Like smoke caught in a beam of light, that voice. Joked about when he first used it, stepping out from behind Judy Collins at a concert in 1967 to perform the song he’d written for her, Suzanne. Nerves got him, he couldn’t finish it, fled the stage, had to be talked back on. Was a sensation. He sounded nothing like the singer-songwriters of the era, those now impossibly distant years of hope in a radical liberation. Collins, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor — James Taylor sounded sunny even when he was singing of a friend’s suicide in a mental institution.
Collins’ version of Suzanne, for all her art, lacks some, well, lack, that the writer’s voice brings to it, a knowing of how tenuous and incomplete the encounter is. In the writer’s version, it’s a song that seems impossible to enter into it ungendered: you’re either the singer or the sung-about, the voice with no attributes, or Suzanne, the lady of the harbour, asking nothing, giving all, but never by it possessed. In 1967, that was simply a writing of how things were. In 2017, it is an invitation to step into those roles, to take the pleasure of them. Heard in any year, it’s a one-off. There is little else like it in the post-war pop canon, Beckett and Buckley’s Song to the Siren, Nick Drake’s Fly, Johnette Napolitano’s Side of the Road, perhaps. Not that it’s the best song, however, that could be judged, but simply a singular one. Nothing else takes such a risk, teeters so dangerous on the edge of sentiment, fights its way back from that, then rises. It is perhaps best heard first, young.
I heard it in on a grey day in 1985, through an AM radio in the front room of a ratty share house in Carlton, mission brown walls, seagrass matting, milky-mildewy smell throughout. As the third verse came round, the sun came out of the clouds and suffused the room, blinding me for an instant. Or so I recall it. So it was with the next dozen or so songs heard. He seemed to reinvent the song with each one: Sisters of Mercy, a repurposed Christian homily, the sung novel of The Stranger Song, the mordant folk-punk of Avalanche, Famous Blue Raincoat a 4am letter, the Ballad of the Absent Mare, kitsch as a painted cowboy shirt.
There’s First We Take Manhattan (Then We Take Berlin), Kraussian satire, Lover, Lover, Lover, a pop-psalm, the manifestos Everybody Knows and The Future, the late plain style of Boogie Street, the hymns If it be Your Will and then Hallelujah, the song that became something wonderful and then a little terrible. Between any two of these songs, another song, exemplifying both those qualities and others. And so on, back through the whole oeuvre, a regress, like the trompe l’oeil ranks of arches around the great mosques, that suggest infinity.
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He had, at the centre of his work, a way of summoning transcendence through the minutiae of pop culture — “everybody knows what you’ve been through/from the bloody cross on calvary/to the beach at Malibu” — and of smashing a hole in anything too entire and holy by the same measure. Anthem, his other overplayed work, put it simply: “there is a crack in everything/that’s where the light gets in”. Through the vessel of a half-century of pop, our great way of forgetting being, he drew an austere Judaist theology, a Christian ekstasis, a pagan worship of the deliverance and deliquescence of sex, a zen hunger for nothingness, shadowed by Holocaust memory and a deep ambivalence about what the ’60s hath wrought, he found the ground in all that is. Sixty great and singular songs? A hundred? No one else in our time — not Dylan, not Orbison, not Brel — comes close. All finely made, exhaustingly so, poetic working, dozens of verses discarded from each, each uniquely joined and finished. Jesus was a sailor. Leonard was a carpenter.
His voice was not suited to the times, at first; soon, the times remade themselves for his voice. He had flourished at the end of the ’60s, into the ’70s, as, say, the loyal opposition to Woodstock (Melanie Safka’s Candles in the Rain is another, more literal, equally extraordinary, example), a reminder that the flowers weren’t going to stay open for ever. Son of a doctor, from a prominent Montreal Jewish family, he was a protege of the poet Irving Layton, a Romanian-born Jew, whose poetry has more than a touch of Chagall about it, kaleidoscope images, drawing on east European myth, erupting into the present.
There’s an awful lot of Layton in Cohen, especially the volumes of poetry, written and published in the early 1960s, when there was no suggestion that he would become a songwriter, much less a singer — despite a couple of teenage years spent in a Montreal Canadian Jewish country and western band. The divide between high and low culture had not yet come down, and by the ’60s Cohen had ventured to London, and then to the Greek island of Hydra, where he became part of the bohemian set of Australian novelists George Johnson and Charmian Clift. He named Johnson’s most famous novel, when Johnson couldn’t (“what’s it about?” “my brother, Jack” “there you go”), and he flits through Clift’s Images in Aspic, as one of the dark-haired young men, jealousy of whom drove Johnson to a frenzy, such that he ceased writing jointly with Clift, which, in turn, appears to have driven her to suicide. Such is bohemian life.
By the mid-’60s, he was at an impasse as a poet, for the plain reason that he was no better than all right at it. A pleasant enough autobiographical novel, The Favourite Game, had been followed by a surreal and extreme work Beautiful Losers, whose ambitious scheme, reflections on the Holocaust mediated through pornography, was beyond Cohen’s talents (it has since become a classic of sorts, but a lot of that is seen through the semi-precious stone of his later works). His impasse was financial, artistic and existential, a broke, blocked poet, tending to melancholy who had fallen into the abyss he had opened. He returned to the US to launch a songwriting career, performing in small clubs only as a way of drawing the attention of singers needing material. He got it, from CBS’ John Hammond, the great repertoire man who launched the careers of everyone from Count Basie to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
The explosive and very folky, first album, was followed by a patchy second effort, and two more, Songs of Love and Hate and New Skin For The Old Ceremony, whose songs were darker, more bitter and ironic than what had gone before. Amid songs like Famous Blue Raincoat, Love Calls You By Your Name and Chelsea Hotel, his affaire-memoir of Janis Joplin, were semi-deconstructed items like Why Don’t You Try and Field Commander Cohen, and a bizarre chant called Please Don’t Pass Me By, all measure of a deep resistance to the role he had stumbled into. His early ’70s tours were of that genre, chaotic, drug-fuelled wanderings
(albeit with a detour to do dozens of concerts for the Israeli army during the 1973 war, having been refused permission to enlist; Cohen was also in Havana during the fall of the Batista regime, wondering whether he should join on either side), amidst the birth of his two children. The era culminated in his most bizarre production Death of a Ladies’ Man, made with “wall of sound” producer, and now convicted murderer, Phil Spector. Later, rediscovered as brilliant retro-kitsch, and generating one classic Memories, (“Frankie Laine, he was singing Jezebel/I pinned an iron cross to my lapel/I walked up to the tallest and the blondest girl …”), it was eviscerated at the time. The poems he wrote at the time were anti-poetry, rejection of the entire act of creation. By 1984, when he recorded Various Positions, with Hallelujah buried, unnoticed, in the middle, he had been dropped by CBS from their US roster.
Cohen’s collapse could be seen as nothing other than the individual crisis, of a human, a man and an artist in the middle of the journey. But it was of a part of the wider collapse of the era, the transcendent and utopian hopes of the era, burning out in the aimless violence and disarray of the 1970s, then the vacuum and the rise of Thatcher and Reagan, promising not a world of people touching each other’s perfect bodies with their minds, but morning in America, and a return to Victorian values. With a new cold war, talk of winnable nuclear conflicts, something called acid rain, and a condition called GRID suddenly becoming AIDS, the age of Aquarius was yielding to the age of Thanatos. The times had caught up with the man. Cohen became the poet laureate of the children of the dust. Having turned to zen Buddhism to deal with a deep and persistent depression he resorted to a more prosaic drug — Prozac, just on the market — and from his one period on it (“it never worked again,” he said) came the Leonard Cohen of our era, and a very different album, I’m Your Man.
Short-haired, besuited, having turned from the guitar to the tinny synthesisers of europop, I’m Your Man was an anticipation of war, disaster and darkness, an affirmation of life as resistance to the adversary. From the opening couplet — “They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom/for trying to change the system from within” — you knew you were getting an account of the era, and of the feeling that you had come too late, too late to the great party. Everybody Knows, a verdict on the age, sits in the middle of it (co-written with backup singer turned collaborator Sharon Robinson):
“everybody knows the plague is coming/everybody knows that it’s moving fast/everybody knows that the naked man and woman/are just a shining artefact of the past/everybody knows the scene is dead/but there’s going to be a meter on your bed/that will disclose/what everybody knows”
That album was followed in 1992 by The Future, a near-perfect political-mystical collection, which saw preceding events — the collapse of communism — not as a new dawn, but as the final collapse of any form of grand meaning or great hope. The personal joined to the political, and the general condition of humanity, disabused of a few decades’ hope that we could buck the human condition.
By the time that was released, Cohen was back. His take, which found the world a fallen place, capable of yielding occasional love and beauty, had come, across a quarter century, from being a quirky hahaha, to the best account of the way things were. The voice’s imperfections had been done away with by losing all timbre whatsoever; the songs were a breathy, throaty sprechstimme that now seemed to come from inside the ear, rather than out of it. “Let’s get married baby/we’ve been alone too long/let’s be alone together/let’s see if we’re that strong” — my god, I have suddenly recalled discussing marriage with a woman in London in a Hackney bedsit in 1998, as that song came around on the, yes, CD shuffle, the voice pouring into the cold night. Not a welcome contribution.
It was the voice of the era. It never again went away, though Cohen did. His continued search for a relief from deep melancholy had led him to a zen Buddhist retreat on Mount Baldy, behind Los Angeles, run by the enigmatic Master Roshi. Cohen lived there for years, essentially as a monk, conducting menial tasks, still writing songs, for the albums that would come in the late 1990s and 2000s. Their style was plainer and more conventional; his extraordinary ability to fuse form and content had faded with age, to leave accompanied poems, which had lost none of their acuteness: Back on Boogie Street, A Thousand Kisses Deep.
But these were all overshadowed by the rediscovery of Hallelujah, the deceptively simple pop hymn released in 1984, after a decade’s on-and-off work on it. It had appeared, in a version by John Cale, on an album of Cohen covers, in 1991, and began to take off, before Jeff Buckley (son of Tim) released a version in 1994. Spare, pained and in a young man’s voice, the song became not a record of acceptance for what had been, but a hope for what life might yield — made especially poignant when Buckley died, drowned, only a couple of years older than his father had been when he died, at 30. From there it has been so ceaselessly covered that Cohen himself thought a moratorium on it might be a good idea. There is no surprise that its success came after 9/11, and in the teeth of neocon supremacy, the beginnings of the Iraq disaster, and the unravelling of the world. It is a hymn to sexual love and the possibilities of the world, but it is also a prayer to something whose existence the singer doubts. It is the distilled essence of Cohen’s pursuit, to combine the deep religious and mystical traditions of two millennia, with the ephemeral but utterly present spirit of pop, and to have each inhere in the other, body and soul, soul and body. It could do with a five-year ban. It is a song one wants to unhear, so as to be able to hear again for the first time. Cohen himself walked back the idea of a ban, and performed the song himself, on the tours he undertook in the 2000s, after he found he’d been cleaned out of all funds by his ex-manager. They became his third revival, vast undertakings crossing continents, three- and four-hour performances, something of a communion across the decades, a final summation.
By the end, and for some years before, by all accounts, he was a man utterly at peace. In the rounds of interviews, publicity, the thousand tasks of touring, he was universally said to be unceasingly polite, without arrogance, or even temper. His musical collaborators, gathered over a half century, stayed till the end. I heard him on a long BBC radio interview once, years ago, a half-hour thing. “Thank you,” said the interviewer, “thank you, Mark, it’s been wonderful,” he said, without a touch of formula or condescension in his voice. It sounded like it was being said about more than the interview.
And his final message to his great love of the ’60s, Marianne Ihlen, dying in Norway, went round the world: “… 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 …” — the phrase we will all reach for, for a dying love. He was well aware what he had fallen short of, in poetry; he believed he had fallen short, too, in music, claiming that Hank Williams lived “a hundred floors above [him]” in the “Tower of Song”.
His great opposite is Dylan, the sprawling raw, ragged man whose moments of genius occur among material that was half-finished at the time and it is even less than that now, counterposed to Cohen’s overexact, ironic refusal to take anything at face-of-God value. Each needs the other. God knows what history will make of either of them. Cohen is a gateway, or should be, to poetry beyond, to Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Tennyson’s In Memoriam, or Donne, stuff that will blow out the top of your head. But even if you’re already there, he does something few others can: song that does not need the sweetener of nostalgia to stay a lifetime with you.
If you’ve grown weary of the birds on a wire, and the hallelujahs, there is minor Cohen worth checking out: Lady Midnight, from the ’70s, a celebration of late-night negotiations, The Traitor, a bizarre mini-Edwardian novel done Van Morrison Astral Weeks (now, there’s an album, man) style, which is about as opaque as it gets, Take This Waltz, an adaptation of a Lorca poem, Dress Rehearsal Rag, a song so scrappy and despairing Cohen left it out of his collected lyrics, Paper Thin Hotel, from the Spector collaboration, a perverse celebration of jealousy, Roberta Flack’s Tropicanaesque version of Suzanne, Madelaine Peyroux’s version of Cohen’s collaboration with Anjani Thomas, Blue Alert, and Jennifer Warnes’ and Rob Wasserman’s “cowgirl” version of Ballad of the Absent Mare, and if you don’t lose it over that one, well you may be lost. Well out beyond all sentiment, cracking at the edges, but that’s where the light gets in. And Leonard Cohen, now, after a private service and cremation, has hopefully found the extinction he was seeking, love like smoke/beyond all repair … gone like smoke/and gone like this song.