What would Leonard Cohen do?
I’ve asked myself that question many times, even if Dylan warned us repeatedly that he and his colleagues are just song-and-dance men, mere entertainers who should be nobody’s role models.
Still (sorry, Bob), Leonard Cohen from Montreal, Quebec, for many decades of Los Angeles, California (via Greece, New York and Nashville), who passed away this week at 82, was something else — a gentleman and a poet, a serious explorer of the Big Subjects through the ancient, sacred art of the popular song.
Please, take 10 minutes of your busy day and watch this video of his 2008 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:
When someone as crabby as Lou Reed makes time to sing your praises, you must be really, really good. And Cohen was among the best. Every time I saw him or read his books (he was a celebrated poet and a novelist before his singing career took off in the late '60s) or listened to him speak or sing or recite, it was a useful, humane lesson on life and wisdom (and on wearing your suit). I'm not really a man of God — but the God to whom he spent a lifetime lifting up his voice is a god that makes a whole lot of sense to me.
Like Johnny Cash, he had that air of natural authority about him. His songs often deal with sacrifices, duties, repentance, salvation and an inscrutable, demanding God — biblical stuff. Oftentimes he blurred the lines between the erotic and the spiritual, taking his cue from the Song of Songs. “I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible,” he once sang, except he wasn’t little. When he talked about the Big Subjects, you listened. Everyone listened. He was a prophet of the heart in the most fundamental way.
He also lived well and was a great lover of women, both individually and as a gender. “I wish the women would hurry up and take over,” he once told an interviewer. “It’s going to happen so let’s get it over with. Then we can finally recognize that women really are the minds and the force that holds everything together; and men really are gossips and artists. Then we could get about our childish work and they could keep the world going. I really am for the matriarchy.” He didn’t say that last month. He said that in 1968. The women, naturally, loved him back.
There are endless anecdotes about his grace, elegance and compassion. His charm was legendary. Kris Kristofferson will tell you how at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival he calmed a rowdy, angry crowd of 600,000 that had booed louder bands off the stage. (You can watch the whole performance here.)
Iggy Pop can tell you how one day they were looking at personal ads in the paper (yes, Leonard Cohen and Iggy Pop hung out) and they spotted one where a woman was looking for a man “with Iggy Pop’s body and Leonard Cohen’s mind.” They replied to it together.
When he played the Nokia Theatre a few years back, he started at 8:00 p.m. with his usual military precision and people were still coming in through the first song. When the song ended, Cohen greeted the late-comers with warmth, as if he was inviting them into his living room. “Friends,” as he always called his listeners, “come in. Can we turn on the lights so these people can find their seats?” Then he played the first half of his show. Then, before intermission, he went back to the band, whispered something, and announced they were going to be playing that first song again, so that the people who came in later could enjoy it.
Everyone you like in music, whoever you are, liked him and respected him. From an influential goth band (whose song do you think the Sisters of Mercy named themselves after?), to Britpoppers (check out Jarvis Cocker’s definitive cover of “I Can’t Forget”) to Jeff Buckley. Buckley’s version of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” became an undeniable standard, and Buckley found it via John Cale’s cover — doesn’t get any cooler than that. And check out U2, at the highest of their stadium-filling fame, being Leonard’s backing band:
Last month, The New Yorker published a great feature about him and his latest album, You Want It Darker. The whole piece is worth reading, including a long section where Bob Dylan, who never does these things, analyzed Cohen's craft and they both spoke of their mutual admiration:
One afternoon, years later, when the two had become friendly, Dylan called him in Los Angeles and said he wanted to show him a piece of property he’d bought. Dylan did the driving.
“One of his songs came on the radio,” Cohen recalled. “I think it was ‘Just Like a Woman’ or something like that. It came to the bridge of the song, and he said, ‘A lot of eighteen-wheelers crossed that bridge.’ Meaning it was a powerful bridge.”
Dylan went on driving. After a while, he told Cohen that a famous songwriter of the day had told him, “O.K., Bob, you’re Number 1, but I’m Number 2.”
Cohen smiled. “Then Dylan says to me, ‘As far as I’m concerned, Leonard, you’re Number 1. I’m Number Zero.’ Meaning, as I understood it at the time — and I was not ready to dispute it — that his work was beyond measure and my work was pretty good.
It wasn’t conceited of him to repeat this tale. It was the truth.
We could go on and on, friends. Let’s raise a glass to this good man and give him the last word, spoken a few weeks ago on a video posted on his Facebook account. This is what he left us with, as he was making his typically gracious exit — the ancient Hebrew word “Hineni,” meaning, “I’m ready, my Lord”:
“Hineni, that declaration of readiness no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul,” he says in the video, his voice slow, deliberate, aged and, we now know, belonging to a man who was very ill. “We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are willing to serve. So, this is just a part of my nature, and I think everybody else’s nature, to offer oneself at the moment, at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.”
Gustavo Turner is a longtime contributing writer and photographer for L.A. Weekly and the Digital Editor of the L.A. Review of Books (LARB). He lives in Los Angeles with two cats, one of whom — a Russian Blue mongrel of peculiar and remarkable elegance — is named Leonard.