2016 has taken many great musicians from us. Early in the year we lost Prince and David Bowie. Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip is still with us for now, but the band played its last concert. And then there was Leonard Cohen.
Cohen began his career as one of the long parade of 1960s singer-songwriters who temporarily changed the phrase “folk music” so that it now referred to the music of educated urban élites. He earned a place alongside Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan – many of whom he played with. In that context he developed his talent for enigmatic, evocative lyrics. But as far as I’m concerned, none of his real greatness comes from that period. If he had died as young as Janis Joplin (or Amy Winehouse), I wouldn’t be writing this tribute, and a few decades from now I’m not sure that he would be remembered.
Cohen’s real brilliance came out in the 1980s and early 1990s, when decades of whisky and cigarettes had lowered his sensitive folkie voice into a gravelly growl, and his music took a darker turn to match. The past year in the United States has had me marvelling over and over at the prescience of “Democracy“, a song expressing a foreboding and ominous dread that “Democracy is comin’ to the USA.”
A friend – longtime LoAW commenter Ben – noted to me recently that Cohen may be the world’s most famous “JewBu” (Jewish Buddhist). And it occurred to me that Cohen’s (later) lyrics are, in a certain way, deeply in sync with both traditions. What characterizes those works above all is a sense of bleakness, of darkness, about the world and life: “I’ve seen the future, brother, it is murder.” “My friends are gone and my hair is gray. I ache in the places where I used to play.” And perhaps most of all there is “Everybody Knows“, a song that treats the world’s corrupt and cynical nature as a truism.
But there is in the depths of all this darkness a wit, and more than that, an affirmation. In hearing some dark and brooding music one wonders of the singer or the lyricist, “Is he okay? Is he going to kill himself?” (As the leader of Joy Division turned out to do before his album was even released.) There was never any such worry with Cohen. For him, I think, there was a certain enjoyment, even relishing of the darkness. And likewise for his fans, as Cohen well knew, going so far as to name his last album – released just weeks before his death – “You Want It Darker“.
There is a twist in that title. The “you” addressed in the eerie, spare title song – the one who wants it darker – turns out to be God himself, as it is in so many of Cohen’s other works (“Coming Back To You“). Cohen adds, likely aware of what was soon to come: “I’m ready, my lord.” The song’s haunting backing vocals are provided by a Jewish men’s choir.
And it seems to me that in general the darkness of Cohen’s music echoes at least one strain of Jewish tradition. This is emphatically not the righteous prophetic tradition of the book of Exodus, where God acts to bring justice to the world. Rather it is the sober view of Ecclesiastes, where the righteous perish, the wicked thrive and God is distant and inscrutable – yet we still cannot get away from him and we keep a loyalty to him. One can hear Ecclesiastes in the most poignant lines of Kate McKinnon’s achingly mournful recent SNL cover of “Hallelujah” as Hillary Clinton, a verse from Cohen’s original that is less common in cover versions: “And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the lord of song / With nothing on my lips but hallelujah.”
I’ve sometimes thought of Ecclesiastes as my favourite book of the Bible. I’d also say it’s a strong contender for the most Buddhist book of the Bible. Which brings us to the fact that shortly after releasing arguably his three best albums, this sensual, whisky-soaked poet went to spend five years as a Zen monk on a mountaintop. And it seems to me that this too is in keeping with Cohen’s lyrics, pessimistic and despairing yet full of relish and even rapture. In Zen one experiences sudden liberation in a single moment – the world has not changed, only one’s perspective on it. One embraces the world even with all its flaws, which may themselves be the source of the world’s beauty. In acceptance lies awakening.