It seems so long ago indeed when I bought the first album of Leonard Cohen songs, the one with the saintly woman-in-flames on the back cover, and his photo-machine snapshot on the front.
Those days in popular music words still mattered, as they had early in the age of song. Like the Medieval troubadours if you could beat a drum or pluck a string and put a story or poetry to music, you could make a name for yourself, and a very big one at that, if you were Peter Abelard or Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Even when my old friend Bob went electric and got a band words still mattered. Music was the vehicle. Words were the message.
By the mid-1960s popular music was beyond what some might regard as a liminal, or transitional period, and the message of song was much more than a bottomless pit of sentimentality, endless expressions of Romantic love gone wrong. Instead, the message had become reality, the renewed art of holding a mirror up to a troubled world or soul, telling the truth about it, shedding insightful light in the darkness.
I certainly don’t consider myself any kind of expert on Leonard Cohen, the man and his art.
But, as with a great many people the world over, he was an important part of my life, and will no doubt remain so for as long as I live, if only because the words and music of the songs on his first album especially are engraved in my memory. Not all the words or all the music, but lines in certain songs that spoke to me and told me something about the state of the world and myself. Great art does that. More times than I can ever count I sang those lines to myself for spiritual consolation.
Lines like this, for example:
“It seems so long ago,
Nancy was alone,
A forty-five beside her head,
An open telephone.
We told her she was beautiful,
We told her she was free,
But none of us would meet her in
The house of mystery,
The house of mystery.”
“And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said ‘All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them . . .”
“Like a bird on a wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.”
I heard about Leonard Cohen’s death the morning after the recent seismic and perhaps fateful change in world affairs – that being the results of the U.S. Presidential election, of course.
It came in the midst of CNN’s otherwise wall-to-wall coverage of everything Trump, including those two big questions: how did he happen, and how did we, the polls, and the mainstream news media, get the election results so wrong?
Mention of the death of a great poet passed by quickly.
I was stunned, wondering if I had actually heard what I thought I had. I quickly turned to CBC news for confirmation. Yes, it was true. He was dead at 82, barely a few weeks after the release of his 14th and last album of songs, You Want it Darker.
I found myself wondering if the title was prophetic, especially when I heard later he had felt such a strong, urgent need to record his last testament of song, that he had to finish it at home, in a wheelchair.
He died the day before the election. His children, who had been with him as his health worsened, wanted time to arrange for his body to be returned from Los Angeles to his beloved home town of Montreal for burial beside his parents.
We Canadians still have enough of our long-standing inferiority complex (or is it truly modesty?) that we tend not to recognize and fully appreciate the accomplishments of those who were raised among us and went on to achieve world-wide acclaim. That especially applies to the arts: whereas we expect greatness from our hockey stars – which puts a huge, unfair burden on them when they compete internationally – we can never quite get over our surprise about the extent to which a Glenn Gould or a Margaret Atwood or a Leonard Cohen are celebrated internationally.
Leonard Cohen is a great poet, one of the greatest of modern literature. (My use of the present tense here is deliberate) He expresses a tragic sense of life, but also the beauty of it, the light breaking through the cracks in the darkness, or found in unlikely places, giving us hope:
“There are heroes in the seaweed,
There are children in the morning,
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror.”
To be honest I don’t know if Leonard Cohen is a prophet. At least one person whose thoughts and insights I respect thinks so.
He spoke at the end of the coming of an even darker time as he cried out in song, “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my lord.”
And yes, “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin,” words from an earlier song, come to mind, now more than ever.
But I’ll leave it to others more qualified than I to pass judgment on that part of his legacy.
A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in November, 2016