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The Intimate Lyricism of Leonard Cohen

The Intimate Lyricism of Leonard Cohen

This past July, Leonard Cohen’s first long-time partner (whom he dated throughout much of the ’60s), Marianne C. Stang Jensen Ihlen, died of leukemia. When she passed, Cohen, one of the best songwriters to ever grace us, wrote a haunting goodbye:

“Well, Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

It appears Marianne could indeed reach his hand, the one that penned so many beloved lyrics over this past half-century. Last night, Leonard Cohen made it darker, and followed her forever into the night.

The eerie reminiscence of Cohen’s death with that of David Bowie at the beginning of this baneful 2016 is also inescapable. Each released their final albums—both dark examinations of life and its imminent end—around their birthdays, and each appeared to know that their deaths were nigh. “If you are the dealer / Let me out of the game,” Cohen sings in the title track. “If you are the healer / I’m broken and lame.”

Unlike Bowie, however, Cohen never achieved pop stardom. He began his career in literature and slowly transitioned his literary savvy into the framework of music (he didn’t release his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, until 1967, when he was already 33 years old). Eventually, Cohen would build a career of eloquence, a persona of words that made lyricist a more appropriate label than musician.

Even so, he was decorated for his contributions to music all the same. Cohen is in the American Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, and he’s been appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada—the nation’s highest civilian honor. In 2011, he also received the prestigious Princess of Asturia Award for literature, which came four years after Bob Dylan’s acceptance of the same award for “the arts.”

Yesterday a friend of mine and I, in what feels now like an ominous coindidence, spent much of the early afternoon exchanging Cohen songs, like “Avalanche” and “Joan of Arc.” Cohen bookends the latter piece with colorful, diametric phrases: “Now the flames they followed Joan of Arc / As she came riding through the dark,” and then it ends: “Myself I long for love and light / But must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?” Like many of Cohen’s lyrics, there exists a beautiful symmetry in these words, a succinct yet artful narrative that wends through thoughts with a natural grace, like water spilling down a mountain.

Ultimately, we decided that Cohen is as deserving of a Nobel as any lyricist. That idea, of course, comes in the wake of Nobel’s bestowal of the Literature prize to Bob Dylan. The two are often compared and the similarities are manifest: both are Jewish, literary, and have a “penchant for Biblical imagery,” as New Yorker Editor-in-Chief, David Remnick, wrote in his his recent reflection on Cohen’s life. Remnick contributes a significant portion of the piece to Dylan’s reverence for Cohen as a songwriter (for those familiar with Dylan, he rarely reveres anything or anyone). “I see no disenchantment in Leonard’s lyrics at all,” Dylan told Remnick. “There’s always a direct sentiment, as if he’s holding a conversation and telling you something, him doing all the talking, but the listener keeps listening.”

The feature will undoubtedly persist as our finest lens into Cohen’s last days. It details a gentle, shrewd man who is still determined to make art and music, but simultaneously has come to terms with the fact that he won’t be able to finish everything. “I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs,” he said to Remmick. “Maybe, who knows? And maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know. But I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”

These attitudes, presented by both Cohen and Dylan, are indicative of Cohen’s lyrical style at large. Conversational. Deep and yet matter-of-fact. Unafraid of exploring the profound. One of our favorite Cohen passages reflects all of these things:

“The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
or what is yet to be.”

These words come from “Anthem,” a piece also highlighted in the New Yorker article. Remnick contextualizes the song around Cohen’s travels in India, when the wordsmith was searching for meaning and guidance in his life. After a year living in Mumbai, the depression that had always tormented him inexplicably lifted. He returned home much lighter, and the chorus of “Anthem,” a song that took Cohen ten years to write, portrays that lightness:

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

Listening to this song just hours before the announcement of his death, I felt these sentiments might be my favorite lines of poetry. They, too, reflect Cohen’s singular genius: intimate, profound, and accepting of both the infinite beauty and confounding limitations of life. Let’s let Cohen shine as a light through the cracks. A bird that sang beautifully for so long and then left, like his words, with a natural grace. And then let’s move on to the other bells that can still ring; that’s what Leonard Cohen would have wanted.

Image: Rama via Wikimedia Commons

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