Leonard Cohen 1934-2016
This week, I’ve felt despondent and inconsolable about the state of our country and the world. That the artist whose music best captured those moods died this week only adds to my desolation. In this mood, I would, in the past, turn to Leonard Cohen’s music to make sense of the sadness, for Cohen is the poet of pessimism. His music is not filled with false platitudes of inspiration but with the endless quest to find meaning in the darkness of existence.
The first Leonard Cohen song I heard was The Neville Brothers’ “Bird on a Wire” (title slightly changed from Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” from the album Songs from a Room). I had no idea who the songwriter was or that it was not originally a Neville Brothers song. It sounds like an ode to freedom, the music soaring with lead singer Aaron Neville’s distinctive tenor. The Neville Brothers turn Cohen’s lament into a celebration.
The next time I heard a Leonard Cohen song, it would be in a context more fitting his oeuvre. As with many of my peers, my real introduction to Cohen’s work would be with the movie Pump Up the Volume, an excellent movie about a teenage pirate DJ (Christian Slater), whose voice brings together his classmates who thought they were alone in their pain. As the theme song of his radio show, he plays my favorite Leonard Cohen song and one of his most pessimistic, “Everybody Knows” (from the album I’m Your Man).
As cynical as this song is and as bleak as it seems on the surface, its essential message is one I can take solace from: “everybody knows.” Each of us is not alone in seeing and feeling the darkness in the world. That this is the message of Pump Up the Volume makes “Everybody Knows” a fitting choice to be played multiple times in the film. To my dismay, however, the film’s soundtrack album contained the Concrete Blonde remake heard at the end of the film and not the Cohen original heard throughout the movie. Because the end credits of the film were too difficult to read on my old 19” TV, I had no idea who had performed this song that had captivated me.
It took me two years to discover that the artist was called Leonard Cohen (I don’t remember how I finally learned his name). At that time, more years ago than I would like to think, I was the only student in my high school who seemed to know Cohen. His cult status had not infiltrated the teenagers in my Chicago suburb. I did have one teacher who had heard of him, but she wrote him off with the comment, “If you listen to too much Leonard Cohen, you’ll kill yourself.”
While certainly his music is often mournful and forlorn, it is not hopeless. It does not reflect the despair of suicide but dogged determination to embrace pain and loss as the essential elements of life. One of his most famous lines comes from a song that was released when I was in high school, “Anthem” (from the album The Future): “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” To Cohen, revelation comes from brokenness and imperfection.
Cohen spent his life and his work on a spiritual quest. Coming from a Jewish upbringing, he once said, “Anything, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, LSD, I’m for anything that works.” Finding out what it was that works and what it meant to work became the defining component of his life. But there is no answer; the search is what matters. Each new album becomes a new opportunity for reflection, but none offers certainty.
A creative dry period followed 1992’s The Future. Ten New Songs came nearly ten years later. It’s a particularly mournful album. It is one of age looking back on the life that has come before, encapsulated by “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” While many artists often seem to perform their own elegies, Cohen did his over and over again.
In 2010, I had the great experience of seeing Cohen in concert. He performed for nearly four hours, covering every major song from his career, which, at that time, had spanned over 40 years. Although he has been dubbed, “the Godfather of Gloom,” the occasion was anything but melancholy. The audience and the performers at the Chicago Theatre that night found a kind of glory erupting from the music. I was struck that my first impression of the Neville Brothers’ “Bird on a Wire” as a departure from the Cohen tradition was inexact. Yes, it sounded different from Cohen’s own interpretations of his songs, but those songs, like “Bird on the Wire,” can be both celebration and lament.
Cohen’s later songs, likewise, find something to celebrate in the darkness. “Darkness” (from Old Ideas) sung to the flamenco guitar style that features in songs throughout his career, offers an upbeat ode to gloom.
Indeed, the title of his final album (released three weeks before his death) is a defiant challenge to those would reject the darkness and an invitation to those would celebrate it: You Want It Darker.
Recently, Leonard Cohen fandom has spread due largely to the popularity of various remakes of his song “Hallelujah” (from Various Positions—ironically, Cohen’s record company did not think Various Positions would be commercially viable, so it wasn’t released in the US). A whole book studying the song was released in 2012; its title captures the thematic essence of Cohen’s songs: The Holy or the Broken (by Alan Light).
I have included only a sampling of Cohen’s work. In the interest of brevity, I’ve had to leave out many famous and favorite songs (“Suzanne,” “First We Take Manhattan,” Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”—the list goes on and on). But I’ll return to the other Leonard Cohen song that appears in Pump Up the Volume, the film that introduced me to him. “If It Be Your Will,” the final song from Various Positions, thus, remains one of the first Cohen songs that I heard. But, as one of the great closing songs of the album era, it’s more fitting at the end. Sadly, Cohen’s voice is now still. He will speak no more.