current song: You Want It Darker - Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen came into my life exactly a half century ago, in 1966. Harold Federow, living next door to me in my dormitory, lent me Cohen’s first book of poems “Let us Compare Mythologies” and then I bought “The Spice Box of Earth”. I was a Montreal-raised Jew living in the US, a teenager interested in spirit and obsessed with sex, and Cohen’s work pulled me in and bound me to him. A year later in 1967 his first album came out, and I was his man, then and forever. I love song lyrics that are ambiguous, that I need to work at, and he had them. I loved the marriage of the sacred and the profane, which his work has always had. And I loved his sense of humour. I always found Cohen to be very funny, and remain puzzled at those who only see darkness and morbidity in his work.
His second album, “Songs from a Room”, has a song, “The Story of Isaac”. It’s a retelling of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, contrasting Abraham, who is obeying a divine vision, to those today who sacrifice children for mundane schemes. The last verse puzzled me:
“When it all comes down to dust,
I will kill you if I must, I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust,
I will help you if I must, I will kill you if I can.”
For two years I worried at that verse, as Rui worries at a marrow bone. Clearly helping and killing are opposites- so why the reversal? I was sure there had to be a meaning. One day the mist lifted: when it all comes down to dust, nothing matters. It is when it doesn’t come to dust, when there is something higher at play, like a divine commandment, that things do matter. And since then I have known that his images will cohere, and that when studied deeply enough, their meaning will open.
By then I had read and loved his two novels, enough that when in 1970 I moved to England and only took two books, one was “Beautiful Losers”, his surreal and complex rebraiding of Quebec history, sanctity, passion and much else. It was a link to the home behind me. And that summer was the first time I got to hear and see him in concert, at the Isle of Wight music festival. Just me, and 600,000 other people. It was Hendrix’s last concert; The Who played all of “Tommy” as their third encore; Cohen got four encores, the last at 3 am, and he seemed genuinely puzzled by how much the mass of people loved him. He looked out at us, smiled, and said, “Well, I guess maybe it’s good music to make love to.”
I followed his career, reading the books of poetry and listening to the albums as they came out. I did a long analysis of his work for a fourth year Canadian Literature course at York, getting a memorable response from a professor who both gave me an A, and suggested that Cohen’s work all followed the same pattern of positing a heroic ideal which he then elegantly mourned his inability to achieve. That may have been true for some of the early work, but his later songs often went deeper and became more complex. He remained one of the increasingly few artists whose albums I would always buy, and always spend time listening to and thinking about. And there was never one that left me feeling the time had been wasted.
After his decade at a Zen monastery on Mount Baldy, when he emerged to find his manager had both stolen and spent all his money, he was forced to return to performing. I saw him twice in those years, and he was exquisite: a performer who held nothing back, and who showed a respect for his band and his audience that was profoundly deep. He remained funny and self-deprecating – in a performance in London he commented, “When I was last here I was 60, just a young kid with a crazy dream.” It was inspiring to see someone older than me who remained creative and fully present with where he was in life, who was not just reduced to a cover band for songs he had written decades ago.
And always the lyrics remained relevant: when I wrote about retirement I chose his verse from “Closing Time” as my epigraph:
“And I just don’t know what happens next
Looks like freedom, but it feels like death
It’s something in-between I guess
It’s closing time.”
His last album, “You Want It Darker” came out a month ago. Both on the album, and in the long New Yorker piece that came at the same time, it was clear that he saw his death as imminent. His response was that of Abraham’s in the story of Isaac: the Hebrew word “Hineni”, here I am. On first listening I found the album disappointing: simple and sparse musically, and perhaps too simple lyrically. But one song at a time, I have been seeing greater depth and more meaning in it. I will work at it, for as long as it takes. And I will work at it as well because there will be no more albums.
He died the day before Donald Trump was elected, though we didn’t know of his death till the day after the election. I was on Facebook, and saw that a friend had posted news of his death– a quick check of a news station, confirmed it. I am surprised, over and over again, how much knowing a death is coming is no bulwark against the emotional impact of that death.
The next day I went to a concert by Amanda Palmer. She had told her audience to bring items for an alter to Cohen, and talked about her love for him, and how a mutual love for Cohen had helped to bring her and her estranged father back together. She sang four of his songs to open her concert while maybe three or four hundred of us lined up to create an alter on the stage. There were candles, flowers, books, photos of Cohen, and somewhere, a small picture of Rui that I had carried in my wallet for 9 years. I didn’t get the email until I was at the concert, and searching for a precious object that was what I found. It felt right, not least because Amanda changed the verse in “Everybody Knows” from the original “Everybody got a broken feeling, like their father or their dog just died” to “Everybody got a broken feeling, like Bowie or Cohen just died”. And then Neil Gaiman came out and read the lyrics to “Democracy”, that optimistic vision of a better America, and there was some healing of the pain we all felt. As Amanda would write later, “There are so many cracks in everything right now that the light is going to be blinding.”
Two days later, at my Unitarian church, many of us lit candles in his memory. Our service closed with a singing of “Hallelujah”.
“And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand right here before the Lord of Song,
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”
Cohen says to God in the title song on his last album,
“You want it darker
We kill the flame.”
And so one of the big guiding flames in my life has gone out. But the candles of his work still burn for me, and for that light I am deeply grateful. Hallelujah.