Another epitaph for another fallen star, another beloved icon, another brilliant musician who was also a brilliant human being. I do not want to tell you what you already know, that Leonard Cohen died last night at age 82. Cohen, it seems, accepted it, just as David Bowie accepted his death, and both poured their acceptance into one final record. Will we talk about You Want It Darker in the same awed tones as David Bowie’s Blackstar—as a knowing last letter of mixed hope and despair, a cryptic time capsule that opens a little bit more as the months ahead wear on?
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame
…. I’m ready, my lord
No matter what he had in mind, we cannot but see these lines now as a last testament. Cohen not only faced his own mortality, but this year lost his longtime lover and muse Marianne Ihlen to cancer. “I think I will follow you soon,” he wrote to her just before her death. “You Want It Darker” ties together the personal, the political, the spiritual, and the literary in a prophetic lament, weaving his struggle into all of ours. There are no answers, but “There’s a lullaby for suffering,” Cohen writes, then warns, “And a paradox to blame.” The compression of these lines belies a tremendous depth of religious and philosophical sentiment, the weight—it feels in Cohen’s last album—of the world.
But then this describes the music he made 30 years ago. And 50 years ago. “Cohen’s songs are death-haunted,” writes David Remnick, “but then they have been since his earliest verses.” He released his first album in 1967, followed two years later by Songs from a Room, the hallowed document of some of his best-loved songs: “Bird on the Wire,” “Story of Isaac,” “Tonight Will Be Fine,” and “The Partisan.” Cohen did not write that last one, and yet, though he “is often incorrectly credited as the composer of the song,” writes Alex Young at Consequence of Sound, “he is certainly responsible for its survival.”
Cohen universalizes the original French version; “the English lyrics contain no references to France or the Nazi occupation.” It spoke directly to the broken partisans in both France and the U.S. post-1968, a year very much like this one, wracked with violence, upheaval, tragedy, and resistance. Few songwriters have been able to consistently address the irrational passion, violence, and almost crushing determination of so much human experience with as much wisdom as Cohen, even if he downplayed what Remnick calls “the mysteries of creation” in his work, telling the New Yorker editor in one of his final interviews last month, “I have no idea what I am doing.”
Yet, almost no songwriter has inspired so much volubility from Bob Dylan, who spoke to Remnick at length about the fine intricacies of Cohen’s “counterpoint lines.” “His gift or genius,” said Dylan, “is in his connection to the music of the spheres.” Cohen’s lyrical sophistication charted his heterodox embrace of Judaism and Zen Buddhism, and his fascination with Christianity. But before he arrived in New York as a “musical novice” at thirty-two and became a mystical folk troubadour, he was a highly-regarded and controversial poet and novelist, a “bohemian with a cushion” from a Montreal Jewish family “both prominent and cultivated.” He even had a documentary about him made in 1965.
Cohen began publishing poetry in college and put out his first collection at 22, then moved to the Greek island of Hydra, where he met Marianne and published several more collections and two novels. Later while living in London, he wrote to his publisher about his desire to write for “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degree of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists.” (His onetime lover Joni Mitchell dismissed him as a “boudoir poet.”) Cohen more than achieved this aim as a songwriter, doing as much, perhaps, as Nico—whom he once pined for and maybe partly imitated—to inspire 80s Goths and New Romantics.
The dark eroticism in his work did not recede when, “frustrated by poor book sales,” writes Rolling Stone, “Cohen visited New York in 1966 to investigate the city’s robust folk-rock scene.” There, under the encouragement of Judy Collins, he “quickly became the songwriter’s songwriter of choice for artists like Collins, James Taylor, Willie Nelson and many others.” His first hit, “Suzanne,” above, vividly imagines Renaissance love scenes and echoes with the refrain “her perfect body,” while also imbuing its fleeting moments with the depth of sadness Cohen’s spacious baritone contained. Later albums like the Phil Spector-produced (and uncharacteristically loud) Death of a Ladies’ Man treat with sneering irony his “unbridled sexuality and brutal voyeurism.”
Cohen looked unflinchingly and with monkish intensity at his own excesses and weakness, and at ours, and saw them, tragic and beautiful, as our only strengths. “There is a crack in everything,” he sang in 1992’s “Anthem”—live in London below—“that’s how the light gets in.” No tribute can leave out his most beloved and most covered song—one of the most covered and beloved songs ever written— “Hallelujah.” From its best-known Jeff Buckley version in 1994 to Rufus Wainwright’s and countless others, the song instantly conjures gravitas and stirs deep wells of emotion in the secular and religious alike. First released in 1984 on Cohen’s album Various Positions, it attracted little attention at first.
His version lacks the high gospel drama of many interpretations, despite the backing gospel choir, but his loping barroom delivery and lounge-pop backing music work in hypnotic dissonance. It’s a song that took him five years to write. (Malcolm Gladwell has a whole podcast dedicated to the writing of the song.) “He drafted dozens of verses,” writes Remnick, around 80, “and then it was years before he settled on a final version.” Dylan performed the song in the late eighties, “as a roughshod blues.” In conversation with Remnick, Dylan paused his very detached evaluation of Cohen’s technical genius to remark it’s “the point-blank I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself aspect of the song [that] has plenty of resonance for me.” I think we’ll find that to be true of Leonard Cohen the more we unpack his austere, sensual, profoundly lyrical-in-the-most-ancient-of-ways body of work.