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Remembering Leonard Cohen, A Singular Musician and Poet

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 18: Musician Leonard Cohen performs at Madison Square Garden on December 18, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

Leonard Cohen died Monday, but it was not announced until yesterday, on the day that he was buried in his Montreal hometown. His passing, sadly, was not exactly unexpected. In a New Yorker profile of Cohen last month, it was revealed that the 82-year-old musician and writer was quietly suffering from cancer. The news felt like an uncanny premonition, especially in the wake of David Bowie’s sudden passing earlier this year. The main pull-out quote from David Remnick’s story was eerie at the time; today, it is heartbreaking. “Maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know,” Cohen told Remnick. “But I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy…I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”

The signs were there before the piece, though perhaps they seemed more figurative. In an August letter to the dying Marianne Ihlen—the subject in one of his most beloved songs—Cohen wrote: “…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.” His passing comes at perhaps the cruelest possible time for millions of fans: at the end of a manifoldly dystopian year, in which (among other things) we lost a number of hugely influential and beloved pop musicians from the second half of the twentieth century. 

How best to remember Cohen’s untenably distinguished career—one which stretches back well over half a century? It has become a source of contention in recent months: whether we should ever designate someone who has made their living and greatest cultural impact as a musician as a “poet” or “writer.” Bob Dylan just became a Nobel winner in Literature, because there isn’t a prize just for “making Blood on the Tracks. If we take “Literature” quite literally, Cohen might well deserve the distinction of a great man of letters more than Dylan: Outside of lyrics collections and other compilations, Cohen published eight volumes of poetry and two novels in his lifetime. He spent his twenties trying to make a living as a poet before considering recording albums. It’s not just journalists and devoted acolytes who have named him a writer first and foremost; even yesterday’s Facebook statement announcing his passing foregrounded “poet” before “songwriter,” and “singer” is not on the list.

But Leonard Cohen could not have become who he was were it not for his brilliant musical gift and intuition. As his career wore on, his sense of where to scrap words to leave space sometimes became as important as what he decided to keep in. But originally, the sensibility of his 1960s songs had some similarities with effusive, post-Beat prose-poetry. On his debut, 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen, there were some odd emphases and melismas; rhymes in “Suzanne” were left out or placed at odd times, suggesting notepad-sketched lines layered onto chord progressions after the fact rather than conceived of simultaneously. But the dichotomy resulted in a singular and instantly grabbing musical signature.

In the early days, he took a singular, pick-less, sometimes freeform approach to playing his loosely-strung acoustic guitar. His accompaniments either mimicked or offset the knotty emotiveness of his texts, which were brimming with vignettes, allusions, and pithy reflections on human nature. They encouraged study and revisitation to a degree that felt like something you did with literature, not pop songs. In these songs, there were still ties to the rhythm and lilting melodic construction of folk music, at least as imagined by the hippie era. There were sturdy choruses with conversational mantras: “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” for instance, was kind of Cohen’s analogue to Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”; “So Long, Marianne” could have been a lush pop hit in the hands of the Byrds.

Leonard Cohen the Singer-Songwriter emerged fully formed as a musical voice, but he would sharpen the knife with each successive album through the mid-70s. A distinct pivot toward darker, coarser tendencies came, eventually. The hoarse, primal yodeling heard off-mic at the end of Songs of Leonard Cohen’s haunting closer “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” was pushed to the forefront in Songs of Love and Hate’s “Diamonds in the Mine.” There were drugs and familial dissolution to match the shift toward the more despondent overtones in 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony and his uncharacteristic, dissipated collaboration with producer Phil Spector, 1977’s Death of a Ladies Man. The latter found Cohen’s usually clear, intimate vocals bobbing tenuously on a murky sea of strings, timpani, and wordless choral backgrounds. Ultimately, it marked the first and only time that Cohen–in a studio packed with nearly fifty musicians, instead of the normal five, and strewn with Spector’s favorites from his vintage firearm collection–would feel he lost his control over a project. But the impetus to find a way to move forward musically, even with such an unlikely collaborator, illustrated a commitment to evolving as a musician, which stuck with him throughout the rest of his career.

When Cohen decided to make a proper run of being a musician in his early 30s, he had already lived through a lot: a few tumultuous relationships, and stints in dissimilar parts of the world (Montreal, London, New York, Greece) with their own separate countercultures. The wise-beyond-his-years impression was more than reflected in his music: darkly nostalgic, and devoid of youthful bullheadedness. There was a constant implication that the whole endeavor of finding enlightenment, or attempting to pin down fixed truths through self-expression, might be useless. His best songs questioned his role in the world, as a partner, as a spokesperson for himself or another person’s catharses. “Your vision is right, my vision is wrong/I’m sorry for smudging the air with my song,” he was already singing on “A Singer Must Die” in 1974.

But despite the self-eulogizing, the singer still had many more music-life eras to pass through. The ‘70s ended in his long-time-coming divorce from artist and photographer Suzanne Elrod, some time in Greece, and visits to a monastery outside of Los Angeles. Cohen emerged in the early ‘80s with two new instruments that transformed the way he wrote songs and gave him a new lease on life. Ahead of recording the album that would yield what is today (mostly through others’s renditions) his most famous song“Hallelujah”he surprised producer John Lissauer by lugging out a “little crap Casio keyboard he had bought on Forty-seventh and Broadway, at one of those little camera shops for tourists,” as Lissauer described it to Cohen biographer Sylvie Simmons. The now-middle-aged Cohen played a number of drafts of songs that were playful and somber all at once. At a time when his voice was deepening rapidly and unexpectedly, the tinny but complete orchestra that emanated from the keyboard at the push of a key created the backdrop Cohen needed to find new possibilities.

The orchestrations Lissauer and Cohen’s team built around the Casio presets (which couldn’t even be plugged into the soundboard, Lissauer noted) on 1984’s Various Positions would create edifices both chuckle-inducing and tear-jerking, majestic and humble. Terms like “adult contemporary” and “lounge” have been tossed around to distill Cohen’s work from the ‘80s on, but it was nothing so exactly recognizable. The textures shifted subtly from album to album, determined by the producers and collaborators he chose to let into his inner circle. The most notable of these was Sharon Robinson, Cohen’s longtime co-writer and back-up singer whose voice defined the sound of Cohen’s most soulful, lushly romantic albums: 2001’s Ten New Songs and 2004’s Dear Heather.

On his ‘80s albums, Cohen mocked and poignantly evoked universal, fickle emotional states all at once. He reduced whole romantic affairs to pithy couplets, and seemed to comprehensively sum them up. His musical treatments helped us sense both the enormity and transience of the heartbreak and self-doubt he wrote about. The inorganic, slick musical structures of his later work have a balm-like effect and often carry an ironic edge, as on some of the best moments of 1988’s I’m Your Man, a peak of Cohen’s career by any yardstick. Cohen was sporadically student of Buddhism from the ’70s on—he became a monk in the late ‘90sand there was a sense that he was able to look at the despair, lust, and ardor of his narrators from both inside and out. This perspective gives his later work a multivalent quality that few of his peersand indeed, any other songwriter one can think ofhas been able to readily access.

In his final years, Cohen would embrace lyrical and musical economy even more. One of 2016’s musical high points, also, was the release of Cohen’s fourteenth studio album, You Want It Darker; many fans considered it his best album in decades, making this moment either the worst or best possible time for Cohen to leave us. There was a sense with each new releaseincreasingly, dominated by subterranean spoken-word vocal takes with only slight hints of hymn-like melodythat he was embracing the idea of having a distinct sonic and topical niche. He was exploring the insight one could wring out of writing songs, acknowledging that one had already said everything they had to say, doing a comic softshoe at the edge of the final abyss (“You Want It Darker”) or giving brief sermons (Old Ideas’s “Show Me the Place”).

In 2012, I saw him on a tour behind Old Ideas. Throughout the night, he explored all the postures of his late career. There were mini-devotional services over sustained synth pads, jazz rave-ups featuring long balalaika solos, and soulful remembrances of loves past, with his beaming backing singers swaying with a divine aloofness. Cohen was 78 at the time, but danced on and off stage, shooting his legs high into the air, grinning and waving a tambourine. He took a knee dramatically; he spread his arms wide and high into a passing Christ-or-Nixon-like pose to emphasize a point; he thanked the crowd profusely, between playing every song a good fan could think of and more. He was the party host who is almost overeager to keep you at their house all night, and show you all of it. The evening was both supremely controlled and mellow; he seemed to summon the energy to maintain the atmosphere and hold the stadium’s interest from some intensely private energy source deep within him.

He might have been simply revamping “old ideas” and “popular problems” during the last five years of his life, but he never sliced them the same way from song to song. In the live setting, he never reprinted crowd favorites the same way every night. Like Dylan, you can hear him transmuting the songs into renditions where the entire affect and sometimes their emphases changes. On 2014’s Live in Dublin, there’s the rollicking gypsy-jazz take on New Skin’s “Lover, Lover, Lover” he favored at the time, which seems to send up the earnest amour fou desperation of the original, drawing it into the elegiac but more theatrical universe of “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Also on Dublin, you can hear the loose phrasing he applied to “Hallelujah” in concert: He breathlessly adds words, and demurely substitutes others to destroy the natural rhyme. It’s like he’d never heard a cover of the song, and as I listened, I forgot them all too.

From performances like these, one never got the sense that he was trying to defy expectations, or just make it more fun for himself. (These days, Dylan’s treatment of his old material might feel more like the latter.) Cohen seemed to be trying to utilize and modernize the gift that had always made him both rock music’s greatest poet and setter of text: that urge to make the act of singing and writing lyrics feel tied to the natural rhythm of speech, and the ebb and flow of human emotion.

As much as Cohen talked about dying and being ready for it on his last few albums, this desire to remake his already-perfect songs every night–and to find the appropriate musical backdrop that would give him the space and inspiration to do so–made it feel like he would outlast us all. Many of us would have happily listened to him saying what he felt he had already said for decades more, but he left behind a catalogue that describes a full, meaningful arc. We can measure our own lives, linearly, against all of his various musical positions. Or, we can just pick our favorites of them, revisiting and rehearing them as our own conditions and convictions change; they will remain just as self-assured and endlessly suggestive every time.