Jim Newcombe considers the work and example of the late Leonard Cohen who died recently on November 7th 2016 at the age of 82.
The last thing I read before turning the lights out last night was that Leonard Cohen had died. I had only days ago listened to his new and last album on Spotify. He sings in a voice almost speaking, mellowed by age, nicotine and whisky. I was pleased to find him still cerebral, sensitive and charming, still looting The Bible for its booty of symbolic images:
I heard the snake was baffled by his sin.
He shed his scales to find the snake within,
But born again is born without a skin.
The poison enters into everything.
He was my favourite singer songwriter, with the possible exception of Nick Cave. I first heard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate on vinyl at the age of eighteen at a friend’s house when we used to lie on the roof of his parents’ house in Littleover, Derby. I wrote songs myself at the time and immediately felt a chill go through me with the opening song ‘Avalanche’, a sinister exposition of romantic love from the point of view of a deformed man. ‘Last Year’s Man’ confirmed he was a lyricist of another order:
I came upon a wedding that old families had contrived;
Bethlehem the bridegroom,
Babylon the bride.
Great Babylon was naked, oh she stood there trembling for me,
and Bethlehem inflamed us both
like the shy one at some orgy.
And when we fell together all our flesh was like a veil
that I had to draw aside to see
the serpent eat its tail.
Having been immersed in Biblical texts since childhood, his writing bears witness to the poetry of the Hebrew prophets. ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, also on Songs of Love and Hate, is one of the most delicate, haunting and heart-breaking songs I have ever heard, written in the style of an intimate letter to a male recipient in a love triangle, whom Cohen addresses as “my brother, my killer.”
The ancient Roman poet Catullus wrote Odi et Amo, and this capacity to love and hate simultaneously is a frank and refreshing one in popular music and a commercial industry conveying insipid romantic platitudes coated in musical sugar. In such a market it seems less and less likely that someone with vocation and integrity will shine through a crack in the formula, which is precisely what Cohen did in the late 1960s when, after attempting to make his name writing poetry and novels, he shyly got up onto a stage with his guitar. His lyricism, lamenting on the themes of love, death, isolation and sexuality, has prompted many to regard him as a poet. If he has accepted the title it is while designating himself to the lower echelons of the art form: poetry, after all, goes back thousands of years.
Cohen himself has stated that it is no denigration to be called a minor poet when measured against a giant like Wordsworth. He mentioned his appreciation of Robert Herrick who, following Ben Jonson, perfected a mode of minor lyric (The Victorian poet Swinburne described Herrick as “the greatest songwriter ever born of English race”). The acknowledgement proves that Cohen has mined the tradition of lyric poetry, or is at least familiar with it sufficiently to know his place within it or even to demur from having his name mentioned in the same breath as such wordsmiths, and perhaps rightly so. The honorific name of poet is used far too freely in contemporary culture, like the word “artist”, which is bandied about by egotists who exhibit no signs either of craftsmanship or imagination. Yet the name of poet retains an archaic aura of ritual and ceremony. Cohen, if he belongs in such a tradition – and the tradition of poetry in English is unsurpassed worldwide – belongs to a class of troubadour minstrelsy, yet there is undoubtedly a bardic aspiration in certain of his songs, like ‘The Future’, ‘Democracy’ and ‘If It Be Your Will’.
I have always preferred Cohen to Bob Dylan, who is repeatedly called a poet by people who don’t read poetry and with whom Cohen has often been compared: they both occupy the same track of time and are both of Jewish descent. Dylan seems to me a consummate trickster, insincere in his clowning, grinning and wise behind his mask of evasive irony, a merchant with a Joker up his sleeve. His recent elevation by the Swedish academy into the canon of literary giants implies that lines such as “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back” is not only poetry but the best and most inventive poetry of our time and could not be written by anybody anywhere. We should be mindful of melody buoying up sentiments which are often commonplace and pedestrian, imbuing the words with an emotional intensity which they do not possess of themselves alone.
Against the grain of expectation for a lead singer, Cohen has always been humble and sincere. Women loved him because he spoke and sang about the mystery of femininity, his stance one of praise, gratitude and supplication. In interviews he always seemed in a state of ruminative calm equipoise, charming and disarming in his self-deprecation.
It is right to return to the songs as an act of valediction and thanksgiving. ‘The Stranger Song’, with its spiralling melody and enigmatic narrative, is melancholy, insightful. During the breakdown of a relationship in my twenties I remember a girlfriend of the time playing this song loudly in her bedroom and telling me that it was about me.
‘Hallelujah’ took Cohen years to craft, though his own recording is more interesting lyrically than musically. Recorded in the mid-1980s, it has since become one of the most recorded songs in history. He received no royalties for its popularity, a fact which, after he lost most of his money to his long-time manager, might have stung someone with a less selfless centre of gravity. Those who prefer the taut skeletal songs of the early work, where a vulnerable voice is attended only by a plucked guitar, perhaps find it difficult to reconcile it with the synth rock of the albums The Future and I’m Your Man, but evolution is necessary in these shifting times.
In the 1990s Cohen retreated to spend several years in a monastery practising Zen Buddhism. He returned to the studio after a decade’s hiatus to record Ten New Songs, a restrained and relaxed album in which no single song is invested with commercial gloss or glamour but which exudes a gentle meditative wisdom.
Decades after writing the justly celebrated ‘So Long Marianne’ and now in his eighties, Cohen wrote to his dying and eponymous friend: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” Soon afterwards he publicly announced that he was ready to die.
Cohen lost his father at the age of nine. After the funeral he went into his father’s room and cut a slit into his father’s favourite bowtie and, after scribbling a note on a piece of paper, inserted it into the tie and buried it in the garden as a ritual farewell. As a grown man he claimed he had been digging for years in search of the note and wondered whether the lifelong enterprise of writing poetry was a subconscious attempt to unearth and reclaim what he had written. Perhaps many such vocational ventures spring from such rupture in childhood and poems are letters to a particular ghost. Having now retreated into the shades, his ghost will still be heard singing.