Say Goodbye to Leonard Cohen Through Some of His Best-Loved Songs: “Hallelujah,” “Suzanne” and 235 Other Tracks

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mal­colm Glad­well on Why Genius Takes Time: A Look at the Mak­ing of Elvis Costello’s “Depor­tee” & Leonard Cohen’s “Hal­lelu­jah”

Ladies and Gen­tle­men… Mr. Leonard Cohen: The Poet-Musi­cian Fea­tured in a 1965 Doc­u­men­tary

Leonard Cohen Recounts “How I Got My Song,” or When His Love Affair with Music Began

The Poet­ry of Leonard Cohen Illus­trat­ed by Two Short Films

Rufus Wain­wright and 1,500 Singers Sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hal­lelu­jah”

Leonard Cohen Reads The Great World War I Poem, “In Flan­ders Fields”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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