Leonard Cohen’s death at this moment feels like a sick joke.

Losing Leonard Cohen Right Now Feels Like a Sick Joke—Like One Out of His Songs

Losing Leonard Cohen Right Now Feels Like a Sick Joke—Like One Out of His Songs

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Nov. 11 2016 9:59 AM

Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye

Remembering the profane prophet Leonard Cohen, gone at the moment we need him most.

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Leonard Cohen in 2012 in Paris.

Thomas Samson/AFP/GettyImages

He always spoke with a voice forged by the prophets. This fall, doing interviews around his new album You Want It Darker, Leonard Cohen foretold that his death was near. Ever since, I’ve been thinking about how crushed I would be when it came. That this artistic companion and Canadian countryman who felt so personal to me (although shared by many others) would no longer be out there. Even when he was not circulating in public, I could trust he was raking sand early in the morning at a Zen monastery, or offering wine at night in his Los Angeles apartment to old friends and new, with his unfailing hospitality: Tonight a friend told me about a film crew who dropped by a few years ago to ask Cohen about licensing a song, and then spent the evening being served food and drink while he played them nearly all of an unreleased album—at the end, Cohen stood out on his front lawn, keeping watch until his guests drove out of sight.

Carl Wilson Carl Wilson

Carl Wilson is Slates music critic.

He never seemed to stop considering what path he was obliged to follow, and in his work he could make that feel like any human being’s inevitable haphazard journey. I wanted to know that I could tune in to that frequency in times of need, to be brought fresh fish and lemons by, as he mocked himself in 1974, “the grocer of despair.” (Canadian satirist Nancy White once joked in song that middle age meant “Leonard Cohen’s never gonna bring my groceries in.”)

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With Cohen’s death this week at 82, there’s a numb sensation that comes from hearing the static on his channel.* Few artists of such fleshy passion have kept such close counsel with death throughout their work. It cannot be taken as a surprise. But my feelings also have been exhausted by public events. His departure right now—was his life force likewise overtaxed by this week?—feels more like the sort of joke God played on Job or Abraham, the kind of subject he liked to sing about. Cohen’s personal prophecies, as so often, turned out to be accompanied by spiritual and worldly ones, the shadow that would traverse the sky in this election, another twist in humanity’s fate. “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,” he sang on that last album, at once addressing a god and a lover and an audience (his signature blend). It feels like that permission has been exercised by America’s middle-class voters, contrary to most expectations.

Way back in his great artistic manifesto “Tower of Song” in 1988, he sang, “The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor/ And there’s a mighty judgment coming—but I may be wrong.” It was part augury and (as almost always with Cohen) part quip. But, as W.H. Auden once wrote of the old-master painters, about suffering, Leonard Cohen was never wrong. “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.,” he sang in 1992, and we now know, if we didn’t before, that it was as much a threat as a promise.

I read Cohen’s poetry before I heard his music, when as an adolescent I was searching my Canadian school library for evidence it was possible to be a writer in this frostbitten, pragmatic land. He was half-responsible for motivating me to move to Montreal for college. Classmates would tell stories of spotting him at his apartment by the park around boulevard Saint-Laurent and Rue Marie-Anne. Young women would boast about being chatted up by the old cur at the local deli. The poetry, good as it was, was more provincial, torn between classicism and modernism. But when combined with song—with the limited musicality he used to its utmost (founded on some lessons from a passing flamenco guitarist) and his exquisite taste in accompanists and background singers—it became something that vaulted both forms, to produce his own singular genre, a wedding of worship and blasphemy, of sex and sacrament, of politics and privacy.

A lot of Canadians are going to bitch this week that Cohen should have gotten the Nobel Prize for Literature instead of Bob Dylan. In fact I doubt that without Dylan’s fracturing of possibilities in the early 1960s we ever might have had Cohen the songwriter. (And both were too obvious in their hybrid ambitions to make a compelling case for song as a literary form, the way a Chuck Berry laurel, for instance, might have done.) But in English there’s no one who’s united page and stage quite the way Cohen did. He came from a francophone province intimate with Jacques Brel and other figures of the lyrical chanson in France the decade before. I could name specific songs that prove his uniqueness, but it is actually all the songs, even the most oddball and unsuccessful. “Jazz Police” (“Stick another turtle on the fire/ Guys like me are mad for turtle meat”) is as much a part of that voice as “So Long, Marianne” (“We met when we were almost young,/ deep in the green lilac park./ You held onto me like I was a crucifix,/ as we went kneeling through the dark”).

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Beyond the songs, beyond the craft, intimacy is what he had in excess from the moment he emerged. People who don’t get the appeal of his first-nasal and later-gravelled voice miss that it was a guarantee of the extent of his effort. Even when he tended to the overwrought and the self-conscious in his early work, you knew what he was trying to tell you meant everything to him. There are many accounts of him working on single songs for years at a time, writing a dozen verses for every one he used. (And the end results were not very brief.)

He started out gifted but precious, always a little disobedient (witness the title of a poetry collection by a young Jew in 1964, Flowers for Hitler) but deeply under the influence of his McGill University literary mentors, and seeming older than his years. When wider fame came, he was in his early 30s, elderly beside his rock and folk peers, but colonially inclined to be less assertive. His first few waves of success almost destroyed him, the fragile and mannered poet suddenly playing to adoring masses, especially in Europe. (The film of his 1970 Isle of Wight concert shows how close to imploding he was, though also the singular way he transcended it, high and pleading for the crowd’s complicity.) In the 1970s he nearly succumbed to hard drugs and spiritual fads—he was even a Scientologist, as the references to “going clear” in “Famous Blue Raincoat” attest—not to mention Phil Spector’s cocked pistol in the recording studio on their strange but fascinating collaboration Death of a Ladies’ Man. (“I love you, Leonard,” said Spector, with his gun at Cohen’s throat. Cohen’s reply: “I hope you love me, Phil.”) Cohen’s depressions, addictions, and compulsions, as 2012’s biography by Sylvie Simmons attests, made him a much less gracious figure behind the scenes than he was in the public eye.

His bravado came from his privilege (his family was affluent and prominent in Jewish Montreal) and a kind of passive-aggressive masculinity that wouldn’t seem nearly so enticing in a young man today. (He had a Holden Caulfield side, calling everybody phonies but himself.) But unlike the priapic rock gods of his generation, he had been instilled by his rabbinical family line with an ironic humility, and a bond to tradition and history, that would not make his indulgences quite so casual. He later regretted the gaucheness of divulging that “Chelsea Hotel #2” recalled his tryst with Janis Joplin at that New York bohemian thoroughfare. But even in the song itself, composed after her death, he had to conclude: “I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best/ I can’t keep track of each fallen robin/ I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/ That’s all. I don’t even think of you that often.” It’s not his ex-lover he’s dismissing here, with that Biblical reference, but his own callowness. The choice to end on the lower-pitched, plain-speaking verse instead of a chorus leaves that verdict hanging ripe in the air. Cohen’s ability to gauge form this way means more to his songwriting than any decorative vocabulary or imagery.

Finally, nearly in his 50s, he began to fill out his young-old-man shape, his yearning for enlightenment. Unusually for any kind of celebrity, he seemed to become something like a genuinely wise person, and it translated into an old age difficult to compare to anyone else’s in popular music. It was evident in the music first. The album that the great but overplayed “Hallelujah” originally came from, 1984’s Various Positions, includes several songs at least as startling, even though his record company initially declined to release it. (“Look, Leonard, we know you’re great,” the head of CBS Records told him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good”). The next record, 1988’s I’m Your Man, stripped down both the language (suddenly more down-to-earth and agile) and the music (now based on two-fingered synthesizer lines) in a way that left him far fewer flourishes and filigrees to hide behind, and unfettered the comedy that always had been woven into his tragedies. He started calling himself on his phoniness more than ever. It lent him a new cool, but it was also his greatest breakthrough. He seemed to will it, gradually, with both luck and great devotion (at monasteries and ashrams and, as always, modest writing desks), into a new state of mind. Dissolution and unsteadiness slowly resolved into integrity and calm. Cohen always measured his work by whether it was better than himself, whether it seemed to come from somewhere larger. Eventually the two sides seemed to find parity.

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He was half-retired when he found out in the early 2000s that his former business manager had drained away most of his money, to the tune of $5 million. He had to go on the road to replenish his savings, but the stoicism of that choice soon became a conspicuous joy, as this senior citizen would spend hours at a time on stage communing with his listeners, like a kind of slow-motion Bruce Springsteen. It was during those years of touring as a form of service that Cohen’s broader reputation began to shift. He had been seen as a kind of forbidding icon; now he was a beloved papa. Thankfully, he never treated either image as the whole truth. He talked about love and work, pain and gratitude. He often caught himself describing the rigor of his calling and stopped to say that he knew he’d never had to be a coal miner, nor a dissident having his fingernails pried away. It was a luxury to live any life that had room for dwelling on art and emotion. His rush of final albums in his 70s and 80s, Old Ideas (2012), Popular Problems (2014), and this fall’s You Want It Darker summed up that fortune, and made their rueful peace with the story’s ending, in a way few artists ever get to do. (The nearest thing is Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series, perhaps.)

There is no singer I would rather hear or read being interviewed, certainly not anyone else from his 1960s musical generation. It’s hard to know exactly how to rate that quality in an artist. Cohen’s eloquence and dry wit stand out the way that Barack Obama’s does among politicians, and Cohen was a kind of politician of the soul, as strategic as he was frank. But his speech could be as nourishing as his songs. Now, as he sang in his hymn “If It Be Your Will,” he will speak no more, and his voice is stilled, “as it was before.” Those interviews, the film clips, the images—they are archives. What will remain is the writing and especially the music, with its cantorial phrasings, shtetl bounce, and old-world elegance, its sardonic knowingness and Nashville candor.

What song is right for this occasion? We’ve had enough of “Hallelujah,” so often used in TV and movie montages as if it were really about praise rather than paradox. I think instead of the regretful parting glance of “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” which often seems like the gentler corrective to Dylan’s kiss-off “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” There’s “So Long, Marianne” of course—the woman to whom it was addressed, his long-ago companion on the Greek island of Hydra, predeceased him by only a couple of months, and he generously shared their final communiques with his fans, perhaps to suggest that such connections never really need to be lost. “Closing Time” combines sex and death and intoxication in a joyful final hoedown (“The gates of love, they budged an inch/ I can’t say much has happened since/ But closing time”). There’s “I Can’t Forget,” with its punchline, “but I don’t remember what.” (The Pixies’ 1991 cover is worth hearing.) His postmodern psalm, “Who by Fire,” rehearses the many possible worldly means of death, and parries agnostically, “And who shall I say is calling?” And his “Anthem” of consolation includes the much-quoted line, “There’s a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in,” but also the gorgeous, and timely, “Every heart, every heart/ To love will come/ But like a refugee.”

Still, this week, under the circumstances, I come back to “Democracy.” Its restless hunger and drive and its outsider’s view of the American experiment feel so close to my own right now. There were verses Cohen discarded for being too “punchy” that feel disturbingly pertinent. But what both haunts and succors me today is the final verse: “I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean,/ I love the country, but I can’t stand the scene,/ And I’m neither left nor right, I’m just staying home tonight,/ Getting lost in that hopeless little screen./ But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags that time cannot decay,/ I’m junk, but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet:/ Democracy is coming to the USA.”

Let us not lay that bundle of flowers on Leonard Cohen’s grave today. Let’s hold it up like an unlikely, delicate sword. And press on, with his ever-bloodied but unbeaten faith.

*Correction, Nov. 15, 2016: This article originally misstated that Leonard Cohen died on Thursday. His death was first reported on Thursday, but he died on Nov. 7. (Return.)