightly hunchbacked, Cohen was a lover and was equally loved by some extraordinary and beautiful women. There was Suzanne (Suzanne Verdal, who feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China). But that was platonic: As Verdal mentions, making eye contact with Cohen alone was the “most intimate of touches and completely visceral” but that’s where she left it.
There was fellow-Canadian Joni Mitchell, the Virginia Woolf of songwriting: They lived together before she left, later describing him as “in many ways, a boudoir poet.” According to one Cohen biography, he was more her muse rather than she his. Later she remarked, “I’m only a groupie for Picasso and Leonard.”
There was Suzanne Elrod, about whom he sang in The Gypsy’s Wife, ‘And where, where is my Gypsy wife tonight, I’ve heard all the wild reports, they can’t be right.’ She was his wife and mother to their two children.
But most famously, there was Marianne. Marianne Ihlen, described in So Long Marianne as the “really pretty one” who had “gone and changed your name again”), a beautiful Norwegian he met in Hydra, Greece. Ihlen describes the first time she saw Cohen—in a grocery store and café: “I was standing in the shop with my basket waiting to pick up bottled water and milk. He was standing in the doorway with the sun behind him.” Cohen, in khaki trousers, sneakers, a shirt with rolled sleeves and a cap, asked her to join him and his friends outside. He radiated “enormous compassion for me and my child…. I felt it throughout my body. A lightness had come over me.”
Yet, Cohen’s many loves are a distraction from the man’s songs. We only know about his loves because, unlike many other poet-singers, he wrote about them freely and frankly. He spoke to journalists about his life, loves, his battle with acute clinical depression and even about his lifelong spiritual quest (although on that, with a degree of understandable reticence).
His last interview was with David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, who has a remarkable story to tell about his musical beginnings. Cohen was never trained but when he was in his 20s, a Spaniard turned up at a local tennis court and, over three lessons, taught him six guitar chords. “I knew nothing about the man, why he came to Montreal,” Cohen recalled years later in a speech. “…. why he appeared at that tennis court, why he took his life. . . . It was those six chords, it was that guitar pattern, that has been the basis of all my songs, and all my music.”
With limited training, the melodic structures of his songs were always simple, the versatile minors used with great effect to heighten the dramatic effect of his darker songs. Although it was his poetry that had his fans transfixed, Bob Dylan was a great admirer of Cohen’s melodic structures, and analyzed them in great detail.
Cohen deceived his fans with those songs dedicated to his lovers, because even they were laced graciously with mystic religious symbols, serving to lend them spiritual lines within lines,a habit that climaxed with his last album, You Want It Darker, released in October, an album redolent with the poet’s spiritual roots and a work of extraordinary beauty.
Cohen retreated to a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery in Los Angeles in 1994 and was ordained a Buddhist monk two years later. He cooked for his master and meditated long hours, although he was allowed to smoke and make his coffee, receive visitors and talk about women and money.
Earlier, this year, Cohen wrote movingly about his own impending death—once again in the context of his love Marianne. Told that she was dying of leukemia, he wrote to her: “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.”
When she passed away in July, Cohen was informed: “Your letter came when she still could talk and laugh in full consciousness. When we read it aloud, she smiled as only Marianne can. She lifted her hand, when you said you were right behind, close enough to reach her.”
Well then, so long Leonard.