Leonard Cohen: An Appreciation of the Poet Laureate, Tragicomedian & Your Man
Leonard Cohen was always lauded for his severe emphases on death, doomed romance, and spirituality... but less so for the acerbic wit that added a subtle levity to everything we weren't always certain we wanted darker.
The last time I saw Leonard Cohen, at a small gathering for press and dignitaries at the Canadian Consulate in Los Angeles just a little less than a month before his death, I kept sneaking my camera out, because I wanted to capture his grin. He was appearing in public one last time, to answer a few pre-selected questions from a handful of members of the foreign press, and his mood was light, or light-ish, at least, given the fact that he had just made headlines for telling the editor of The New Yorker, possibly seriously or possibly offhandedly, that he was “ready to die.” And here he was, looking feeble as he entered and exited the room with a cane, but hearty in his warm laugh, which came easily in the presence of his collaborator son, Adam. At times, he seemed -- to use a word one hesitates to broach when the subject is Leonard Cohen -- tickled.
He told jokes. Addressing the elephant in the room right off the bat, he said he was “exaggerating” about being ready to die and was a victim of his own “self-dramatization.” After his son waxed eloquent about the intimacy of producing Cohen’s new album and how “just being in my father’s company was one of the things I cherished the most,” Cohen responded by quipping, “We’re actually not that friendly,” before reverting to earnest form. When the question was raised of why Cohen is seen with a cigarette on the album cover when he had supposedly quit smoking, the singer’s reply was simply: “Some guys you just can’t trust.” Even when he more frequently addressed queries in dead earnest, there could be a dry wit underlying the response. Talking about his slow, “dribbles-and-drops” working method, he made sure to make mention of “the fact that my songs take a long time to write is no guarantee of their excellence."
Hoping the same as everyone else for a reprieve from whatever afflicted him (he alluded that October night only to “this recent bad patch”), I took heart in Cohen’s seeming good spirits and better humor, not just as reassurance about his plans to “stick around until [he was] 120,” as he promised in his parting remark, but as a small vindication of my belief that Leonard Cohen was one of the funniest men in show business.
That’s probably never been a big trope, when it comes to Cohen. His perceived grimness especially preceded him in the '70s and '80s, when some critics were inclined to describe his music as wrist-slashing soundtrack material. As a callow youth, I followed that line of thinking whole-heartedly, and I would sometimes shudder to remember interviewing him in the mid-1980s and asking how he felt about his popular reputation as a grim reaper. (A question he received graciously, of course, from a kid half his age.) I wouldn’t have imagined then that a decade later I’d be trying to convince skeptical friends that, with the acerbic wit that crept into his songs again and again, he was in a tie with Bob Dylan as rock’s greatest and most underrated comedian.
But that’s just one of the roles he fulfilled for us, or some of us. Cohen was certainly popular music’s premiere Gentleman Caller over the last few years, his ever-present suit and nearly as omnipresent hat combining with his courtly and careful manner to offer a formal dignity you were hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the rock era. He was modern pop’s Poet Laureate -- that one doesn’t require a whole lot of explanation. (Cohen was a minimalist laureate too; compare one of his lyric sheets with one of Dylan’s to see just how such polar opposites in terms of verbal quantity can arrive at the same finish line for quality.) In his less cynical moments, or his most cynical, for that matter, he could reveal himself as a true romantic… or, as he famously put it, Your Man. It rarely escaped fans that, with or without his steady stream of Old and New Testament allusions, he was the most spiritually minded lyricist ever to claim no religion whatsoever. (“Occasionally I’ve felt the grace of another presence in my life,” he said at that final consulate gathering. And, “I try to make those references. I try to make sure they’re not too obscure. But outside of that, I can’t -- I dare not -- claim anything in the spiritual realm for my own.”)
And, on top of all these roles, yes, Cohen was an expert Heralder of Death too. Which ultimately goes hand-in-hand with his court jester function, albeit a jester who spends a lot of his time providing commentary at executions. A kind of gallows humor runs rampant through his catalog and, for my money, really came to the fore with his best album, I’m Your Man, in 1988, followed four years later by the nearly as good The Future. The assault mentality of “First We Take Manhattan” was a hilarious conceit -- the chilling references to Jewish identity around the Holocaust notwithstanding. He never wrote a funnier or more bitter song than “Everybody Knows,” which moves effortlessly between a universal feeling that “the fight is fixed” and the narrator’s own relational futility (“Everybody knows that you've been faithful/ Give or take a night or two/ Everybody knows you've been discreet/ But there were so many people you just had to meet/ Without your clothes/ And everybody knows”). But there’s no single most amusing line in his canon than this election-time refrain from 1992: “Democracy is coming to the USA.” Admit it, you were humming it this fall.
Even “Hallelujah” is undervalued for its wit, among other qualities missed by nearly everyone singing it. The central rhyme scheme itself is a thing of great levity: Is there any greater insult a singer/songwriter could lob than “You don’t really care for music, do ya?”
That’s why, when news radio suddenly brings up “Suzanne” to announce Cohen’s death, I’m reminded of how unlistenable I find his earliest material, heretical a statement as that might be for a fan to make. As great a poet as he already was, his command of the acerbic humor that came to leaven the gravity of his best songs was still years away. And, sounding very nearly like a conventional folk vocalist, he hadn’t yet grown into his true voice, which would turn out to be about a dozen octaves deeper and more individual. His late-life voice veered into speak-sing, in a most effective way, making the gravity even graver, but also allowing for a deadpan quality that ultimately seemed both wry and warm.
With all that said, even someone who tends to be on the constant lookout for the coded humor in Cohen’s work will not find a huge amount of laughs in his final album, You Want It Darker. Well, other than in the title itself, maybe, which might be a reference to that old suicide-enabler image of decades past, and how willing he might be to one-up it at the end. The line on the album is that it was not written to be a parting statement… which is the kind of thing that gets said when someone has written a parting statement. (See, possibly, David Bowie and Blackstar.) It may feel like a mistake to assign the album an unusual degree of morbidity when any of his latter-day albums could be said to take an interest in the end of all things. But here, you know, just enough more so, whether intended as self-benediction or possible penultimate chapter.
“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game,” he announces, possibly to God, in the opening lines. A few songs later, he makes the unusual move of very nearly repeating himself: “I’m leaving the table/ I’m out of the game.” “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” sticks out as a straight-up love song, but Cohen seems more interested in the theoretical apocalypse he keeps describing than the love he swears will stave it off. He describes loosing the shackles of attachments not just to material things but also to his fellow mortals in “Traveling Light.” “On the Level” and “Leaving the Table” describe the true “Death of a Ladies’ Man,” as sexuality is one of the last things to go: “The wretched beast is tame… Little by little, we’re cutting the cord.”
It’s by no means a deeply depressing album, because Cohen’s Zen acceptance of the inevitable confers a certain peace about going with the cord-cutting flow. But You Want It Dark makes it sound so much like he’d prepared for the end by severing bonds that it was reassuring to see him reaffirming a love of family in that final public appearance at the consulate. Why he agreed to come out in public and chat for a bit less than a month before the end is a mystery. Maybe someone on his business side decided it was a bad idea to release a record while making the world think you’re on your deathbed, even if you kind of are. Maybe he had a fleeting recovering where he really did feel like he had another album or two in him, as he said he did in that conversation -- always with the addendum “God willing” (or “but one never knows”). Maybe he thought he’d gotten a little too Zen about it all and decided raging just a little against the dying of the light is OK. But it was heartening to be in that room, see his broad smile, and hear him say things like, “If you’re lucky, things deepen between members of a family. If you’re not lucky, they don’t. If you’re unlucky, they deteriorate. I’ve been lucky. I have close relationships with my few friends and my family members and my grandkids. So, so far, so good. I hope it continues to deepen. I have every faith that it will.”
Now, we, his extended wannabe family, are traveling lighter… too light. At last, Cohen has been released from his mythical Tower of Song, despite our best intentions to keep him chained there forever.