Leonard Cohen: The Enduring Genius of a '60s Poet-musician

In his final album, the burden on his shoulders is lighter and it's almost possible to see the thin smile on his lips as he makes his way, in typically funeral tempo, to the finish line.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Leonard Cohen performs during the first night of the 47th Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland on July 4, 2013.
Leonard Cohen performs during the first night of the 47th Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland on July 4, 2013. Credit: Valentin Flauraud, Reuters
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

"I intend to live forever," Leonard Cohen said at a press conference about a month ago. "I intend to stick around until 120."

He was joking, of course. He spoke ironically, in response to the commotion caused by a previous statement of his, in an interview with The New Yorker on the eve of the release of his latest album "You Want it Darker," that he was "ready to die. That's about it for me."

Those words, ostensibly self-evident when uttered by an artist of 82 who is not in good health and who has just released an album revolving almost entirely around death, went viral and swamped the internet. Stop everything: Leonard Cohen is ready to die.

It was that collective hysteria Cohen was mocking when he said he would live forever.

But he will live forever, or for some sort of eternity at least, through his music. It's not possible to know for certain what music mankind will be listening to in 2054, 120 years after Cohen's birth, but it's a good bet that his greatest songs – from "Suzanne" to "Like a Bird on a Wire," from "Who by Fire" to "Avalanche," from "Famous Blue Raincoat" to "Chelsea Hotel," not to mention "Hallelujah" – will continue to provide spiritual and social sustenance, a fulcrum and source of comfort, for many listeners even in the distant future.

One of the greatest creators in the pantheon of music-makers in the second half of the 20th century, Cohen created his own artistic language, a unique musical-poetic syntax. When trying to place him in comparison to all the other greats who were responsible for the cultural earthquake of the '60s, it seems that it is possible, in a way, to put them all on one side and Cohen, alone, on the other.

The '60s revolution – which encompassed culture, society and awareness – was a revolution of the young. All the greats of the period – the Beatles, Dylan, the Rolling Stones and all the others – emerged in their twenties and had left their deep and resounding mark by the time they were 30, or even 25. And they came, almost all of them, from music. Even those whose fame derived mainly from their texts, like 2016 Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, were first and foremost musicians.

Leonard Cohen came from a different place entirely. He never imagined, when in his twenties, that he would ever be a singer. He was a poet and a novelist, with three books of poetry and prose books to his name. His gradual and hesitant turn to music happened only in the second half of the '60s, after the age of 30.

And even then, the thought that he would perform his songs himself was strange to him at first. He originally came to the notice of the music world as a song writer, courtesy of the songs he wrote for Judy Collins. He didn’t think of himself as a singer. The line "I was born with the gift of a golden voice" from the song "Tower of Love" was ironical, of course.

It was the late '60s by then and it was no longer necessary to have a beautiful voice to be a singer. It was more important to have something to say and a special way of saying it. And still, when John Hammond, the talent scout of Columbia Records (who also signed Bob Dylan, among others) was struck by the songs Cohen played him in February 1967, in his meager bedroom in New York's Chelsea Hotel, and recommended to the executives of Columbia that they sign him up, their reaction was very reserved,

"A 32-year-old poet? Are you out of your mind?" the head of Columbia asked Hammond. He was twice wrong. Cohen was then 33 and Columbia's subsequent decision to sign up Cohen, primarily due to Hammond's legendary status, turned into gold, though not necessarily from a financial perspective. Cohen never sold masses of records.

Cohen's individuality when compared to the generation of '60s greats can be found not only in his biography. His unique character is found primarily in his songs themselves. His temperament, as a relatively mature and experienced person, differed from that of the younger rock musicians, as did the sources that influenced him as a poet and man of words.

There was certainly a place for introspection and lucid poetry in the rock revolution of the '60s, but it was primarily an explosion of sound, beat, color, movement and liberation of the body and the mind. Cohen, by virtue of his age and the poetic ground from which he sprung, was the total anti-thesis of that experience. He even acknowledged in the New Yorker interview that he never really liked the Beatles.

His songs were sometimes recorded by others in orchestic versions (which he hated, not always justifiably,) but in essence they were monochromatic. And the rhythm to which they were set was funereal. Cohen slowed the rhythm of popular music to the greatest extent possible. He brought popular song to the edge of silence and singing itself to the edge of recitation, even prayer,

Any other artist daring to be as radical would have fallen into the trap of inertia and slumber. Cohen could do it, because at the core of his songs were deep and explosive active ingredients, both textual and musical.

It's best to leave the textual analysis to those who understand poetry or are emotionally bound to his words, but it is nevertheless possible to state that his songs got to places that few other songs from the '60s and '70s managed to enter.

They had a deep spiritual-religious dimension, as well as, at times, an exceptional sensual element. Time and again, they expressed the eternal tension between body and spirit.

Musically, Cohen's adoption of the elements of silent prayer, so contrary to the energetic expression of rock and pop, was in itself valid and unique. But his songs also had two other prominent musical qualities. The first was the melodic touch of songs like "The Sisters of Mercy," "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" and many others, which are models of refined composition.

The second quality was his guitar picking. There was nothing sophisticated or virtuoso about it; the opposite was true. But he had a unique touch that sometimes had a hypnotic element and will go down in musical history under his name.

Cohen spoke often of the influence that flamenco had on him. It can be heard in his picking, as well as in some of his favorite harmonies. When all those qualities were combined in a song, the result was sort of melodic-rhythmic-audio-textual magic. To my mind there were many songs in which it didn't happen, though Cohen\s many admirers will no doubt disagree.

Another major difference between Cohen and a significant part of the rock greats was the endurance of his creative power. Many of the great artists who peaked at 24 burned out too quickly and did not release songs and albums in their later decades. Cohen didn't burn out. In the mid-'70s, after releasing four wonderful albums, he experienced a creative slowdown, but in the next decade, when he was around the age of 50, he recovered and wrote "Hallelujah," which later became his most famous song. A few years later he released "I'm Your Man," which included hits like "First We Take Manhattan" and "Everybody Knows."

Cohen retired from the music industry in the '90s. He lived for several years in a Buddhist monastery and spent several more years on a spiritual quest in other places. Even though he released two albums in that decade, he did not have a real presence in the music world.

His return to the stage and global awareness was due to unfortunate circumstances (his manager defrauded him and stole millions of dollars) but it was one of the most impressive stage returns of recent years. It aroused a massive outpouring of global love for Cohen.

That wave returned him to writing and creating; in the last four tears of his life he released three albums, all of which were very well received.

Cohen was one of the artists most loved by Israeli audiences. His performance in Ramat Gan in 2009 was an event that will stay in many memories. Not only the performance but what preceded it will not be forgotten. The 50,000 tickets for the concert were sold out within hours, an unprecedented occurrence. There was no precedence for the public demand to see him in person.

Leonard Cohen is the third musical casualty of 2016, after David Bowie and Prince. As with Bowie, it happened very soon after he had released a new album – one under the cloud of death. But Cohen's death has not been accompanied by the shock that accompanies the deaths of artists who die before their time. One simply needs to listen to his last album "You want it darker" to understand why. It has not a little pain, but even more completion. A quiet acceptance of approaching death.

"I'm leaving the table," Cohen sings, "I'm getting out of the game." The burden on his shoulders is lighter than in the past and it's almost possible to see the thin smile on his lips as he makes his way, in typically funeral tempo, to the finish line.

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