For sometime now, Leonard Cohen had been preparing to die. What does it mean for a singer haunted by the thought of death all his life? Only that in songs and letters and interviews of late, he seemed to be preoccupied with the doing of it, the living of it. Death, perhaps, was the event he had always been waiting for.
In his last album, You Want it Darker, released earlier this year, you can hear the pall coming down. Death has lurked at the edges of his songs from the start, suggested in farewells and crossings and the sense that everything happened a long time ago. But this album is a final reckoning with faith, a catalogue of leave takings, both from relationships and from life.
Out of the game
The title track could have been a hymn sung by Lucifer – Cohen rebels even as he offers himself up to god. “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game,” he writes, “If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame/ If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame.” And then the jubilant chorus, “Hineni, hineni,/ I’m ready, my lord.”
In Treaty, two lovers sit across a table after it’s all over. But for Cohen, the mysteries of love have always been twined with the mysteries of faith, and so too the disillusionments. “I heard the snake was baffled by his sin,/ He shed his scales to find the snake within,/ But born again is born without a skin,/ The poison enters into everything,” the song goes. The dark political resonances of “born again” in today’s America cannot have been far from his thoughts. But then Cohen switches back to the personal register, to the scene at the table and the dying struggle. “I wish there was a treaty I could sign,/ Between your love and mine,” he sings in resignation.
The renunciations continue. In It Seemed the Better Way, where he tells himself to “Lift this glass of blood,/ Try to say the grace.” And in Leaving the Table, where he cuts his losses and declares himself “out of the game”. Do not regret me, he seems to be saying in this bleak, unsparing album, do not shed any tears. If there are moments of tenderness, they are quickly snuffed out by rage. Like Dylan Thomas, he will not go gently into the night. But this is not the passion of someone clinging ardently to life. Cohen is tearing up his papers, lighting up his books and storming out.
Goodbye old friend
The album is a contrast to the letter to Marianne Ihlen, his partner in the 1960s and the woman in the song, So Long, Marianne. Earlier this year, as she lay dying in a different continent, after half a lifetime spent apart, he wrote to her as if no time had passed:
“Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
For all the goodbyes said to all the women in his songs, this must count among the most moving. Cohen has always been fey, always obsessed with the ending of things. Suzanne fades across the seas to China and the lover in Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye has eyes soft with sorrow. Here the sense of an ending has come to fruition, and mortality has left evidence in bodies falling apart. Yet the end does not seem so important anymore.
As David Remnick of the New Yorker notes in what would be Cohen’s final interview, “He seemed not so much devastated by Marianne’s death as overtaken by the memory of their time together.” Cohen recalls a flower at his desk and a sandwich at noon, “Sweetness, sweetness everywhere.” Having explored various shades of transcendence all his life – Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Gnostic and internet – Cohen finally seemed to have mastered the skill of looking past the end.
Putting the house in order
But Remnick, who visited the singer at his house in Los Angeles this year, also found a man who could give a neat account of his last days:
“At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.”
No soaring goodbyes here, just a settling of the accounts. Which death did Cohen die, then? The angry renunciation of You Want It Darker? The reunion with Marianne? Or the calm closing of the books after all the numbers had tallied? Maybe all. Trust Cohen to find many good ways to die.