Just yesterday afternoon, I was talking with my editor about writing a review of Leonard Cohen’s latest album, “You Want It Darker,” for an upcoming issue of Jewish News to mark what a remarkable feat it was for a man his age, 82, to have continued relevance and creative force so late in his career. Like a Michelangelo of song, Cohen worked on his final album till mere weeks before his death (Michelangelo died at age 88 and it is said he was working till his final weeks).
Cohen’s death was announced yesterday (Nov. 10) in a simple statement on leonardcohen.com:
“It is with profound sorrow we report that legendary poet, songwriter and artist, Leonard Cohen has passed away.
“We have lost one of music’s most revered and prolific visionaries.
“A memorial will take place in Los Angeles at a later date. The family requests privacy during their time of grief.” (Reports say that he died Nov. 7.)
I first heard Leonard Cohen’s music in 1968, when (on the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.) I started hanging out at a coffeehouse called “Mama’s Illusion.” A girl on stage sang “Suzanne.” I was taken by the lyrics and the simple melody.
I borrowed his first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” from the local library, and it was already very scratchy from multiple plays by what must already have been a legion of fans. (It was released in 1967.) His singing voice was unschooled, but his voice as a poetic songwriter was literate and deep, recognizing that the spiritual and the carnal arise from the same centers of one’s being, that there is no separation of these elements of our lives, only a balance at any given time.
One song from that album, “So Long, Marianne,” set up a kind of template for the musical arrangements he would use for much of his nearly 50-year career as a recording artist. His sincere voice would be front and center with a band that would include folk instruments such as fiddle and mandolin in the background and a chorus of female backing voices.
There were variations through the years including more electronic instruments and effects, but the template was very sturdy.
Because he performed with acoustic guitar, he was considered a folk singer then by his fans, but probably owing to the milieu of his native Montreal or his time spent on the Aegean island of Hydra, there was always something of a European cabaret sound to his songs as well. (Cohen was born in Montreal in 1934.)
He was older, by a decade, than his “folk” contemporaries such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, having made a name for himself as an author and poet beforehand, including the 1961 poetry collection “The Spice-Box of Earth” and the novels “The Favourite Game” (1963) and “Beautiful Losers” (1966).
I can’t say that I became a fan of his work until much, much later, when I heard “Hallelujah” for the first time on Jeff Buckley’s album “Grace,” released in 1994. Not to slight Buckley’s own songwriting (I was listening to Buckley because he was the son of Tim Buckley, another singer-songwriter I learned about at Mama’s Illusion), but “Hallelujah” jumped out of his record to me. When I interviewed Buckley about it, he told me the story of how many multiple verses Cohen had written to the song and that anybody who sang it had to make their own choices about what spoke to them.
It’s no secret that “Hallelujah” became Cohen’s most viral hit, slipping into the worldwide bloodstream and the world couldn’t build up immunity to resist. Cohen’s first recorded version of “Hallelujah” was released in the U.S. in 1985 on the album “Various Positions.” To say it had legs is an understatement. The first two verses that are included in virtually all covers of the song refer to David as the psalmist and to observing Bathsheba bathing and then shift to Samson and Delilah.
Conventional wisdom would hold that a song with that type of content had no chance to be appreciated beyond a tight coterie of world-weary literati, but it really began to take off with the version by Rufus Wainwright (who is the father of Cohen’s 5-year-old granddaughter) used in the 2001 hit animated movie “Shrek.”
The song’s success, which helped propel a late-life surge of popularity and appreciation, was evidence of something that Cohen himself plainly admitted: “Often you don’t understand what you’ve done.... [Songs] resonate with a truth that is hard to locate but which is operating with some force in your life.”
It operated with real force in my own life. At Mama’s Illusion, I began to write poetry and songs. I don’t know whether anyone else would feel that they were good, but I got up there and sang them, as I slowly learned to play the guitar. Cohen was part of my inspiration then.
I hung up the singing-songwriting shoes for nearly 25 years to raise a family, and then at a Jewish music festival where I did that thing again after that long hiatus, I sang “Hallelujah.” I don’t know where I went, but I wasn’t in the room as I sang. The audience seemed transported as well. In introducing the song, I called Cohen my rabbi. I still feel that way
His late-life productivity, the three-year Grand Tour that ended in 2013 and a string of powerful albums since 2012’s “Old Ideas” gave me hope that there could be another act in my own life. One dominated by creativity and beauty rather than the ugliness of politics, economics and war.
As Cohen’s son, Adam, told Rolling Stone recently, “They say that life is a beautiful play with a terrible third act. If that’s the case, it must not apply to Leonard Cohen. Right now, at the end of his career, perhaps at the end of his life, he’s at the summit of his powers.”