Leonard Cohen used to tell a story of a lunch with Bob Dylan in 1985, when the subject of craft came into the conversation. Dylan reaffirms his by now famous prodigious technique of swift, slapdash, imagist-cascade creative surges. He says he wrote “I And I” (a fair-to-middling track of his fair-to-middling 1984 album, Infidels) in about 15 minutes. Cohen swallows hard. He says “Hallelujah” (a transcendentally wonderful song off his middling-to-good 1984 album Various Positions) took him 15 years to write. The old friends chuckle, great admirers, of course, of each other’s work. The most common protest to Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize award was that it should have been given to Leonard Cohen. But Dylan’s award was for something very specific, it was for changing the poetic language of expression for the American songbook. And this he did. Only someone as restless as Dylan could have achieved such a thing. Watch D.A. Penebaker’s tour video of Dylan in 65, Don’t Look Back, and you’ll see a fidgety outsider ruling the roost. Cohen was never this guy. Cohen was laid back, charming, the epitome of cool and knowing. He has never enjoyed the same reputation as Dylan because Cohen, we can safely attest, was not a showbiz creation, but he was a poet to his very essence, and the calling of the poet is to lay oneself bare, not to create alternate personalities and rattle out slogans for the peace movement like Robert Zimmerman’s self-confessed (albeit cheekily) “song and dance man”.
Cohen came to music out of financial necessity. He had been a poet and novelist in Canada for some time before he ventured down to L.A. and put out The Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967. He did it because poetry does not pay the bills, and his second novel, 1066’s Beautiful Losers, had been poorly received and did’t sell. He might have come to music earlier had it been his true calling, like Dylan. But Cohen was moved by W.B. Yeats, not Elvis, and his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), was published a few months before the King’s epochal appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Perhaps it is to Yeats, another Nobel Prize winner, who Cohen would be most comfortable with as stable mate. Yeats the outsider, Yeats the yearner, Yeats the self-regenerator, Yeats the guru-like elder statesman. Much of Yeats’ earlier work was dominated by his unrequited love or Maud Gonne, and Cohen’s own work bears the mark of a man entranced by the allure of women. Sex is Cohen’s dominant subject, and the Old Testament provides his well of images and vocabulary. Quite a potent mix. But blowjobs, sarcasm and a vengeful God are not for all palates. Cohen’s influence does not stretch quite as far and deep as it might have done in a better world.
Leonard Cohen carried himself, even in the 1960’s, as a man who knew what life was about. Yeats turned to the occult, to his Vision, but Cohen’s mystic journey took him to a Buddhist monastery atop a Californian mountain. It is his then manager, emptying Cohen’s bank accounts during the years he was at the retreat, to who we owe a kind of ironic gratitude, for it was Cohen’s bankruptcy that took him back to the studio and back out on the road. His concert tours since 2008 have been lauded all around the world, and his albums have been his finest since his early ones.
Cohen should be remembered for the glut of great songs he wrote, even by those who could not take to his vocal style and sparse recording preferences. “Democracy” is a better political song than anything Dylan ever wrote, “Chelsea Hotel #2” has more longing and sighs than the entire Smiths catalogue. And it is a beautiful trick that he will be most widely remembered for a song of which no decent version exists.
All great songs are subject to mass butchering at the hands of chart-ambitious hacks, and “Hallelujah” is no different. But “Hallelujah”, a song of obvious power, has no sublime, honest, “root” version from which all the rubbish has sprouted. Cohen’s own original is dour, even by his standards, and is drowning in the big echoey canyons of 1980s production. It is too understated, too dismissive. The version that brought the song to most people of my generation, the one by Jeff Buckley, had its day, but is now largely, and quite rightly, regarded as a pretentious over-indulgence – the polar opposite of the original. Too far the other way. Hundreds of others have treated the song as part of the American songbook, and it has been crooned, twanged and power-balladed within an inch of a sonic apocalypse. (In fact, as I write this, the best version in existence is Kate McKinnon’s cold open on the first post-Election Saturday Night Live). “Hallelujah” is a song so great, it is beyond the reach of its interpreters. Perhaps in there somewhere is that secret chord.
So there is a suggestion that Leonard Cohen was, more than any other modern songwriter, tuned in to something higher than the rest of us, in the same way it was suggested J.S. Bach was. To sit and listen to a Cohen record is to enter into a spiritual dialogue. Even with his death there is a sense that everything is in its right place, and that grieving might be missing the point, feeling sad might be doing him a disservice, and that there is nothing to suggest that it is just another grim square in the patch quilt of depression that is 2016’s public life. Just a few months ago a letter came to light, from Cohen to an old friend, the woman about which he wrote “So, Long Marianne”, Marianne Ihlen. In it he says,
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.
Recently Cohen had been quoted as saying he was ready for death, that it was time. On his albums, in his books, on stage, through the sound of his voice, his image in photographs, the images in his works, Cohen’s knowingness has always projected a kind of serenity. And it was there in his death too.
The Leonard Cohen Tribute Playlist