RIP, Leonard Cohen, the troubadour of lost souls and interpreter of our saddest moments.
“There’s a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in,” sang Leonard Cohen, and like everything else he wrote, it is layered with depth and meaning. Interpret it the way you will, but it is tempting to look at it as a positive message in these dark times-don’t be downhearted, friends, there will always be a ray of hope.
Leonard Cohen, the troubadour of melancholy, the poet of loss and longing, the interpreter of our saddest moments, is no more. He died on November 7 but his death was announced three days later. Like Methuselah, we thought he would go on and on-didn’t he just bring out yet another album, You Want it Darker, at the age of 82? Wasn’t he still touring, drawing in the crowds wherever he went, the fans getting younger and younger, mesmerized by his gravelly and smoky voice emerging from some deep abyss, singing songs of isolation and love. How many heartbreaks have been nursed by his songs, how many moments of despair have been articulated just right by his words?
Cohen was born in Wesmont, Quebec, in an English speaking area of Francophone Montreal to a Jewish family. He recalled he had a very Messianic childhood, and references of the Jewish tradition are common in his work: “I’ve heard there was a secret chord/That David played and it pleased the Lord (Hallelujah): is the most obvious one, but there are many more.
Though he was already a reasonably well known but not successful writer in his native Canada, it was not until his first album Songs of Leonard Cohen that he really caught the attention of fans and critics. The album includes Suzanne, about a girl who wears “rags and furs from the Salvation Army counter”, which remains his signature song. Two more songs from the album, So Long Marianne and Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye have become better known over the years; both refer to his girlfriend, Marianne Ihlen, whom he met in Greece in 1967. Marianne died in July this year and just before her death, he had written to her, saying, “I will follow you soon.”
His next album Songs from a Room has the immortal Bird on a Wire, once again a song that has grown in reputation. It has the same sparse sound of his early songs, with an emphasis on the poetry and minimal instrumentation. This remained the Cohen hallmark till his music became more elaborate, in songs such as First we Take Manhattan which has a ‘synth-pop’ beat; it also is one of his most political songs, like Everybody Knows, which is replete with social satire that has a contemporary resonance:
Everybody knows the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everbody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Cohen was deeply influenced by poets such as Lorca and when asked to interpret one of his poems, wrote the dream-like Take this Waltz, and sang with his muse and lover Anjani Thomas:
There’s a concert hall in Vienna
Where your mouth had a thousand reviews
There’s a bar where the boys have stopped talking
They’ve been sentenced to death by the blues
Ah, but who is it climbs to your picture
With a garland of freshly cut tears?
By the 1980s, he was getting famous, and younger listeners were discovering him. His songs were finding their way into films, such as Pump Up the Volume and Exotica and Natural Born Killers. His songs of angst and farewells appealed to a wide cross section of music fans who found them an antidote to the pap that was being churned out by the recording companies.
Cohen had always been interested in Buddhism and in the 1990s, he retreated to Mount Baldy Zen Center, meditating for five years, emerging as a fully ordained Rinzai Zen monk, with the name Jikan, which means silence. In 1999 he also came to Mumbai to meet his guru Ramesh Baleskar, a former banker and Advaita master, and spoke to journalist Khalid Mohammed.
The post monastery songs did not become as popular as his earlier work even if they were praised by critics. But he began touring more, at the advanced age of 68, when he discovered that thanks to financial mishandling and fraud by his advisor, he was completely broke. The tours were sold out and in the winter of his life, Leonard Cohen had become a bonafide superstar.
By that time, his song Hallelujah had become a huge hit, thanks to its use in the film Shrek, in which it was covered by Rufus Wainright. K D Lang sang a brilliant version for the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Apart from his recorded songs, Cohen wrote 13 books of poetry and two novels. Aching desire and long gone lovers are not the only themes in his work. Cohen also sang about democracy, war, death and peace. Though Israel and Judaism drew him and he remained a Jew even after his interest in Buddhism, he stayed away from partisanship, saying, “I don’t want to speak of wars and sides.”