LEONARD COHEN: A GAME WELL PLAYED
When I found out that the iconic Leonard Cohen had passed on, I mourned the death of the legend with his final release, You Want It Darker. I was sitting in a room with friends, other fans who had been touched by his music and who felt the sadness of his death. With lights dimmed, and mood solemn, we listened as this prophet of words and sound performed his last waltz into the darkness. Like Bowie’s Black Star, You Want It Darker seemed to foreshadow the end for the musician. Cohen, who had already given his final bow on the stage, and had been looking forward to spending the rest of his time with his friends and family, converted parts of his house into a recording studio. With the help of his son, Adam, he bowed to us one more time. Whether he meant it as a parting gift, or simply an expression of his feelings as he became weaker with age, is not known for certain. And we need not know either way. Regardless of intent, we are left with another brilliant piece of music to add to the lengthy discography of Leonard Cohen.
Whether you have only heard the famous “Hallelujah,” a song that has been covered by other artists too many times to count, or you have indulged in every album since his debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, you’ve likely been affected by the his ability to wrangle the spoken word. While the poet did not begin his journey aspiring to the fast life of a rock ’n’ roll star, after years spent working as a writer, his path would eventually lead him into the world of music.
His journey began in Montreal, where he was raised by a Jewish family and received his undergraduate degree from McGill in the early 1950’s. Cohen was never the brilliant student, but there was something special about the way he wrote that caught the attention of scholars around the country. He was soon published by the University and heavily acclaimed for his work. When grad school turned out to be a lacklustre experience for the young writer, he instead pursued a career in literature on his own. At the beginning, Cohen self-funded by working odd jobs around the city. He eventually found himself with the desire for a change of scenery. With an inheritance from his father, who had passed when Cohen was only nine years old, he purchased a house on Hydra, one of the Greek Islands.
Continuing his work as a professional writer on Hydra, and finding the job to be financially unfulfilling, Leonard did not last long before moving to the United States. Before he made the transition to another new home, Leonard met an important woman: the famous Marianne. An early lover to Cohen, she became a muse for his work. When he decided to pursue songwriting in America, he would leave her behind, with several farewell songs making their way onto his debut album.
Cohen, although now aspiring to be a songwriter, had little experience in music. The influence of the Flamenco guitar style on his early albums had come from Cohen’s few unofficial lessons from a Spanish guitar player. His teachings were cut short when Cohen found that the teacher had committed suicide. As a teenager, he also played in a band called Buckskin Boys, but such was the extent to his musical background. Regardless of his amateur experience, the poet found many other allies to help him once he was in America. One of whom was fellow artist Judy Collins. Thrilled by his song “Suzanne,” she pestered him onto the stage one night at an Anti-Vietnam War benefit in New York City. Cohen, who was super reluctant, barely started the song when he refused to go on any further. The nerves of performing had taken over. Collins forced him to return to the stage to play the entire song, and thus began his career as a performer.
Cohen’s stage fright would never truly leave him. Years and years of time spent on the road always kept the legend anxious. But a performer into his old age, he used these nerves to keep his concerts organic and meditative.
A lengthy career under his belt, spiritual endeavours that led him to becoming an ordained monk, and a winning law suit filed against his manager, who had been stealing millions of dollars from him, the poet lived through countless adventures. After it all, we are left with music and words that have and will continue to inspire the most innocent and jaded minds (along with anything in between). While it was clear that Cohen had his own demons, a large part of his charm was his ability to summon our darkest fears and desires and make them profound. Every delectable taste life has to offer, every sexual endeavour, every existentialist feeling, or spiritual healing has surfaced in the contents of his music. Leonard Cohen never promised triumph over pain and depression, nor did he forget about the tangibly sweet moments in life. Best put in “On the Level,” from his final album, “I turned my back on the devil/turned my back on the angel too.”
With everything left on the table, from his darkest thoughts, to his earliest loves, the poet let’s us glance a bit into what turned out to be the end to his long and eventful life. It may have been time to “get out of the game,” but for Leonard Cohen, it was a game well played.
Listen to You Want It Darker now on the streaming service of your choice.