If there’s a moment that sums up the depraved genius of Leonard Cohen, it’s his performance of “Sing Another Song, Boys” at the infamous 1970 Isle of Wight festival. The poet wanders onstage at 4 a.m. in his rumpled khaki jacket, with his acoustic guitar, his fierce dark eyes burning holes in the camera, as his hushed voice croaks yet another ballad of doomed lovers. “They’ll never, ever reach the moon,” he rants. “At least not the one that we’re after.” He doesn’t notice when his voice lurches off key. “It’s floating broken on the open sea – look out there, my friends!” Even the hippie-girl back-up singers look a little alarmed at his crazed face. “And it carries no survivors.” Cohen’s all monkish concentration, eye-fucking a half-million strangers at a miserable five-day outdoor festival, all of them shivering and restless and stoned, yet he lures them all into his reverie. Nobody else could have gotten away with this.
Thanks for your life, Leonard Cohen. This man was both the crack in everything and the light that gets in. Nobody wrote such magnificently bleak ballads for brooding alone in the dark, staring at a window or wall – “Joan of Arc,” “Chelsea Hotel,” “Tower of Song,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Closing Time.” He was music’s top Jewish Canadian ladies’ man before Drake was born, running for the money and the flesh. Like Bowie and Prince, he tapped into his own realm of spiritual and sexual gnosis, and like them, he went out at the peak of his musical powers. No songwriter ever adapted to old age with more cunning or gusto. Born in 1934, Cohen made more records in the 2010s than he did in the Eighties or Nineties. He just dropped his final album You Want It Darker a few weeks ago – has there ever been a more hardcore musical statement from an 82-year-old? As he plainly sang, he was ready to go – it was the world that wasn’t ready to lose him.
Especially this week – L.C. sure knew how to make a dramatic exit. I’m not the only fan I know who was turning to his music to get through the hellhole of the past days. Just a few hours before the news of his death, I was neck-deep in Songs of Love and Hate, his gloriously baleful 1971 masterpiece – the cheeriest moment on the album comes when Joan of Arc goes up in flames. Yet the brutal wit and spare no-bullshit acoustic groove are emotionally sustaining in bad times like these – every song seems to say, “You think this is as tough as it gets? Just wait. Sincerely, L. Cohen.” Like Lemmy, who he resembled in so many ways, he relished the role of the ancient warrior sage, unembarrassed by the passing years, but also unimpressed.
Part of his eternal mystique is that he grew up on his own time – he was well over 30 by the time he made his first record, 1967’s classic Songs of Leonard Cohen. He rolled out of Montreal with his shabby baritone, his flamenco-influenced folk guitar, and his vast collection of beatnik muses with swollen appetites. Born a few months before Elvis, he published his first book of poetry (Let Us Now Compare Mythologies) the same year as “Heartbreak Hotel,” but he still had another decade left of literary scuffling before anybody heard him sing. He came on as a jaded rake, tormented by love, yet inexhaustibly bemused by the whole agonizing pageant of it. (One choice couplet, from his gem New Skin for the Old Ceremony: “You were Marlon Brando, I was Steve McQueen/You were K-Y Jelly, I was Vaseline.”) He stood out from the Seventies folkie milieu for his self-mocking humor. As he wrote in the notes to the 1975 collection The Best of Leonard Cohen, explaining his dapper cover photo: “I rarely ever look this good, or bad, depending on your politics.”
But the really weird twist came in the 1980s, when he reached his fifties and almost accidentally got more famous than ever. For me, the first hint that Cohen was worth my sullen adolescent time was Nick Cave’s version of “Avalanche” – a revelation that the guy who wrote sentimental chestnuts like “Suzanne” was really a goth-punk O.G. The Smiths nicked the hook of their first hit “Hand In Glove” from him. Cohen claimed his elder-of-elders turf with I’m Your Man, steeped in chilly Euro-pop synths, growling “Everybody Knows” to warn us not to get our hopes up for the 1988 election (or the 2000 election) (or the 2016 election). As he testified, “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed/Everybody knows that the war is over/Everybody knows that the good guys lost.” I’m Your Man and the even-nastier 1992 sequel The Future struck a nerve with a new young audience. (Bob Dylan’s Infidels, a strangely forgotten 1983 set of glossy ballads, seemed to provide the template for the final three decades of Cohen’s career.) “Hallelujah,” a hymn tossed off on a 1985 album his record company didn’t bother to release, sat around unnoticed for years until Jeff Buckley exhumed it and turned it into one of the world’s most beloved pop standards. Kurt Cobain sighed for “a Leonard Cohen afterworld” on In Utero; in the months after his death, when Courtney Love went back on tour with Hole, she took the stage to “Sisters of Mercy.”
In the Nineties, instead of capitalizing on his new fame, he vanished into the hills – he spent most of the decade on a mountaintop Zen Buddhist retreat. He returned in 2001 with the fabulously deadpan title Ten New Songs, featuring pained elegies like “In My Secret Life” and “Alexandra Leaving.” When he returned to the road in the late 2000s, he was blunt about his motivation – his former manager had stolen his savings and left him broke. But if you were lucky enough to see any of these shows, it was a night you could never forget – Cohen literally skipping on and offstage, performing for three hours, feeding off the music. At his final show in Auckland, New Zealand, in December 2013, the last song he happened to sing was the Drifters’ “Save The Last Dance For Me.” Like David Bowie, he scored his own exit soundtrack with a farewell surprise masterpiece, You Want It Darker. And like the Bowie of Blackstar, he didn’t try to disguise the rough edges of his voice, facing up to mortality with zero self-pity, though he made no secret about seeing the end in sight. He wrote a touching public note this summer to his onetime muse Marianne Ihlen, as she lay on her deathbed: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. … Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
The last time I saw him was a muggy afternoon in the summer of 2014, at an advance listening for his album Popular Problems at Joe’s Pub in New York. As a surprise, Cohen himself showed up at the end, gliding through the room, impossibly elegant in his fedora. With his 80th birthday a week away, he announced his new plan: to start smoking again, having quit when he turned 50. “I’ve been dreaming about that first cigarette for 30 years,” he said. “It’s been one of my few consistent thoughts. Does anybody know where to buy Turkish cigarettes in this town?”
Everybody in the room kicked themselves for not knowing the answer. But then, Leonard Cohen was always full of questions and mysteries it seemed only he understood. We’ll all keep hearing from Leonard Cohen, long after he’s gone – speaking to us from a window in the Tower of Song. And as we go into the bitter winter ahead of us, he’s a voice we’ll keep needing to hear.
Hugely influential singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen dead at 82.