Editor's Note: This week marked the passing of the great singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen, a man whose beguiling lyricism and charred baritone moved and inspired listeners for 50 years. At 82 years old, Cohen leaves behind a brilliant and often devastating body of work. Because we, at TBS Magazine, are compelled by genius in all its forms, we would be remiss not to mark Cohen's departure with our own thoughts. We hope you enjoy this poignant reflection—written at a time when Cohen was still alive--by our own James Barham.
Growing old is strange on many levels, but one of the strangest is the relationship one develops with one's younger self.
On the one hand, my 60-year-old self condescends to my 20-year-old self. I feel so much worldlier and wiser than that poor, provincial, clueless kid.
I've been thinking about these things the past day or two—ever since I received my copy of Leonard Cohen's new album, Old Ideas (2012).
It's a feeble effort, compared with his best work. But I can't help liking it, anyway. I also can't help wondering whether my soft spot for the great man in decline is not mainly due to the fact that he completely seduced my 20-year-old self. Do I still like Leonard Cohen because I think he's good? Or do I merely remember what it was like to be head-over-heels in love with him in 1972?
Probably, a little bit of both.
But as I ponder the fluid religiosity that permeates his body of work, I do think there are some objective reasons for believing that Cohen is someone who continues to matter.
First, we have to be honest about where in the hierarchy Cohen belongs. He himself is under no illusions on this head. Indeed, he has written movingly about the modesty of his accomplishment, in "The Tower of Song" (I'm Your Man, 1988).
Popular song, in general, can scarcely be mentioned in the same breath with the greatest songs and choral works of the classical tradition: Buxtehude's "Alles, was ihr tut," Bach's "Ich habe genug," Schubert's Winterreise, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder. Little, if anything, in modern popular song can compete with these great works of art, certainly not in grandeur, and not even in expressivity, pathos, or psychological penetration.
But setting the classical tradition aside—as well as the classic American songbook tradition of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and many others—Cohen is practically without peer in contemporary, English-speaking, popular music.
His only real competitor is Bob Dylan. But while Dylan is in some sense the greater artist—for, the overflowing fertility and volcanic power of his talent, together with his sheer productivity, undoubtedly put Cohen in the shade—nevertheless, Cohen has the greater gift for subtlety and sophistication of expression. Cohen writes for grown-ups in a way that no one else on our pop-music scene quite does.
Cohen's real peers are the great French chansonniers. Probably, his accomplishment is not quite on a par with the efforts of a Georges Brassens, a Léo Ferré, or a Jacques Brel, but he is in their league. He stands squarely in the European art-house tradition that takes popular song seriously as poetry—which means, among other things, as art expressing a mature, clear-eyed perspective on the human condition.
But even if it is true that Cohen cannot be fully appreciated apart from the chanson tradition, and that viewed from that perspective, he stands head and shoulders above all other singer-songwriters working in English, still there is the sticky point that his early work is undoubtedly his best in terms of originality and brilliance, while his later work is superior with respect to profundity and moral insight.
But if Cohen's poetic powers were at their height when he was young and his vision was still relatively unformed, and later, when his vision matured, his powers of invention began to fail him, then what claim can he have to real greatness? What are we to make of this paradox?
Well, it's not for nothing that the new album is entitled Old Ideas. He has said that he meant by this both that the ideas contained in it are timeless, and also that they have been the ones that have preoccupied him from the beginning of his career.
And it's true. Most of his great, religious-tinged themes—love, suffering, sacrifice, death, and redemption—are there plain to see in his very first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1968). Moreover, religion itself is present right from the start, in the sweetly piquant, if blasphemous, imagery of "Sisters of Mercy," and in these more respectful lines from one of his best-known songs, "Suzanne":
And Jesus was a sailor
When He walked upon the water
And He spent a long time watching
From His lonely wooden tower
And when He knew for certain
Only drowning men could see Him
He said, "All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them."
However, the prime example of Cohen's religious preoccupations, without a doubt, is the sublimely affecting, even if over-the-top, "Joan of Arc," from the third album, Songs of Love and Hate (1971)—a song that is quintessentially Cohenesque, in the sense that one cannot imagine anyone else writing it.
The song takes the form of a dialogue between Joan, tied to the stake, and the fire, about to consume her. At the end, she gives herself voluntarily to the flames as a bride to her husband, and Cohen comments (in the original version):
I saw her wince, I saw her cry,
I saw the glory in her eye.
Myself, I long for love and light,
But must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?
But, of course, it's one thing to employ religious imagery in a song, and it's something else to express a truly religious sensibility.
The great theme of so many of the best early songs---"So Long, Marianne," "The Stranger Song," "Winter Lady," "Sisters of Mercy," all from the first album; "Bird on a Wire," "Lady Midnight," "Tonight Will Be Fine," from the second, and probably greatest, album, Songs from a Room (1969)—is secular, if anything is:
In all of these songs, Cohen is seeking in women's bodies the sort of transcendence and redemption others might seek in religious faith.
Then, something quite interesting happens. Cohen begins to express disillusionment with the Romantic-Bohemian ideal of sexual ecstasy as secular deliverance.
In a series of breathtakingly effective lyrics and memorable, if mournful, melodies, Cohen chronicles his pity tinged with contempt—or perhaps the reverse—for himself and the women who use each other in an unending and hopeless quest for they know not what. I am thinking of songs like the almost unbearably sad "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" from the second album; the devastating "Famous Blue Raincoat" from the third album; and the despairing "Chelsea Hotel" and "Take This Longing" from the fourth studio album, New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974).
At the same time, religious imagery begins to take off in a new direction, as a way to wrestle with biblical themes for their own sake, and not just as an adolescent trope for sexual longing. Here, I am thinking of songs like "Story of Isaac" and "The Butcher" from the second album, and "Who By Fire" from the fourth.
But I think the real turning point occurs in the live album Cohen put out between the third and fourth studio albums: Live Songs (1973). This album did not sell well, and is relatively little known, but it contains three songs unrecorded elsewhere that shed valuable light on Cohen's state of mind at the time: "Passing Through," "Please Don't Pass Me By (A Disgrace)," and "Queen Victoria."
The first of these is not even written by Cohen, but only arranged by him. But the fact that he chose to cover it is of course significant. The first two verses take as their subject incidents from the Bible, while the last two deal with moments in American history. It's a strange hodge-podge of a song---little more than a ditty, really. But it is oddly affecting. Here is the first verse, with chorus:
I saw Jesus on the cross on a hill called Calvary.
"Do you hate mankind for what they done to you?"
He said, "Talk of love not hate, things to do, it's getting late.
I've so little time and I'm only passing through."
Passing through, passing through,
Sometimes happy, sometimes blue,
Glad that I ran into you.
Tell the people that you saw me passing through.
The live performance of "Please Don't Pass Me By" is one of the most extraordinary things Cohen ever recorded. The song consists of a spoken account of a purportedly real incident, interspersed with a hypnotically repeated chorus. The incident Cohen recounts has to do with encountering a school for handicapped people on the street in New York City. The insistently repeated chorus consists simply of the words:
Please don't pass me by
Please don't pass me by
For I am blind
But you can see
I've been blinded totally
Please don't pass me by.
The spoken parts ratchet up slowly in emotional temperature, until Cohen reaches a crescendo of naked self-exposure that is almost embarrassing to listen in on. At one point, he repeats the phrase "You're gonna get down on your knees" nine times in succession!
Just before the end, he makes a curious and telling pirouette from seeming to tell the audience to practice the "free love" ethos of the times---"I wish you would go home with someone else"---to putting an entirely different spin on the phrase:
I wish you would go home with someone else
I wish you would go home with someone else . . .
Don't be the person that you came with,
Oh, don't be the person that you came with . . .
I'm not gonna be, I can't stand him,
I can't stand who I am,
That's why I gotta get down on my knees,
Because I can't take it by myself.
If ever there was a more heartfelt cry of self-loathing and disgust, I haven't heard it.
Finally, in an otherwise forgettable song called "Queen Victoria," recorded in a "room in Tennessee" with acoustic guitar, Cohen utters the verse that summarizes his attitude at this point in his life perhaps better than anything else he ever wrote:
I'm not much nourished by modern love.
* * *
I don't mean to suggest that Cohen underwent a religious conversion of the Bob Dylan type. Rather, what we see over the course of his entire career is a gradual deepening and maturing of a tendency that is present from the beginning. Moreover, he hardly gave up the trope of the sacrament of the flesh, even in his later writing.
But gradually, we get a string a masterpieces clearly informed by a deep and sincere religious sensibility informed in equal parts by Judaism, Christianity, and Zen Buddhism—in an amalgam sometimes referred to as "Zen Judaism."(1)
Here, I have in mind such marvelous songs as "The Guests" and "The Window" from Recent Songs (1979)—one of his very best albums; "Hallelujah" and "If It Be Your Will" from Various Positions (1985); "Closing Time" and "Anthem" from The Future (1992); and "Here It Is" from Ten New Songs (2001).
This trend has reached an acme on the new album, Old Ideas, with songs such as "Going Home," "Amen," Show Me the Place," and "Come Healing," all of which are informed by sincere religious feeling. While all of these songs are admirable in their way, unfortunately, for the most part they come across as slight and tentative, rather than as fully realized works of art.
Let me close with two more songs.
First, the best song from the new album, "Show Me the Place":
Show me the place
Help me roll away the stone
Show me the place
I can't move this thing alone
Show me the place
Where the Word became a man
Show me the place
Where the suffering began.
Finally, I end with what is undoubtedly Leonard Cohen's most popular song---and probably his best one—"Hallelujah," from the underappreciated 1985 album, Various Positions (given here, however, in a later, live version):(2)
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
(1) Cohen is no mere dabbler in Buddhism, having spent five years when he was in his sixties in seclusion doing menial labor at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California.
(2) This song has been covered by numerous artists, and exists in many different versions. I read somewhere that Cohen has written some 100 verses for the song, altogether.