Tribute to Leonard Cohen

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“Now I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back
They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song” 

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Leonard Cohen has been ruminating about death since he was – at most – nine years old… a prescient pre-teen using words to fend off the darkness, as he described to the New Yorker’s David Remnick in what turned out to be one of his final interviews.

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Part of a prominent Jewish family in Montreal – made up of rabbis and Talmudic scholars — Cohen’s father was a clothing manufacturer who died when Leonard was just a young boy. Seeing his open casket in the living room of their home, where the funeral was held, had a lasting effect on him.

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After watching his dad’s body lowered into the ground, Cohen recalls, “Then I came back to the house and I went to his closet and found a premade bow tie. I don’t know why I did this, I can’t even own it now, but I cut one of the wings of the bow tie off and I wrote something on a piece of paper — I think it was some kind of farewell to my father—and I buried it in a little hole in the back yard. And I put that curious note in there. . . . It was just some attraction to a ritual response to an impossible event.”

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That kind of response took the form of both novels like 1963’s The Favorite Game and the 1966 cult fave Beautiful Losers and also poetry collections such as 1961’s The Spice-Box of Earth and 1964’s Flowers for Hitler, making him a literary wunderkind – at least in Canada, where he was the subject of a documentary in 1965, Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen.

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Cohen made his part-time home on the Greek island of Hydra, where he led an ascetic, yet idyllic, existence of drinking wine, taking LSD and cavorting with a variety of female acolytes – including the infamous Marianne Ihlen, the Norwegian muse he met while in Greece and spawned a passionate affair.  

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Leonard Cohen turned to music only when his financial prospects hit rock bottom. “I couldn’t even buy groceries,” he said.

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His next stop was Greenwich Village, where his songs like “Suzanne” were popularized by other artists such as Judy Collins, though he was eventually convinced to perform them on his own, which turned out to be a frightful prospect. 

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Unlike his contemporary Bob Dylan, Cohen was an introvert who could barely play a single six-note Flamenco riff on guitar. His basso profundo was a far cry from what he jokingly referred to as “the gift of a golden voice,” even more unlikely than Bob’s nasal whine. 

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John Hammond, the legendary Columbia Records A&R exec who famously discovered Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, visited Cohen in his residence at the Chelsea Hotel, where he played some of his repertoire. Hammond listened intently to “Sisters of Mercy,” “So Long, Marianne,” “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” and “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong,” which appeared on his 1967 debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, the only one of his 14 studio albums in 49 years to go gold.

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Leonard Cohen passed on Monday, November 7, 2016, barely two weeks after the release of his final album, You Want It Darker.

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His parting shot turned into a paean to mortality, a riveting conversation with a higher power, suffused by the singer/songwriter’s characteristic poete maudit, his simultaneous dread and celebration of finality that balances the somberness of the Kaddish with the erotic Dionysian spirit of a New Orleans funeral. 

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The title track includes davening from his hometown Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir under the direction of Gideon Y. Zelermyer and its lyrics look death defiantly, but not without humility, in the eye. “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready Lord,” he chants, using the Hebrew for the phrase, “Here I am!”

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It is no small irony that the very next day following his death, the apocalypse arrived for many in the victory of the anti-Christ — Donald Trump — in the U.S. presidential race. It’s almost as if Cohen was speaking directly to him on the title track.

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Of course, it’s also one-half of a conversation with the kind of avenging Old Testament God often portrayed in Cohen’s biblical lyrics, from the anti-war bias of “The Story of Isaac” (from his second album, Songs from a Room) to the sacred-and-profane erotic cocktail of arguably his best-known song, “Hallelujah,” with its intimations of David and Bathsheba. Love, sex, death, peace, war, longing, erotica… all were portrayed by Cohen from a supplicant’s point of view, its Zen koans gaining force from the collision of spirituality and our final, shared destiny as human beings.

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That journey, of course, led Cohen to a spiritual quest that ranged from a nearly ten-year hermetic practice in a Zen Buddhist monastery to a brief fling with Scientology, though he never left his Jewish roots far behind. Perhaps that is why Cohen’s death – in a year that also includes the final verses of David Bowie, Merle Haggard, Prince and Alan Vega – has particular resonance for me. 

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Like Bowie’s Blackstar, Cohen’s You Want It Darker which now bookends 2016 like a pair of matched tombstones, foreshadowed their own demise.  In David’s case, his deterioration from cancer was a well-kept secret shared by only his closest friends and family. 

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Cohen’s New Yorker interview, which appeared just a few weeks before the album dropped, was filled with premonition. Remnick reported the icon was frail and weak, and forced to conduct the conversations from a medical chair to ease a painful back.  The article was framed by his response to the death of his long-ago lover/muse Marianne, who passed away from cancer just a few months before. 

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I am ready to die,” he proclaimed. “I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me”.

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Only to take back that grim statement in a later press conference on October 13 to mark the new album’s release at the Canadian consulate in Los Angeles. “I think I was exaggerating,” he is quoted by Billboard’s Chris Willman. “I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to stick around until 120.”

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Less than a month later, Leonard Cohen was dead.  Unlike Bowie, who killed off a succession of different artistic personas in “little deaths” during his career, the gentlemanly, courtly Cohen pretty much staked his artistic ground at the very beginning and merely deepened and darkened the palette over time. 

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Memorial in front of Cohen’s former residence in Montreal on November 12, 2016

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Picture Courtesy of Wikipedia

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By the time the end came at 82, it wasn’t a surprise, but almost a cathartic, apt conclusion to the life of a writer/performer alternately dubbed the “master of erotic despair,”  “the maestro of misery” or  “the voice of melancholy,”  none of which suggested the wicked, deadpan sense of humor which lurked in plain sight.

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“Going home to where it’s better than before… Going home behind the curtain/Going home without this  costume that I wore,” he sings in “Going Home” from 2012’s Old Ideas, a song in which God addresses him directly. “I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit. 

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You Want It Darker is filled with those glimpses of imminent demise, as Cohen’s lyrics may be interpreted as aimed at a higher power or an ex-lover or both.  He confronts Jesus about original sin in “Treaty” (“But born again is born without a skin/The poison enters into everything”), his own existential doubt in “On the Level” (“When I turned my back on the devil/Turned my back on the angel, too”) and shuffling off the mortal coil of desire in “Leaving the Table” (“I don’t need a lover/So blow out the flame”).  

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Cohen extols the transcendence of love and what its absence would mean to the natural world on “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”, which takes on the gravitas of a prayer to a higher power. 

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“Traveling Light” has the feel of a Jewish folk song with its wordless background chanting, a farewell to those he’s left behind with tongue firmly in cheek: “I’m running late/They’ll close the bar/I used to play/One mean guitar.” “Seemed the Better Way” is a man’s final lament about his lack of faith in the Mashiach, a mournful Eastern European violin solo mocking his spiritual confusion: “I wonder what it was/I wonder what it meant/At first he touched on love/But then he touched on death.” 

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Cohen concludes with “Steer Your Way,” asking for guidance: “As he died to make men holy/Let us die to make things cheap… Steer your way, O my heart/Tho’ I have no right to ask/to the one who was never equal to the task… Year by year/Month by month/Day by day/Thought by thought.”

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Cohen at King’s Garden, Odense, Denmark, August 17, 2013

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Picture Courtesy of Wikipedia

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And those are among Leonard Cohen’s final recorded words, a suitable description of eternity, an admission of imperfection, one last glimpse of humanity, the bond that joins us all. 

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It is not a new thought for him. On his 1992 song, “Anthem,” Cohen intoned, “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

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That crack is our collective mortality, the fact we were all born to die. That Leonard Cohen managed to deal with this stark reality from his very first album through to this last, with self-deprecating humor and mordant wit, makes him the perfect representative for Obit Magazine, as we continue to propose death not as the enemy of life, but rather its ultimate climax, a term Leonard Cohen would appreciate for its fusion of last breath and sexual longing in an orgasmic culmination… As he gazes down on us from the Tower of Song. Hallelujah!

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