There is a certain cosmic but bitter timing to what happened in the week gone by.
On Tuesday, we watched a rank caricature of a man capture all the keys to the kingdom. On Thursday, we witnessed the passing of one of the true great souls of popular music. It is as if the arrival of the former demanded the departure of the other, like darkness snuffing out the light.
In this week in which some hailed the revival of democracy, but more feared its demise, Leonard Cohen’s song Democracy (The Future/1992) remains the best lyrical exploration of conflicted America yet.
It’s coming from the sorrow in the street— (Democracy / 1992/ The Future)
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA
As powerful a song as Democracy is though, Leonard Cohen, unlike his friend and only true peer, Bob Dylan, never fancied himself a writer of protest songs. The politics that really interested Cohen were the ones that happened between the sheets and deep in a man’s soul.
Born into a well to do family in Montreal in 1934, Cohen enjoyed a happy, “tribal” childhood secure in the knowledge that his family were well-respected members of the Jewish community. Though he led a folk band in his teens, his first and enduring love was poetry, especially the writings of Spaniard Federico Garcia Lorca, which Cohen credited with giving him permission to express his own voice.
As a young man he moved to London before settling into what he thought would be an idyllic artist’s life on the small Greek island of Hydra. In a lazy atmosphere of writing, loving, spiritual practice and drug taking he honed his unique, svelte way with words. A novel, Beautiful Losers, and some poetry received little attention.
This was, after all, the age of rock ‘n roll – thin volumes of poetry did not exactly fly off the shelf. Frustrated that his long-idealised life as a writer was stalling at the first turn, Cohen gravitated to New York’s Greenwich Village folk music scene, where he began to sing some of his poems.
He created waves immediately. Established singers like Judy Collins championed his work. And it wasn’t long before the ultimate talent scout, John Hammond of Columbia Records, the man who had “discovered” Bob Dylan several years earlier, heard Cohen and signed him up. So moved was he that after recording Cohen’s first album, he is said to have exclaimed, “Watch out, Dylan!”
Dylan often comes up in conversations about Leonard Cohen. Both men share much: Judaism, iconic cultural status, insatiable appetites for literature, and a spiritual bent. They are also amiable rivals whose styles are as different as night and day.
While Dylan screamed through the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s making headlines, setting trends, shocking and mocking his audience, Cohen focused in on slowly, painstakingly ploughing one furrow at a time. Where Dylan seemed to snap songs in their entirety out of the ether, Cohen could labour for years over a single set of lyrics. His songs often sounded effortless but each had a difficult birth.
With the diligence and humility of a disciple, for over 50 years Cohen practiced his craft. He was a man of meticulous tastes. Things had to be just so. He was wearing dapper suits in the 1960s when most rockers showed the hair on their chests. He tweaked his lines over and over, never quite satisfied even after long periods of effort.
Over the years he developed a lyrical style and musical sound that he burnished into one of pop music’s most elegant and sparkling jewels. And right up to the time of his last album, released just a few weeks ago, his work continued to garner high praise from fans and critics alike.
Extravagance and a pop star’s lifestyle were of no interest to Cohen. He loved living a simple life and as his biographer, Sylvie Simmons, points out, was from a young age obsessed with inner emptiness. This had its dark side but it also introduced a certain minimalist structure to his life.
What mattered was not the house or the jet, but the words and the music. Leonard Cohen’s great contribution has been his unshakeable commitment to exploring the grand themes of human life – love, God and death – within the structure of a pop song. He had the magical ability not just to condense deep philosophical ideas into concise lines but to render them with a gravitas that was nearly scriptural.
Yes, you who must leave everything that you cannot control— (Sisters of Mercy/1967/Songs of Leonard Cohen)
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul
Well, I’ve been where you’re hanging, I think I can see how you’re pinned
When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned
When you listen to a song such as Hallelujah or Anthem you can’t avoid the feeling that they convey ancient human truths. Almost as if they have been channelled from another dimension. And though they were weighty enough to be read liturgically, as a Montreal synagogue did, his songs always hover lightly on the heart. It was a unique magic. Even he seemed transfixed by his creations, claiming that he had no real command of the process.
Despite his self-described happy childhood Cohen struggled with depression for much of his life. And like many in his trade, he sought redemption in drugs and drink. But it was the spiritual discipline such as submitting to the rigours of strict Zen practice for several years in the 1990s that brought the greatest peace.
Yet, though he was ordained as a Buddhist priest in 1996, his melancholy lingered. It was not until he spent the better part of a year attending the lectures of Ramesh Balsekar, Mumbai’s famous Advaita (non-dualism) teacher, that the depression at last “inexplicably” dissipated.
For the best part of a decade, Cohen had released no music and seemed to have retired from public life altogether. But after his time in India, and liberated of depression, Cohen staged a comeback that saw him produce some of best work and reinvent himself as the wise old sage of popular song.
In addition to the powerful and deceptively simple lyrics of his songs, Cohen’s sound was unique and special. All his melodies, he said, were based on six chords he’d learned from a Spanish flamenco guitarist over three short lessons. His teacher took his own life unexpectedly before Cohen’s fourth lesson. But the singer now had a musical framework in which he could set his voice.
Over the years he perfected the interplay of three basic elements: his gravelly baritone, spare thoughtful arrangements of the six chords, founded often on the strains of a nylon-stringed guitar, and female backing vocals.
In time, these elements blended together with such natural warmth it was impossible not to feel blessed by simply hearing the sound. Each song comes wrapped in a beautiful melody and moves at a deliberate, unhurried pace. It is here, in the slow, gentle unfolding of each song that his years spent immersed in Eastern philosophy are most clearly evident.
Cohen’s passing leaves a huge hole in the culture. We will miss his humour and his unflinching love of the human condition. We will miss the sly smile and his elegant double-breasted suits. We will miss his deep “golden voice”. But most of all we will miss the canny prophetic words he seemed to have for every occasion.
His best songs are rich hymns of hope. Not the sort of hope a devotee feels for heaven, but rather the gritty, scarred hope of the broken, doubtful, addicted and beautiful human.
Like a baby stillborn— (Bird on a Wire/1969/Songs from a Room)
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out to me
But I swear by this song
By all I have done wrong
I’ll make it all up to you
It is that recognition that redemption is available to each of us, no matter what we have done, that is a constant thread through Cohen’s songs.
And that is a good thing to hold on to in this week gone by, where hope is very much needed.