Leonard Cohen’s autumnal years have been afflicted, and his writing nuanced, by more than a simple awareness of his own mortality. The Canadian singer-songwriter spent most of the 1990s in a Zen monastery in California, during which time his manager (and former lover) Kelley Lynch siphoned off several million dollars’ worth of earnings, mostly from the sale of his publishing company to Sony. Not being particularly astute in such matters, it took Cohen several years to work out what had happened, by which time he was facing a severely diminished bank account and a rather larger tax bill.
The resulting legal squabbles no doubt sapped Cohen’s creative powers, and used up even more of his diminished funds. That Lynch was ordered to pay him back was little consolation — she hasn’t done so, and is now in prison for harassing him. Yet Cohen was able to cast a ruefully theological spin on events and all the time he was forced to spend in other people’s offices. As he put it to one Canadian journalist in 2009: ‘If God wants to bore you to death, I guess that’s His business.’ Such, we might think, is the wisdom of Cohen. His music has always awakened impulses in his devotees to see him as some sort of mentor for the melancholic. But this impulse took a new twist once Cohen’s own fortunes looked bleak: what would, or could, he do in the face of this personal crisis?
The reality, of course, was that Cohen needed to find some cash. His output had never been prolific (he has released a dozen studio albums in a 45-year recording career) and, in any case, his critical acclaim has never been matched in sales figures. Where he had always been able to turn a respectable profit was through live shows, though he hadn’t toured since the early 1990s. Through necessity rather than any particular inclination, Cohen went back on the road.
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What he craved in his association with Roshi was something he called ‘the voluptuousness of austerity’
But 2008 was a tumultuous time in the wider world. As Cohen and his band snaked through North America, Europe and Australasia, the full impact of the global economic meltdown was beginning to take hold. But this was not some preening rock behemoth making a brief stopover from tax exile in Monaco or the Bahamas. Cohen was just another shlimazel who’d woken up one morning to find his pension pot had been cleaned out. Many of those who came to see him perform were facing all too similar anxieties. Long-term fans were perhaps contemplating reduced retirements; the more recent ‘converts’, many of them encouraged by the recommendations of Nick Cave or Rufus Wainwright, were similarly fearful of their diminished futures, their faith in the material rewards of modern capitalism deflated. It was a potential congregation of gloom and despondency, almost a parody of Cohen’s reputation as the patron saint of bedsit depressives. What philosophical (or, if so inclined, spiritual) consolation could Cohen offer? The fact that his singing voice, never the most technically perfect instrument, was now little more than a forlorn croak simply added to the mood. The line, ‘I was born with the gift of a golden voice’ (from ‘Tower of Song’, on the 1988 album I’m Your Man) was greeted every night with an ironic cheer.
Cohen’s religious background is one of contradiction and complexity. Born into a Jewish family in Montreal in 1934, his maternal grandfather was a rabbi, and the young Leonard enjoyed reading the Book of Isaiah with him. Unsurprisingly, Old Testament imagery crops up regularly in his poems and songs, adding to his reputation — only partly deserved — for austerity and solemnity. Yet Montreal was very much a Catholic city (Cohen even had an Irish nanny as a child), and his work is just as likely to refer to Jesus, Mary or Joan of Arc. Indeed, his first successful song, ‘Suzanne’, tells of ‘our lady of the harbour’, a statue that stands in the chapel of Nôtre Dame de Bon Secours, one of the city’s oldest churches.
But while the imagery might have appealed, Cohen never thought of converting to Catholicism. In his own idiosyncratic way, he maintained a loyalty to Judaism, despite his many indulgences in the archetypal rock and roll foibles of sex and drugs. It wasn’t until the age of 33, by which time he had begun to make his name as a poet and novelist and was recording his first album, that he became seriously interested in the doctrine and practice of another religion — Zen Buddhism.
Though he became closely associated with the teachings of the Rinzai monk Joshu Sasaki, known as Roshi, Cohen still identified himself as a Jew. What he craved in his association with Roshi was something he called ‘the voluptuousness of austerity’, a delectably contradictory concept that echoes both the koan (the paradoxical statements and questions that are central to Zen practice) and Cohen’s own attitude to the spiritual life: at various times committed, ambivalent or mocking, and sometimes all three at once. One of the things that attracted Cohen to Roshi’s teachings was the teacher’s ability to discuss the benefits of self-denial while knocking back cups of sake. The two of them also later bonded over a shared fondness for brandy. When Cohen became a resident at Roshi’s monastery on Mount Baldy in California, he would wake up half an hour before the 3am start demanded of residents, not for extra meditation time, but because he knew he’d need vast quantities of coffee and cigarettes to prepare himself for the drudgery of the prescribed rituals.
There is, understandably, a temptation to look for a doctrine or creed in Cohen’s writing that captures his spiritual outlook — nonetheless, it is a temptation that is not easily satisfied. The history of his best-known song, ‘Hallelujah’ (originally released on the Various Positions album in 1984), neatly encapsulates his spiritual eclecticism. Its lyrics draw on the story of David and Bathsheba in the second Book of Samuel, but Cohen so obsessively wrote and rewrote the piece over the years that the explicitly theological content (‘Maybe there’s a God above…’) came and went. What remains, above all, is a tribute to the power of religious music, of hymns and ritual itself, without specific acknowledgement of any particular religious truth underpinning it. There is something indefinably hymn-like about it — Guy Garvey of the band Elbow, who comes from a Catholic background, has described it as ‘a mantra’ — but ultimately it transcends any particular denominational categorisation, and has found favour with the devout and atheists alike, as well as most steps in between.
His recent temporal crisis might have, in a very literal sense, been about being broke but, in spiritual terms, Cohen has always been broken
If anything, it’s a hymn to hymns, rather than to God (or gods). As such, it’s been recorded by the Algerian singer Khalida Azzouza and by the erstwhile Songs of Praise host Aled Jones, but it is also played every Saturday night on the radio station of the Israeli Defence Forces. (Cohen played some ad hoc concerts for Israeli soldiers during the Yom Kippur war in 1973.) Cohen tends to be evasive when asked to explain his work, but he suggests that the lyrics explain that ‘Many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value.’ This notion of brokenness, an awareness of one’s own frailties and imperfections, crops up time and again in Cohen’s lyrics. In ‘Anthem’ (1992), the notion of the ‘perfect offering’ (the Biblically sanctioned sacrifice to God) is spurned in favour of the ‘crack in everything — that’s how the light gets in.’ Nothing good (or enlightening) is possible without flaws or fractures. In ‘Come Healing’, from his most recent album Old Ideas (2012), brokenness is specifically equated with the splinters of Christ’s cross. What is paramount is Cohen’s awareness of the grimness of existence, and for many years critics sarcastically dubbed him ‘Laughing Lenny’ for the apparently gloomy nature of his outlook. But, it is from such fractures and splinters that the ‘healing of the spirit’ comes. His recent temporal crisis might have, in a very literal sense, been about being broke but, in spiritual terms, Cohen has always been broken. Brokenness is not an end in itself, but an opportunity to allow something else to happen.
While Cohen has frequently dealt with religious themes in other songs, the more often he does it, the harder it is to pin down to any specific ideology. ‘Who By Fire’ (1974) is based on the structure of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead; ‘The Smokey Life’ (1979) suggests the impermanence at the core of Buddhism; ‘Anthem’, with its bells and ‘holy dove’ hints at the Christian ritual and imagery that informed much of his early works. But Cohen’s theology, however he might define it, seems anything but easy-going. Old Ideas is riddled with intimations of mortality. As well as ‘Come Healing’, it includes a piece simply titled ‘Amen’ that sounds almost like a crib sheet for the King James Bible, with references to angels, ‘the blood of the lamb’, and the assertion that ‘vengeance belongs to the lord’.
Some fans might regard themselves more as disciples than mere enthusiasts. Yet, while Cohen might have admired the rigours of discipline — as a boy he’d seriously contemplated joining the Canadian army, and one of the attractions of his time in the Buddhist monastery was the quasi-military discipline it imposed — he was always wary of the those who sought to administer it. He might have had a close and fond relationship with Roshi the Zen master, but he never saw him as a guru. As Cohen said in an interview on Mount Baldy: ‘I’ve always had a great suspicion of charismatic holy men… A lot of them are just head hunters.’ It was a resistance to being led that he’d expressed as far back as his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967). The lyrics of ‘Master Song’ from that album castigate the chancers and charlatans that he — in common with many of his contemporaries — had encountered in the quest for spiritual fulfilment. True to his Jewish upbringing, Judaism, Cohen lacks any particular evangelical urge or thirst for converts.
At a Cohen concert, it is possible to be in the company of tens of thousands of fellow fans, and yet still feel exquisitely alone
Cohen himself certainly isn’t claiming to be any kind of leader, spiritual or otherwise. The rabbinical line had stopped with his grandfather. And yet, many of those who have been to one of Cohen’s concerts report some kind of spiritual response, something beyond the purely earthbound sensation of going to a good gig. Perhaps the closest analogy is with the waiting worship of a traditional Quaker meeting, which operates without leadership or liturgy; in this analogy, Cohen himself is more of a ‘facilitator’, whose songs awaken something individual rather than collective. At a Cohen concert, it is possible to be in the company of tens of thousands of fellow fans, and yet still feel exquisitely alone. In that context, the sober grey suit and fedora he has adopted as his stage outfit make him look more like an undertaker than a priest.
If Cohen does have any particular spiritual message — and I rather suspect he’ll go to his grave denying such a thing — it is this call to the individual. Other rock performers — Dylan the Christian, Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam the Muslim, George Harrison the devotee of Hare Krishna — have evangelised for their chosen faiths, but that’s too easy a liturgy for Laughing Lenny, who has never promoted Judaism or Zen or any other particular creed as a panacea. He has crafted his own method of coming to terms with the transcendent, but doesn’t offer it as an off-the-peg gift to the punters. If there is such a thing as Cohenism, it is simultaneously syncretic and idiosyncratic. It’s for Cohen alone: the fans have to find their own paths. ‘You don’t need to follow me,’ he seems to intone along with Monty Python’s Brian. ‘You don’t need to follow anybody.’ Each of us has to compose a personal amen, a high and lonesome — and defiantly imperfect — hallelujah.
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is a journalist and editor, and the author of Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah (2009).
There’s just no getting around it: writing about Leonard Cohen is an intimidating proposition. Trying to put into words the magic of Cohen’s art is like trying to play a guitar solo about Jimi Hendrix. The most celebrated and identifiably literary figure in all of rock and roll, Cohen has, with his music, permitted us a glimpse into the mind of one of the most astute and beloved communicators of the human condition since Baudelaire or Rimbaud.
By the time Cohen released his first album, 1967’s Songs Of Leonard Cohen, he was already 33 years old and a published poet and novelist of some repute in his native Canada. At an age when most careers in music are (or should be) drawing to conclusions both tragic and temporal, Cohen was just getting started. Over the years his reputation as a singer and songwriter would eclipse that of his reputation as a poet, though Cohen actively published books throughout his four decades of music making.
Cohen is an irresistibly compelling character; no rock and roll sage has so ably served two masters. Contrast Cohen’s Jekyl — erudite, monastic, earnest — with his Hyde — lecherous, cruel, hedonistic. Father, philanderer, or malcontent, he’s your man. His lyrics are a series of diamond-flashes, full of malevolence, veracity, and moral passion, as likely to be threaded with Christian allegory as they are to contain allusions to blowjobs and orgies.
But great poetry alone does not necessarily make for great music, and Cohen is no mere poet. While it would be difficult to imagine a person who is not in some way already amenable to the charms of rhythmic verse getting much out of his music, Cohen’s keen ear for melody and arrangement is as deft as his eye for sparkling detail. His always ancient-sounding voice has transformed over the years from a yearning, spellbinding tenor to a dispassionate rattle, like a teacup being gently dragged over cement. If deep and private engagement with Leonard Cohen’s music has never made you cry, your blood type may very well be ‘ice water.’
The first three Leonard Cohen albums, like the first four Velvet Underground albums, are very nearly perfect. He could have stopped at 1970’s brilliant Songs Of Love And Hate and earned a place alongside Nick Drake and Townes Van Zandt among the sadsack hipster elite, but like most great artists of the 20th century, Cohen was a maverick, a risk taker of the highest order, and was never content to rest on his laurels as some earnest godfather of goth. He might have merely gone down in history as the French Canadian perv who wrote folk songs about erections and scalpels and raincoats and Joan of Arc, but his grasp exceeded such paltry distinctions. The ensuing decades saw the mercurial Cohen spending five years in seclusion at a monastery becoming an ordained monk, discovering the wonders of drum machines and MIDI programming, and catastrophically collaborating with legendary lunatic and firearms enthusiast Phil Spector, among other feats.
If the following list is a little light on Cohen’s later music, this is more a testament to the magisterial greatness of his early work than a rejection of latter-day masterpieces like “Because Of” and “Alexandra Leaving.” Many readers will balk at the exclusion of “Hallelujah,” a song that has taken on legendary status mostly due to its popularity in coffeehouses, college campuses, and American Idol, the result of an admittedly pretty good cover by the late Jeff Buckley and a better one by John Cale, among far too many others. The ubiquity of the tune has, over the years, lent it an undue reputation as a Cohen masterwork. It has this in common with the oft-covered “Suzanne,” another song many will claim has been omitted from this list egregiously. Let’s just say that this is merely a Leonard Cohen top 10, and there are about forty songs tied for No. 11.
To declare oneself a songwriter — or even an appreciator of songs — while remaining unaware of even the most minor of Cohen’s work is a bit like declaring oneself a chef having never successfully scrambled an egg. The devilishly debonair Buddhist Canadian Jew with the voice that sighs eternally has written some of the most beautifully melancholic and affecting songs in the history of recorded music. Here are 10 of them.
10. “Tower Of Song” from I’m Your Man (1988)
Any writer who has ever pored over a verb choice, any poet who has ever spent an entire evening excruciating over the minutiae of a simile, owes it to him or herself to listen to the magnificent “Tower Of Song” and be reminded that even the greats are occasionally burdened by the mutation that is the creative muse. Over an unhurried rhumba that sounds vaguely like a Casio preset, and female background vocals of the ‘shoop-de-doop’ and ‘doo-run-run’ variety, this tale of martyrdom, madness, and rime is full of wan admonishments that convey — often within the same line — both the blessing and the curse of artistic creation’s binge and purge.
9. “Death Of A Ladies Man” from Death Of A Ladies Man (1977)
Cohen has few epics, but this one is remarkable not only for its scope but for its bathos and the unlikely circumstances from whence it came. The title track to Cohen’s 1977 collaboration with producer and co-writer Phil Spector — a mismatch if ever there was one, even on paper — “Death Of A Ladies Man” is all poise and brio, a ludicrously loveable (or is that loveably ludicrous?) aberration that, at nine minutes and change, is not an easy song to love. Though disowned by its creators, Death Of A Ladies Man isn’t near the catastrophe it is often made out to be. It’s also the album on which Cohen’s trademark sense of humor really starts to develop — if the previous four albums were occasionally too plaintive or despondent for some, this seductive Nilsson-esque title track of gender confusion, bitterness, and spite belies an affinity for the comically profane that would become something of a Cohen trademark hereafter. “Death Of A Ladies Man” is an essential chip in the Leonard Cohen mosaic.
8. “Bird On A Wire” from Songs From A Room 1969
Written as a simple country song, Kris Kristofferson famously claimed that the opening lines of “Bird On A Wire” — “Like a bird on a wire / Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried, in my way, to be free” — would serve as his own epitaph. Cohen himself described the song as “a Bohemian ‘My Way,'” which really ought to be the final word on the subject. The song is featured on 1969’s excellent Songs From A Room, the first of the two ‘Bob Johnston’ LPs, (the even better Songs of Love And Hate followed a year later), so nicknamed for producer Johnston, who would preside over Cohen’s greatest work, and also join Cohen’s band, playing piano and organ. Over doleful strings, slowly picked acoustic guitar, and the ever-present jaw harp, Cohen, in just several verses, conveys a hoped-for redemption with a solemnity so true, one wonders how the witches of Salem might have fared if only they’d had it as testimony.
7. “Everybody Knows” from I’m Your Man (1988)
“Everybody Knows” is sung as a series of somber revelations on mortality over a Fairlight-assisted, explicitly Spanish-sounding musical accompaniment. Written with collaborator Sharon Robinson, the song featured prominently in the hit 1990 movie Pump Up The Volume and as a result has become one of Cohen’s deservedly best-known songs. The tense arrangement rises to meet Cohen’s cynically resigned voice, which whispers such gems as “Everybody knows that the war is over / Everybody knows that the good guys lost.” Indeed.
6. “Who By Fire” from Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967)
If you invited Cohen over to dinner and asked him to say grace, you might get “Who By Fire.” Based on a Yom Kippur prayer of atonement, “Who By Fire” is a deceptively simple song of earthly contrasts and the rumination on deliverance. The lyrics seem to ask, “Which of your loved ones will be killed in a car accident? By disease? Who will die peacefully in their sleep and whose life will be curtailed by misadventure?” It is one of Cohen’s more direct songs, albeit one that, by design, asks more questions than it answers.
5. “Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” from Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Featuring Cohen’s distinctive classical nylon string guitar, which he began playing after befriending a flamenco guitarist, “Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” is one of the most tender breakup songs ever written. Three songs from this debut album were featured in Robert Altman’s classic film McCabe And Mrs. Miller, endearing the album to an audience beyond collectors of chapbooks and folk records, but “Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” is the album’s crown jewel. A sort of cousin to Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” “Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” is a song of a marked relationship not doomed by emotional estrangement but by circumstance, a song that chooses to cherish rather than regret. It’ll choke you up.
4. “So Long, Marianne” from Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Even a clamorous, melodramatic hack job by producer John Simon can’t diminish the pleasures of this perfect song. Though Columbia’s John Hammon was slated to produce Cohen’s first album, the job was delegated at the last minute to the unimaginative Simon, whose heavy hand dulls the impact of the otherwise extraordinary debut (though, it should be noted, Simon may not be completely to blame — the strident and saccharine background vocals foreshadow the girl-group harmonies that Cohen would favor throughout his career). Inspired by Cohen’s then-lover Marianne Jensen (later Marianne Ihlen, who would also be immortalized around this time in an eponymous song by folk singer David Blue, who, from the sounds of it, didn’t think much of Cohen), “So Long, Marianne” is a choppy waltz detailing a different kind of doomed romance, one resulting from the singer’s refusal to settle down and be monogamous. The result of a thousand mamas telling a thousand hippie sons they ‘better shop around’ — “You left when I told you I was curious / I never told you I was brave” — “So Long, Marianne” is “Love The One You’re With” for the free spirit with an actual working brain.
3. “I’m Your Man” from I’m Your Man (1988)
“I’m Your Man” is the rare love song that manages to equally convey sweetness and sexiness, a song for both the reception and the honeymoon, and perhaps even some of the calamities that will follow. For this and more, it is one of the greatest love songs ever written. Written during a crisis of creative identity, after which Cohen resolved to use less flowery and more direct language, “I’m Your Man” is the title track of an album drenched in MIDI arrangements and drum machines (anathema to ‘serious’ musicians — what a joyless lot they are!) that probably sounded dated by the time the masters tapes were delivered to the record label. No matter — the synthetic-sounding arrangements provide the ideal bedrock for Cohen’s most beautiful songs in years, the title track in particular, laying the groundwork for similarly intrepid career gambles like Destroyer’s oblique Your Blues and Will Oldham’s icy Arise, Therefore.
2. “Famous Blue Raincoat” from Songs Of Love And Hate (1971)
Ambiguous and mysterious, “Famous Blue Raincoat” is, in many ways, Cohen’s signature song, maybe the first Leonard Cohen song you play for some lucky someone who has not yet been exposed to the man’s music. The epistolary tune even ends with a signature — “Sincerely, L. Cohen” — lending the work a hauntingly autobiographical tinge that justifies the various (and exhausting) speculations on the song’s true meaning. “Famous Blue Raincoat” is ostensibly written in the wake of a lover’s triangle, though one of my favorite interpretations of it involves the idea that Cohen is writing a letter to himself — the raincoat and the lock of hair both his own. Each time you hear “Famous Blue Raincoat,” you understand less but want to know more. It’s a song that remains with you after it has stopped playing, and forever after.
1. “Avalanche” from Songs Of Love And Hate (1971)
Taken from his poem “I Stepped Into An Avalanche” (though altered and edited considerably), “Avalanche” is Cohen’s examination of self-loathing and the pain that depression inflicts on others. It is the quintessential song on the aptly titled album Songs Of Love And Hate because it passes both of those perennial checkpoints, and is also a quintessential Leonard Cohen song for this same reason. “Avalanche” is not a song you hear so much as feel. The cataleptic narrator — at once the personification and caricature of disorder — writhes and wonders at the suffocating dread he sees as he simultaneously destroys everything around him. This one should come with a warning label. Morrissey, Robert Smith, Trent Reznor, Nick Cave — eat your cold, cold hearts out.