When I was around 10-years old, I remember visits to my cool, left-leaning uncle and loving his record collection. Aside from the usual hits by the Beatles, etc., the one artist that stuck in my mind — and, honestly, not necessarily in a good way — was Leonard Cohen. I couldn’t quite understand why my uncle wanted to listen to this miserable voice singing miserable songs. But there was obviously something memorable about him.
As I got older, my tastes shifted from ska and reggae to soul and punk, but I never forgot Leonard. And strangely, the songs began to make sense. By the time I was in art college, the love songs began to hit home. “So long, Marianne” and “Suzanne” all played into my artistic sensibilities. “Famous Blue Raincoat” had the gorgeous lines:
Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear
Did you ever go clear?
After all, aren’t we all trying to go clear?
It also helped that liking Cohen was a bit pretentious, which suited me perfectly. “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” or “Bird on a Wire” were great additions to mix tapes, interspersed with The Pogues, The Clash, The Temptations and various obscure reggae tracks that showed how eclectic I was.
Then, in 1988, he released the album “I’m Your Man.” By this time his voice, roughened by alcohol and cigarettes, had a world-weary quality, which perfectly matched the realizations of my 28-year-old self (ah, if only one knew then how much more wearying life could get). But the lyrics had a wry humor. “First We Take Manhattan,” “Everybody Knows” and “Take This Waltz” (his translation of a Federico Garcia Lorca poem) became staples of my listening routine.
“Tower of Song” was a slyly self-deprecating piece that still makes me laugh, especially the older I get:
Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song
These were songs not of despair, but observations of the human condition. Finally, after being exposed to his music for 20 years, I got it.
Here was a man simply trying to figure things out. Going back through his catalogue, one could hear all the questions that we ask ourselves. The beauty of his lyrics is that there are no answers, but I don’t really think that is Cohen’s mission.
His wordplay was superb. Part of the appeal of, arguably, his most popular song, “Hallelujah,” is its ambiguity. For some, it is a spiritual piece, for others, it is an exploration of sexuality. For example:
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.
One could argue that sexuality and spirituality go hand-in-hand with each other, but that’s just my view.
Leonard certainly had a way with the ladies. Maybe it was the voice. Maybe it was the sensual wordplay — “Light As The Breeze” is one of the most erotic songs ever recorded. Whatever it was, it certainly worked for him. And through him, maybe us a little bit — it certainly didn’t hurt.
Cohen disappeared for years, retreating to a life as a monk in a California monastery until he was forced to return to the world after his manager embezzled his savings. The return gave us several more great albums, such as “Popular Problems,” whose track “Slow” gave us the lines:
I’m slowing down the tune
I never liked it fast
You want to get there soon
I want to get there last
His final release in October, “You Want It Darker,” meditated on age and death. The title track featured the lines:
They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker
We kill the flame
Once again, he was just allowing us to listen in while he asked a few questions.
There was always a song or lyric that suited the occasion. I even use his song, “Dance Me To The End Of Love” as a vital element of my short play “Trash.”
Cohen died Nov. 11, at age 82. He was witty, thoughtful, and a magnificent wordsmith — more than that, he was cool. Not cool in a superficial, celebrity way, but cool in the come-with-me-on-the-journey way — or not, it was always our choice.
I started the journey too young to understand. But he dragged me along, despite my protestations, until I came to love and understand my traveling companion. And he left the music for the rest of the journey so we can continue the conversation.
Thanks for the talk, Leonard.
Sincerely, A Coughlan.