A Tribute to the Great and Humble Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

“All your praises they shall ring, if it be your will to let me sing.”

(photo: Photo credit: ‘Rama’, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Last Thursday evening, the human race lost an important member, Leonard Cohen, at age 82. He had a long and tremendously successful career, celebrated and appreciated by every one of his peers. He started out as a young poet, a novelist, then a song writer and a deeply reluctant (jump to the 3:32 mark) musical performer. It was this last talent that ironically became his most successful endeavor, giving the world so much beauty from an honest heart.

Anyone who ever saw him perform knew he was one of the most humble men in entertainment. Even in the numerous tours of his last few years, he was genuinely surprised and thankful for each person who came to hear him. He expressed authentic wonder and surprise that anyone would overcome “financial and geographical difficulties” as he sometimes said, to come experience his concerts. In every performance, he always made sure to take ample time to introduce each member of his band, explaining their specific unmatchable gifts and their personal significance to him. He bowed to each in honor of their talent and his tender thankfulness in playing with him.

In the last decade, he always wore a suit and gentleman’s fedora in public as a show of respect for those he would meet. He often sang with his eyes closed or looking up to the highest and furthest seat in the house as if to bring them down to the front row. He was considerate and thankful for each person.

He was a softspoken man with what he referred to in one song as “a golden voice.” An extremely beautiful man where it counted, he was devoid of any sense of personal or professional fabrication. He was a man of great humor. To a coliseum of spectators shouting waves of requests at once, his gentle voice from a smiling face asked if the audience might “organize and appoint a spokesperson.”

He was one of the best songwriters our nation has ever seen — and certainly one of the best songwriters that his native Canada ever produced. Bob Dylan, his longtime friend and admirer, once told Cohen, “As far as I’m concerned, Leonard, you’re Number One. I’m Number Zero.” Few would disagree. Just consider a sampling of the following lyrics:

From Everybody Knows:

Everybody knows you’re in trouble/Everybody knows what you’ve been through

From the bloody cross on top of Calvary/To the beaches of Malibu.

Everybody knows it’s coming apart/Take one last look at this sacred heart

Before it blows/Everybody knows…

From Anthem:

The birds they sang/at the break of day/Start again I heard them say
Don't dwell on what has passed away or what is yet to be

Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in. 

From Dance Me to the End of Love, probably the most pro-marriage song ever performed, accompanied by a must-watch video:

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born

Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn

Raise a tent of shelter now though every thread is torn

And dance me to the end of love.

From If It Be Your Will, a prayer of a young Cohen who thought his public life might be over:

If it be your will that I speak no more and my voice be still as it was before

I will speak no more, I shall abide until I am spoken for

From this broken hill I will sing to you

All your praises they shall ring, if it be your will to let me sing.

As with Dylan or Paul Simon, it’s impossible to reduce Cohen’s most remarkable works to just a handful. More than a dozen deserve a place in his top five.

He could also be directly politically incorrect in his verse. In The Future, he sings from the perspective of a malevolent character who celebrates all that is evil in the world today; one who has no idea why things should be any different. He’s profoundly wrong however. There will be a judgment, a price to pay. One stark line from the mouth of Cohen’s demon character is this:

Destroy another fetus now, we don't like children anyhow
I've seen the future, baby: It is murder…

In First We Take Manhattan, he bemoans the loss of the virtue and value of paternal parenting,

“Its father’s day and everybody’s wounded”

Mr. Cohen knew it was evening and his night was coming. He said to an audience some years ago that he was not quite ready to hang up his gloves, but he knew where the hook was. Just last month he told the New Yorker in what he sensed would likely be his last living profile:

It’s hard to describe. As I approach the end of my life, I have even less and less interest in examining what have got to be very superficial evaluations or opinions about the significance of one’s life or one’s work. I was never given to it when I was healthy, and I am less given to it now.

Cohen’s new album, You Want it Darker, released Oct. 12, was written and recorded at home. He emailed the tracks to his producer as leaving the house was too difficult. He lived on the second story of his modest home in an upper working class Los Angeles neighborhood. His daughter and her children lived downstairs. The album is unmistakably crafted as his farewell offering.

In Traveling Light:

I'm traveling light; it's au revoir. My once so bright, my fallen star

I'm running late; they'll close the bar. I used to play one mean guitar

Perhaps Mr. Cohen knew just how soon it would be as he wrote I’m Leaving the Table:

I don't need a reason for what I became

I've got these excuses, they're tired and lame

I don't need a pardon, there's no one left to blame

I'm leaving the table, I'm out of the game

And his beautifully arranged title track:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game

If you are the healer, I'm broken and lame

If thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame

You want it darker. We kill the flame

I found Leonard Cohen’s work only a few years ago. A friend sent me the video from a recent concert in London, the song Everybody Knows. It’s lament, reminiscent of Dylan’s Idiot Wind, over the death of an important relationship due to the infamous infidelity of his partner:

Everybody knows that you've been faithful, ah, give or take a night or two

Everybody knows you've been discreet, but there were so many people you just had to meet, without your clothes and everybody knows

Everybody knows the scene is dead, but there's gonna be a meter on your bed
that will disclose what everybody knows

After watching the video of the whole concert numerous times over in the following days, I soon started to collect and digest nearly all his work, including his first novel from 1963, The Favorite Game. Cohen completed my trinity of cool, joining Dylan and Cash. They are each divine, transcendent; comforters and truth-tellers from another plane. Those whom people must go back to constantly to get a fresh perspective on who they are and who they are not, on the way the world is and the way it ought to be.

Leonard Cohen. Born September 21, 1934. Died November 7, 2016.

Rest in peace and thank you for being faithful to your gift and your fragile humanity.