Any death of our musical heroes prompts a rediscovery of their work and a cathartic relistening. This went on for months after Bowie, and I still feel some shock and sadness; not so with LC. I was expecting his death – he was 82 – and Leonard was expecting it too. He recently said in an interview that he was “ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable.”
Often it is the time in our lives when we discover influential artists that best explains our connection to them. Like most people under the age of 50, I found Cohen in my parents’ record collection, a dark, Jewish sillouhetted face staring out of the colourful reggae and the trippy glamrock sleeves. I must have been around 14 and at this age I was spending a lot of energy denying God and distancing myself from religious institutions, yet clinging to religious symbols and language. Is there a word for losing your religion? It was never really mine to begin with but I was attending a Catholic school so I was living under a cloud of deference and penitence. I was shaking off God (replacing him with music? poetry?) but holding on to the parables.
The poetry of his songs appealed most of all but also the miserable subject matter. The early teens is a good time for a socially anxious introvert to discover Leonard Cohen. He seemed so wise and honest and I always felt that when I was listening to his songs I could see things more clearly, that I was being shown some important eternal truth.
It took me many years to get round to the synth era and even the smooth 80s albums. The first two records were more than sufficient for nearly a decade. The same Leonard can be found in these later tracks, in the even deeper, gravelly voice, and the inspired contrast to female soul singers and child choirs. I obviously can’t claim that he’s a good singer but that’s not the appeal; his beatific, plangent tone never fails to calm me.
His success is puzzling; he’s a mediocre guitar-playing, who only started learning to pick up girls, with a voice arguably worse than Dylan’s. His songs clearly lack melody and are willfully minimalist, so it must be the lyrics that drag us in. You get a sense of a life lived – the lovers, the pain, the cigarettes – but also a life understood.
I’ll leave you with some of my favourite lyrics. This is from The Old Revolution, one of the early anti-war 60s tracks.
I finally broke into the prison,
I found my place in the chain.
Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows,
All the brave young men
They’re waiting now to see a signal
Which some killer will be lighting for pay.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture,
You whom I cannot betray.
So long to my shepherd.