Leonard Cohen – In Memoriam
Leonard Cohen left this world on Monday November 7th, 2016 at the age of 82. He was subsequently laid to rest in a quiet and private ceremony in Montreal before the public were made aware of his passing.
We all knew that this day would come, but I doubt any of us were truly prepared for it.
Yesterday, when the news was announced, I felt a pain I could not have anticipated. A sense of loss which transcended the usual chasm of reality which exists between artist and admirer. We’re well conditioned to the manner in which celebrity death is covered and dealt with, but Cohen, for me, seemed to exist somewhere outside that realm.
There is no living artist for whom I care about as much as I care for Leonard Cohen. His work changed me in a way in which no other writer, singer or performer has achieved. This is simply my fond farewell.
I wanted to take my time in putting this together. Everything was too raw initially, and the nature in which the internet deals with high-profile deaths can be overwhelming. I was online around 1 am when the post went up that Cohen had passed. I couldn’t sleep a wink after that. I just watched people begin to share the news through the night. What began as scant raindrops of tribute and memory became a deluge that took on both unstoppable momentum, and a bizarre uniform; almost stripping away the individual with the manner in which it was purveyed. How do you reduce the impact of Cohen’s work into a meme, or a solitary quote? You can’t. It simply isn’t possible. I had to step away to let it all settle in. It was too much.
While the world was quoting Anthem I felt more like Dress Rehearsal Rag.
Those two songs serve as a good example of the duality of Leonard Cohen’s work, which ranged from delicate and tender to a more shadowed place; dark and tattered, in which one is wandering, lost and hopeless.
The wine-soaked bard of midnight and the humbled elder master; Cohen managed to be both with seemingly effortless transition. His craft allowed narrative clarity and oblique, representative imagery to converge seamlessly. Cohen’s lyrics and poetry rarely utilise more words than they need to; but his deftness of syntax and solemnity of delivery would culminate in an emotive sensation which will forever be unparalleled.
His lyrics read like poetry. His poems like lyrics. Each word considered. Agonised over. Sometimes for years. His literary endeavours should not be overlooked. Whilst his novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966) may be disparaged as mere juvenilia by some, there is an experimental and thrilling sense of passion in them both. Those early works showcased an almost insatiable sexual desire, combined with a sense of yearning, both of which would become staples of his songs.
Cohen came into my life at a very early age; 13 maybe 14, and his work would help to sculpt my appreciation for lyricism, art and beauty. The commonly quoted belief that Cohen’s music is overtly maudlin is a fallacy. While he showed no fear in exploring the darker reaches of the soul, he did so in the manner of an observer; examining each emotional experience with an equalised sense of wonder and humanity, no matter how debilitating or uplifting it may be.
Arriving onto the music scene relatively late in life (his mid-thirties which, in popular musical terms, is practically past it), Cohen’s early career was fraught with anxieties, his second act with complexities and, in his final years, everything fell into place.
With a 50 year career in which he never settled into either repetition nor self-parody, Cohen went through many significant musical (and vocal) transformations within his lifetime, all of which hold their own appeal and resonance.
The baritone of his later years became a home for some of his most memorable work, with Old Ideas (2012), Popular Problems (2014) and You Want It Darker (2016) serving as an almost flawless final trilogy. Sharing the themes of reflection, mortality and longing, they were a hopeful and poignant collection of songs which we have not yet had the time to fully appreciate. Cohen’s work is about longevity. It may take years before an album, or song, or poem of his is fully absorbed, but once it becomes part of you, that’s it. It’s there forever.
I’m not one for picking favourites, making Top 10 lists, or anything like that. For me, all art, be it music, film or literature is constantly in flux. Emotions, tastes and expectations all change. There have been very few that have stayed the course. Apart from Leonard Cohen. I don’t think a week has gone by in which I haven’t put on a Leonard Cohen album click here at some stage. Be it the raucous, drunken debauchery of Songs of Love and Hate (1971) or the synth-laden excess of I’m Your Man (1988), there is a time and place for all of them, and I have limitless space in my heart for each one. The sensuality of his later work (Ten New Songs (2001) in particular) and the iconic early classics are inarguably beautiful. 1974’s New Skin For The Old Ceremony would be high on my list if I did have one though, pipped to the post by The Future, his flawless 1992 album; the one which brought me to the dance in the first place.
I grew up with the concept of Leonard Cohen as the reclusive monk, who had shunned fame for spirituality. His touring days, as far as anyone else was concerned, were over. Even upon the release of Ten New Songs and Dear Heather (2004) in the early ‘00s, he remained elusive. A few art exhibitions and little else. It seemed that he was happy to stay in the shadows.
We have Hal Willner to thank for Cohen’s post-millennial return to the stage. That and the unfortunate financial situation that the singer found himself in when he returned from his stint as a monk on Mount Baldy to find his manager had been stealing from him. It was in October 2006 that Willner’s Came So Far For Beauty was performed as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. The two night show featured the likes of Lou Reed, Nick Cave, The Handsome Family, Anohni and Anjani Thomas, all performing the works of Cohen. It was an astonishing night. I attended with my wife, Paula, and a mutual friend and we were amazed by the passion and range of the performances. I thought that would be the closest thing that we would get to seeing the man play live. He was, after all, something of an enigma by this point.
In the wake of the Willner event at The Point Theatre, Cohen was convinced to go back on the road and, in June 2008, he played a string of dates at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham, Dublin. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it from a live performance. The picture above this article is one of our own, taken by Paula on the night. The following is from a review I wrote at the time.
“I am still not quite the same since Sunday. To say that I witnessed a momentous event in my life is a meagre understatement. To attempt to convey exactly what emotions were felt and the elation that was experienced is almost impossible. If I could verbalise it, believe me, I would. It would not serve justice, however, as I am greatly aware of the possibility of vulgarising the affair through poor description. When one writes in an instance of high emotion, the tendency to slip into cliché and overused terminology presents itself to a much greater extent than when covering topics of a lesser degree.”
Needless to say it left quite an impression. We would see Cohen twice more. Later that year in Paris, at the L’Olympia, and then again in 2012, back in Kilmainham. My wife was pregnant at the time, which is why we missed the final leg in 2013. We knew we’d been luckier than most though, as we had been front and centre for two of those shows. No point in getting greedy. I’ll remember those nights forever. Cohen’s grace, humility and immense talent radiated from him with every note.
That final tour dispelled all of those misjudged conceptions that Cohen was miserable. Or in fact for miserable people. The thousands who attended his shows came together in elation and joy. Cohen was no longer a mystery. He was there for us all. When we needed him the most.
I remember the hope in which he introduced Democracy. Full of excitement for the future of America. The summer of 2008 seems a world away this dark November.
One thing that Cohen taught us is that good art takes time. This is something worth remembering in an age where a thought is rarely finished before it’s fired out into the world.
Leonard Cohen’s legacy is worth so much more than a hashtag. It’s a reminder to explore. To learn about ourselves and the healing that exists in art, music and words.
I will never feel this way when another artist passes on. I will be sad. Certainly. I will grieve with the rest, but not like this. I think I know why I wanted to take my time in writing these words. I simply didn’t want to say goodbye; but now I must.
Goodbye Leonard Cohen. Thank you for all the beauty you brought into my life.