The crash course: An afternoon with Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

“Well, Marianne, It’s come to this time when we are really 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.”

Leonard Cohen wrote that for Marianne Ilhen, an early muse – “So Long, Marianne” was written for her – and his partner throughout the 1960s. It was part of his farewell letter to her, written shortly before she passed on; its contents were revealed during her funeral.

I always thought it was so poignant.

As I wrote earlier today, I was meaning to dig deep into Leonard Cohen’s work. Two things went against me. One, I never really had the time. Two, I felt I would just be doing a half-arsed effort, at least compared to my friends who already knew him, idolized him all their lives. I am no poetry-writing beatnik. I am just a guy attempting to write about one of the world’s best-loved, perhaps arguably underappreciated, songwriters. Anything I do, I would look like I’m just riding a bandwagon. It may not matter, but it felt like a big enough concern for me, enough to deter myself to do anything.

I knew of his recent story, however. Upon finding that his manager took all his money away, he returned to the live circuit, his tour running for two years and bringing him back to prominence among dedicated fans as well as newcomers who perhaps also felt like he was impenetrable. I also knew of the sense that the clock is running out on him. His last three albums – 2012’s Old Ideas, 2014’s Popular Problems, and You Want It Darker, which was released just last month – were all heralded as a final hurrah, only one that stretched on for longer than most anticipated, thankfully.

I had to write something, I thought. Only now, it is, arguably, too late.

 

Everybody knows “Hallelujah”, but mostly because of the Jeff Buckley cover (and the fact that every singing competition has a contestant attempting to do that version, half failing). Perhaps it’s one of the rare examples of a Leonard Cohen being added on. Most people would likely remember Jeff’s emotive, soaring vocal than Leonard’s plain-spoken delivery, but then, his words were always the star of the show, so to speak. While he mostly pursued a music career, around the same time as Bob Dylan, he also wrote poetry, and some novels as well. The depth of his oeuvre, admittedly, scared me off all these years. You inevitably have the urge to connect all the themes and have these personal feelings about them. I wasn’t able to do that then, and I can’t as hell do it today, even if I’m writing this.

 

But the first Leonard Cohen song I found myself really struck by was “Going Home”, a self-referencing assessment of all that came before – as well as a rumination of the inevitably that lay ahead – which was released with Old Ideas. “He will speak these words of wisdom like a sage, a man of vision,” he said, “though he knows he’s really nothing but the brief elaboration of a tube.” As the opening salvo of that aforementioned long goodbye, this captures the situation at its plainest – and with some good old self-deprecation on his part, too.

He was steadily gaining a reputation as a poet and novelist in the 1950s, his works being compared to the greats by some critics. But, with the rise of rock and roll in the 1960s, he would naturally be restless. He always loved music as a child – started a country band during his teenage years in Montreal – and perhaps felt that he could say more with a guitar rather than with just words. He moved to Nashville in an attempt to start a country music career, but ended up in New York and its burgeoning folk scene. He attracted the attention of singer Judy Collins, who covered one of his compositions in 1966. The following year, he would release his own album. He was already in his 30s.

 

Songs of Leonard Cohen was a bleak collection of tunes, but it set up his oeuvre nicely, with some of the songs on there now considered classics. “So Long, Marianne” was one of them, and “Suzanne” is another. I remember hearing this song at one point in the past couple of years and not really getting any of it. This just droned on and on for me, although I never had the energy to wonder why it’s considered one of Leonard’s definitive songs. It was popular even during its time, although it was a cult concern in the United States and a bigger success across the pond. I’m not sure if it’s because of the song being, essentially, about Leonard imagining a sexual relationship with a real-life friend. Then again, now that I listen to it intently, it wasn’t sneery, or even intentionally funny – it had this tinge of ennui.

 

I am spending this whole afternoon just listening to Leonard Cohen, or at least his hits, and reading up on him, or at least the few tributes that have popped up since. I don’t know. I guess it’s the least I could do.

It seems you can split his musical career into three phases. There’s this first phase, from the 1960s and 1970s, when he was resolutely focused on his folk side. “Bird on the Wire”, released with his 1969 record Songs from a Room, is a contemplative declaration, inspired by his time at the Greek island of Hydra, where he lived with Marianne. “Famous Blue Raincoat”, released with 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate, is another one of those songs I apparently heard somewhere – I remember clearly (see what I did there) wondering if Leo Sayer took this song’s melody for his “When I Need You”. These albums – or at least what I’ve heard of them – would get bleaker, perhaps his depression playing into things.

There were moments of experimentation, some regrettable (Leonard was never into 1977’s Death of a Ladies’ Man, mostly because of how the collaboration with Phil Spector turned out – very, very different) and some for the best. The 1980s saw a bit of a resurgence, and a shift towards more lush instrumentations – and his first music video, for “Dance Me to the End of Love”, belied a narrative inspired by the Holocaust. 1984’s Various Positions would give us “Hallelujah”.

 

I’m Your Man, released in 1988, was Leonard’s synthpop record. Odd, considering how he disliked his work with Phil Spector, but then again, that was really over the top; his Wall of Sound style just does not gel. There’s something with 1980s synths that feels more versatile, arguably.

“First We Take Manhattan” captured an interesting time for Leonard. After his songs took on a more political sheen, he incorporated more social commentary on I’m Your Man – this one’s about terrorism – while “Everybody Knows” merely used it as a backdrop to his more typical personal ruminations on fate. (And then there was the more apocalyptic “The Future”, from his 1992 album of the same name.) His collaboration with the singer Jennifer Warnes (yes, her, up where we belong) resulted in her releasing an album of Cohen covers, and his work was discovered by younger fans thanks to that synthpop glitter and appearances in several notable film soundtracks. But then, in 1994, he decided to go on five years of seclusion, becoming a Zen Buddhist monk. Perhaps he was trying to find his answers there, I’m not really sure.

Leonard returned with several other albums in the early part of the noughties, with a much lighter outlook – he says Zen Buddhism helped him out of his depression. But then came those legal troubles, of him finding out his money is no longer there anymore. Our paths were finally to cross.

 

“You Want It Darker” is on high rotation these days in the radio stations I listen to – understandably, considering it’s his latest single, from an album released just a few weeks back. Here, as with his last three records, he returns to his sparse instrumentation, while settling into the role of a wise man who’s seen it all. Five decades – it is a lot to be seen. And his voice was clearly still needed: he managed to speak the universal without really being very oblique about it, as seen from the reception to his concerts in the last few years, him opening himself up to yet another generation of listeners.

We all had an unspoken feeling that time will be up soon, and yet we don’t want it to be. And now it is, indeed, up.

Yet, after this afternoon, I don’t feel like I’ve really cracked the shell. Perhaps it’s the pressure of self-imposed deadlines. I expect myself to have something to say other than my awe and intimidation, and here I am, admitting that I do not have much to add, because I did not have the luxury of time that I want to have. I only have reaffirmed what I said earlier today: no matter what the approach is, no matter at what point in his career, it always seemed Leonard Cohen was speaking the truth. Maybe I’ll need the next five decades to figure what he’s really saying.

“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,” his letter to Marianne continued.

“But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye, old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”

We wish you the same, Leonard, as we take on journeys of our own. [NB]

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