So long Leonard, a poetic champion
LEONARD Cohen, who died last week, had a rare gift for conveying the deepest emotions in his songs.
In July this year Leonard Cohen found out that his old friend Marianne Ihlen was dying of cancer. They had not seen each other for many years, but they had been lovers once. Indeed Ihlen was the muse for one of Cohen’s most famous songs, So Long Marianne.
Cohen swiftly dispatched a letter that reached Ihlen on her deathbed. “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,” he wrote. “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”
He knew the end was coming, then. Late last month he released You Want It Darker, a haunting farewell album. He died, at the age of 82, as he lived, pure class to the end.
Cohen was always an unlikely rock star: the failed poet, the singer who could not sing, the middle-class scion of a Montreal suit-making dynasty who became an icon.
He came to prominence as a musician in 1967 when he released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen. His musical poetry gained a cult following and he was championed by Judy Collins, the first of many stars to cover his music.
In fact everyone has covered Cohen at some point Elton John, U2, Nick Cave because he always had the best lyrics. His most famous songs, Suzanne, So Long Marianne, Bird on the Wire and of course Hallelujah will live on as long as people continue to play and record music. His melodies were eloquent, profound and distinctive, always delivered in a gravelly tone that denoted a long and eventful life.
Bird on the Wire always felt like the song that best expressed Cohen’s own feelings about his itinerant life: “Like a bird on the wire,” he sings, “Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free.”
For despite his eventual fame and success Cohen was forever the outsider trying to be free, strange and ambivalent. As an adolescent he would wander the streets of Montreal at night consumed with restless energy. He left his bourgeois childhood behind, but always dressed like a provincial undertaker, describing himself in song as “a lazy bastard living in a suit”.
Cohen never fitted well into a band or a scene. He was alhis ways moving on, taking the show elsewhere. He lived in Greenwich Village during its 1960s heyday, but it was always Bob Dylan who had the limelight.(The two shared a mutual appreciation.)
People fell in love easily with Cohen. There were many women including Ihlen, the actress Rebecca De Mornay and the artist Suzanne Elrod.
He even had a fling with Janis Joplin, which became immortalised in his song Chelsea Hotel.
But amid these passionate engagements Cohen sometimes struggled to love back. He often became restless. He loved nondescript hotel rooms and staring out of windows, as though always looking for another place to wander to.
For a long time he also had limited recognition as a musician. He was frequently branded a misery minstrel and found only a limited audience outside core fans.
Cohen’s profound words provided solace for so many of his fans, but he never seemed able to find peace for himself. He struggled with drug abuse, hated going on tour and suffered from depression, often retreating from the world for long stays at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre in California, a Buddhist monastery where he would meditate and seek to conquer the darkness that gnawed away at him.
It was the monastery that saved him. As Cohen’s career stalled in the 1990s he joined Mount Baldy and spent five years there dealing with crippling depression. Eventually the veil lifted and Cohen’s second coming began.
He was spurred on in 2004 when it emerged that his manager of 17 years, Kelley Lynch, had stolen millions of dollars from his retirement fund.
So a septuagenarian Cohen hit the road. He was revitalised, assembling a superb band and writing some of his best music. Finally he seemed to have let go of the pain that had haunted him all those years.
Finally he could smile, skip and dance his way around the stage, rejoice in being alive and brilliant. Millions of fans, old and new, flocked to see him around the world. – The Sunday Times