Leonard Cohen died this week. I lost a spiritual guide.
Cohen’s music came into my life at a strange time. I was struggling with leaving one relationship and starting another. I remember feeling lost. It was in that overlap, ending one part of my life and being unsure about embarking on another, that I met the words and music of Cohen.
I was spending the day shopping with Heidi. It was possibly the first time we had gone out anywhere by ourselves and not accompanied by a group of friends. While at the mall, we went into a music store and I saw the 2-disc set, THE ESSENTIAL LEONARD COHEN, sitting there on shelf.
The only songs I knew were covers of “Everybody Knows” and “Suzanne.” Don Henley had released “Everybody Knows” on ACTUAL MILES: HENLEY’S GREATEST HITS and I couldn’t say I particularly enjoyed his version. But the words were sharp, cynical, and biting; I was drawn to that. I was familiar with “Suzanne” from Peter Gabriel’s rendition of the song. Peter Gabriel’s “Suzanne” was part of 6-disc set of rare Gabriel tracks I had downloaded and it was the one I’d listen to the most. When Gabriel sings, “and she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China,” it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard in my life. The lyrics were hypnotic. Beyond that, I didn’t know anything else about Cohen.
I bought the collection and it immediately had a profound impact on me.
After years of feeling I had to have answers, reasons, and explanations for all my beliefs, feelings, and actions, here was someone saying that being unsure and wrestling with questions about love, life, and faith was natural, healthy, and a lifelong meditation. It brought me greater comfort in an emotionally tumultuous time than anything else I’d ever experienced.
I believe Cohen’s music is largely about letting go. Not in a reckless or destructive way, but accepting that external pressures and perceptions are always there and peace can be found in turmoil or loss by a deep look inwards and a breathe of acceptance that it’s all beautiful.
Cohen does pay attention to social and political upheaval in his music, but he sees even these as problems that play out as personal crises. He approaches the great struggles of justice, freedom, and individuality as someone battle-scarred, knowing all too well the familiar cycle of these repetitious wars we all face. We need to change ourselves along with the world.
Cohen’s delivery is reassuring. It’s mature, relaxed, and introspective. It’s assertive without being presumptuous.
His words espouse emotion as the most rational state in which to make our decisions, encouraging us to think with our hearts.
In exploring ourselves we might find darkness but shining a light on it and working to understanding it is the journey we’re on.
The lyrics of Leonard Cohen are liturgical, steeped in religious imagery. Holy rituals and stories are re-envisioned in Cohen’s world to convey intimacy. He uses the sacred to explore the profane.
He sings with a reverence for women, humbled and in awe of their power, mystery, and allure, that articulated things I felt and saw but could never express.
We preserve what is most special to us privately, in our own ways, and these hard feelings to share and articulate. It’s difficult to make others understand or listen.
Cohen blesses his listeners. He invites them to join in a communion of music and life.
In Cohen’s world, we are treated as mythological figures, deeply flawed and tragic, yearning for courage and conflicted by our desires. That’s as close to Truth as I’ve ever come.
Thank you, Leonard Cohen, for everything.
“Well, never mind, we are ugly but we have the music.” – L. Cohen
As I always do in this tributes, I want to highlight a few of my favorite Cohen songs and lyrics.
“You kneel for him to come,” Cohen sings on “Master Song.” A perfect example of that blend of the sacred/profane. Pay attention to the interesting use of instruments in the track that change from verse to verse and accompany Cohen’s familiar style of picking on guitar.
“I looked for you in everyone and they called me on that, too.” That line always kills me in “Coming Back To You”
The chords in “The Smokey Life” are gorgeous. Not to mention the lyrics, “I know where long ago we agreed to keep it light so let’s be married one more night. It’s light enough, light enough to let it go.”
One of Cohen’s many takes on desire. “If you want a lover, I’ll do anything you ask me to. If you want another kind of love, I’ll wear a mask for you.”
I can’t pick out just a line or two from “The Future.” It’s a brutal song. OK, maybe I can pick one: “Take the only tree that’s left and stuff it up the hole in your culture.”
“I am not the one who loves, it’s love that seizes me,” says Cohen in “You Have Loved Enough.”
“Last Year’s Man” is perfectly crafted with plenty of contemplation about war, religion, and sex. I love this image though: “And the skylight is like skin for a drum I’ll never mend.” Note the Cohen picking style as in “Master Song” and countless others.
Is there a greater meditation from an artist about their work and legacy than “Tower Of Song”?