Reflections On Leonard Cohen
A personal tribute to man of elegance and insight
How can someone I’ve never met be such a tutor to me? The attitude he bore — a combination of crooked spirituality and elegant pessimism— I have seen nowhere else. Neither a follower or a leader, Leonard Cohen trod his own path, and this made all the difference to me.
His attributes were discordant: crestfallen and humorous, religious yet profane. The novelist Tom Robbins perhaps caught it best, when he compared to Cohen to the strange concoction of Zorba the Buddha:
“Such a man knows the value of the dharma and the value of the deutschemark, knows how much to tip a waiter in a Paris nightclub and how many times to bow in a Kyoto shrine.”
Robbins was describing a fantasy figure, but I agree with his instinct to reach for the apparently contradictory to capture Cohen’s style. A poetic cosmopolitan, a holy flâneur, a whisky drinking monk. Authentic and false at the same time; somehow he managed to carry it off.
I understand why a person might need to tell the truth and lie at the same time.
He was bold enough to relinquish showmanship. He said he never looked right in a pair of denim jeans.
If he emerged out of an established tradition, then I was not aware of it. Because of this, I always found in Leonard Cohen’s sparse voice and cool melodies a robust repudiation of ordinary life, and all the predictable concerns that arise out of it. With Cohen speaking to me, I felt shielded from banal discomforts.
The first I heard about the death of Leonard Cohen was as I was making breakfast, on a Friday morning in November 2016, when I switched on the radio and the newscaster announced it.
It turned out that he died a few days before, but the news on the radio was as fresh as knife blade. At first I felt “I knew this was coming” — my favorite musician to sing no more — and in the first few moments I absorbed it in rather cold, clear-headed recognition. Old men do die, and Cohen had been ripening into his old-age for some time. Even at just thirty, a journalist described him as having the stoop of an aged crop-picker (though the face of a curious little boy). Whilst in his sixties, he’d been told he was on the “royal road” to some kind of cigarette-abetted demise, the fright of which caused him to give up the cancer-sticks, although he planned to start again if he ever reached eighty. And his final three albums had all reported on the impending third act — the one that never ends well — so the scene had been well and truly set. Yet it took me only about three minutes for my emotions to swell up in a terrible, warm-blooded surge.
I think it is easy to see how musicians, pop stars and rock stars, can become our everyday heroes. The intimacy with which we experience the presence of artists through their work is perhaps especially true of musicians. The words they sing — or in Cohen’s case, sonorously ramble — are there, right inside our ears. Moreover, recorded music repeats its fidelity with every listen. We learn the lyrics, master the vocal cadences, deeper and deeper each playback. We notice how successive albums display an arc of artistic progress. We observe the musical habits, the motifs that repeat between unrelated records, or how live renditions vary from studio albums. With each listen these truths become more true over time. All these details we can come to know so forensically that it can sometimes feel we are the first to make sense of them.
In this vein, if I could be called a connoisseur of anything, I believe I am a connoisseur of Leonard Cohen. I don’t claim to know every fine detail of his life story, or possess an encyclopedic knowledge of his concert tours or session musicians. My expertise lie in my acute fondness for his music, which I have listened to more or less every day since I was eighteen years old. Whatever the manner of my mood, I can locate some portion of reassurance in a Cohen song.
‘Leonard Cohen the Poet’ is not a category that needs inventing or extrapolating, as is often done with Bob Dylan, say, from his lyrical output. Through his twenties Cohen published poetry collections and attended public recitals. The 1965 film Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr Leonard Cohen, made by the National Film Board of Canada, captures this period in beautiful detail. Cohen appears plump-cheeked and exuberant, assuredly forthright; not entirely relaxed, he grins often and make grandiloquent statements. He is intellectual and a touch pretentious too. Most of all, he is working hard to demonstrate his credentials as the charismatic Montreal poet, a witness to metropolitan street life and barroom indulgence.
I love watching this film, especially how it reveals the composite parts of Cohen’s character in their early formation. I particularly enjoy the part where he speaks of his close circle of friends, such as Robert Hirschhorn, whom Cohen describes as “one of the great tightrope acrobats of our century. He flirts with clinches, he dances with prototypes, but he escapes them all…” Another friend is a sculptor named Mort Rosengarten, of whom Cohen says, “Mort is one of the great gentlemen that anybody who knows him knows. He’s organically a gentleman and one of my oldest and dearest friends. You only have four or five friends… and lucky if you even have that many.” Then there’s the painter Derek May. Cohen says, “He is the most irreverent person I know. His humour is based on the idea of upset. That’s what he does with ideas. He rocks them like those boxing toys that never fall over.”
In these comments, one gains a sense of the productive role of hyperbole: Cohen speaks so flamboyantly of his circle that he betrays — even engineers — his own universal ambitions. Speaking as if the eminence of his social group was already assured, the young writer is unabashed in his desire to be noticed and taken seriously.
Whilst watching the film, it’s hard not to seek clues for the transition that was very soon to come, from bard to balladeer, an idea that was surely incubating in the back of the 29-year-old’s mind as the film cameras followed him. It was in this stage of his life that Cohen first took residence on Greek island of Hydra, where he visited on a whim after a rainy day in England, and bought a rundown villa there in order to complete his first novel, the grasping, salty The Favourite Game, an autobiographical bildungsroman about a young man who discovers his identity through writing.
This part of Cohen’s life, of the house on Mediterranean, is where my own version of Cohen’s life begins. My self-claimed connoisseurship is constructed around selected stories like this, which are limited in scope and perhaps even in accuracy. Don’t we all write a biased hagiography of our heroes?
I have thought about the story of Hydra many times — that is, Cohen’s arrival and his staying there, in the sun and just a short walk from the sea. It perpetuates an archetypal story that exists in my imagination, of an artist disappearing into the world in order to see and enjoy a deeper mode of experience. In my imagination, the Greek island lurks in the background of all his early songs, So Long, Marianne and One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong, as if the blue of the Mediterranean can be somehow seen or felt in the distance. My private folklore dwells heavily on what I see as his best album Songs of Love and Hate, which is as sparse and mournful as anything he ever wrote, especially with Famous Blue Raincoat, Last Year’s Man and the live rendition of Sing Another Song, Boys from the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, where Cohen performed to a 600,000 strong crowd straight after Jimi Hendrix. With later songs, I tend to skip over Hallelujah in preference for Night Comes On and The Law, and the slightly earlier The Smokey Life. I luxuriate in Take This Waltz and Everybody Knows, then Waiting for the Miracle…
But I’ll stop there. It’s easy to draw up a list of your favorite songs from your favorite musician. It’s harder to surmise what those songs mean, as if any artist offers just one characteristic experience. It’s always myriad, and with Leonard Cohen it’s all the more difficult because his creative energies were at work for fifty years over a number of different eras and stages of his life. A task too inordinate to attempt here…
Of the many jigsaw pieces that make up my reverence for Cohen, his relationship with Buddhism stands out as defining, even though — typical of him — his precise thoughts on the religion were closely guarded. Buddhism has come to play a role in my life too, and I have often looked to Cohen to indicate a pathway by which the spiritual can be made to work with the secular.
Cohen always claimed to have no “religious aptitude”, despite being ordained as a monk at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in the hills of Los Angeles, and retreating there for almost five years. In interviews he complained that the lifestyle was severe, and joked that to the American students presided over by strict Japanese monks was like the revenge of World War II. Yet it is clear that Cohen was always on the search for some sort of deliverance from ordinary torment, and was satisfied by his time in the Zen center. He spoke of a circle closing, a completion of one part of his life, and so another part could begin. He said that the experience cured him of a misapprehension, a misapprehension that he was sick. Anymore than this, he was never to be drawn.