The singer/songwriter and poet was one of Canada's – and the world's – most distinctive and timeless artists
Leonard Cohen is gone. The world learned that he died of unknown causes on November 7, 2016. He was 82 years old and last month he released his final album, the acclaimed You Want It Darker.
The record was clearly a farewell every song seemed to be about the end of something. He granted an interview to The New Yorker to promote it and made headlines for stating, “I am ready to die. That’s about it for me.”
The Montreal poet, author, songwriter, singer, and musician – one of the finest and smartest men to ever approach such things – later took it all back, suggesting he was ready to live forever. That was about a month ago. The world was different for a lot of reasons and it was better for many of those same reasons. Among them, Leonard Cohen was still here, a wise expert on what makes us all tick, with a way of saying so in the sparest, clearest manner.
He also possessed great instincts.
If memory serves, I first encountered Leonard Cohen on television. It was the dystopian black and white video for First We Take Manhattan from 1988’s I’m Your Man. I must’ve been 11 or 12 years old at the time and the song – synthesized textures, drum machines, dark angel back-up singers supporting this gruff voice – wasn’t like the other stuff I’d seen on MuchMusic that year. It was a real short film about menacing fear and revenge and sounded contemporary but out of time. It led me to the public library where I signed out Leonard Cohen records and tried to figure them out.
He’d had a monumental run in the1960s and 1970s as a composer, writing classics like Suzanne and Bird On The Wire, and establishing himself as a leader among his peers. Before that, he’d written well-received but poorly sold novels and a book of poetry until he found a home in New York’s underground folk scene of the mid-60s and began his life as a singer and songwriter on Columbia Records.
But while his professional and one-time personal partner Jennifer Warnes had a hit in 1987 with his Ain’t No Cure for Love, Cohen himself seemed too dark and smoky, in voice and manner, for mainstream acceptance. A ladies man with a haunting presence, his fanbase deeply felt his appeal but he was too dangerous for radio.
He broke through to a new generation with 1992’s The Future. The videos for Closing Time and the title track were arresting, fun and sardonic, oozing booze and sex. And he’d found a new sound, incorporating his folk and rock roots with the electronic pulses and tones he had mastered a few years earlier.
In 1994, the late Jeff Buckley covered Cohen’s Hallelujah from 1984’s Various Positions and suddenly that (perfect!) song’s power was understood. Its author was reappraised and appreciated as the giant of song that he was.
Around the same time, Cohen went dark – so to speak. He left the public eye to meditate and explore his interest in Buddhism. In 1997, some friends and I visited Gampo Abbey, a monastery in Cape Breton, and, not only were we told Leonard would retreat there from time to time, apparently we just missed him. I wasn’t chasing him or anything. I never really did. He was always just there, in whatever form he took.
Cohen’s body of work was all over the place sonically but no matter whom he worked with or what pieces of technology he immersed his songs in, it was still fundamentally him. Whether he was palling around with the Velvet Underground and Nico in New York City or unexpectedly dropping in to observe a recording session by A Silver Mt. Zion in Montreal, Cohen plugged into what was happening but he also, crucially, knew and trusted his artistic core.
He took this century seriously, releasing five stellar albums and toured until there was no more road left. The shows are legendary. Anybody who saw these epic displays of strength and love could tell you they were unlike any other musical spectacle. He did it all with enough grace, humility, conviction and purpose. He brought tears to my eyes.
And now he’s gone and it’s horribly sad.
He seemed to know he was going and was bracing us too. Few people were as capable of conveying the complexities of the human condition in as deceptively stark songs as Leonard Cohen. It will be said many times and in many different ways over the coming weeks, but there simply wasn’t another artist like him.
The loss is immeasurable, for both Canada and the world at large.
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