A critical appreciation of Leonard Cohen's secular Zen, by Sasha Frere-Jones:
Leonard Cohen spent his entire professional life impressing everyone but himself. He was a Canadian poet who ended up writing a standard of the American songbook that his own record company refused at first, only to see it go on to become a staple of singing competitions. That skeptical but ecstatic song, “Hallelujah,” was performed by Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live on Nov. 12, as tribute to both Cohen, who died in his sleep after a fall on Nov. 7 at age 82, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which died the day after.
Cohen was 33 when his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, came out. Though he never mentions Montreal by name in his songs, he was raised there. His father found success in the clothing trade but died when Cohen was only 9. (In an early attempt at a secular ritual, Cohen buried a piece of his father’s bow tie in the backyard after the funeral.) By 1967, Cohen had drifted to Greece, back to Canada and down to New York. He had published four books of poetry and two novels, and had been the subject of a documentary produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Cohen was encouraged to professionally pursue songwriting by Judy Collins, although he doubted his talents. Columbia Records took a chance on him.
He approached his second career, and much of what he did, as if he were operating illegally, one mark short of a degree. When his first album was released, he was interviewed in The Village Voice. “References to breakdowns past and future dot his conversation,” the interviewer wrote. Almost 30 years later, having convinced most of his peers that he was fairly good at what he did, he spoke about his relationship with Roshi, the Buddhist monk who had taught Cohen for decades: “I think he has given up on my education. I’m 60, and I haven’t made any progress."
If his self-deprecation was shtick, something Cohen mastered early, his humility was not. In October 2011, accepting the Prince of Asturias award in Spain, Cohen revealed a different version of himself. “It was only when -- when I read, even in translation, the works of [20th century poet Federico García] Lorca that I understood that there was a voice. It is not that I copied his voice; I would not dare. But he gave me permission to find a voice, to locate a voice; that is, to locate a self, a self that is not fixed, a self that struggles for its own existence.” (Cohen’s daughter is named Lorca.)
There are very few songwriters in the North American pop continuum who are so important and simultaneously committed to this struggle, to pin down why exactly we are afforded an existence at all. This tendency to defer and diminish the self allowed all sorts of odd stereotypes about Cohen to flourish -- that his songs were too sad; that he was more of a poet than a songwriter; that he was just in it for the chicks. (In typical Cohen fashion, he confirmed this perception by killing it in 1977 with an album titled Death of a Ladies’ Man.)
A songwriter whom Cohen first followed and then pulled alongside, Bob Dylan, recently weighed in on Cohen’s legacy. “He is a much more savvy musician than you’d think,” he told The New Yorker this summer.
Cohen’s work as a songwriter followed the same painstaking methods of his poetry; he constantly rewrote and generated multiple drafts. The result put him at a distance from Dylan, his twin tower. Where the American generated tension with spirals of words that had no end and no single meaning, the Canadian worked toward brevity and easily understood couplets.
“There Is a War,” from 1974, begins with a quatrain that lays out the terms of the situation:
There is a war between the rich and poor,
a war between the man and the woman.
There is a war between the ones who say there is a war
and the ones who say there isn’t.
And then, for the chorus, Cohen boils down the message to an imperative:
Why don’t you come on back to the war?
That’s right -- get in it.
Why don’t you come on back to the war?
It’s just beginning.
Cohen’s humility did not dampen the songs, which were happy to engage anger, lust, despair and resistance. And Cohen had to become his own resistance in 2005, when he discovered his manager had emptied his bank accounts while he had been shoveling snow with Roshi in a monastery. So he staged what might be the most unexpected comeback in pop history, touring the world, releasing two live and three studio albums, his latest and last, You Want It Darker, marking Cohen’s 82nd year on earth. On the live albums, both excellent, songs that had been sealed behind goofy production ideas dropped into place, along with Cohen’s voice. In the 1980s, his baritone was dragging the streets. By 2008, it was the asphalt, and yet the songs bloomed. No matter how deft his melodies, they were not as spectacular as Joni Mitchell’s or Stevie Wonder’s. Cohen’s words are his high Cs. He wrote in his high school yearbook that he wanted to be a “world-famous orator,” and this is exactly what he became. At their best, Cohen’s songs were as close as secular music can get to the beyond. As many times as they are quoted (too many), what writer doesn’t wish he had written four lines this good:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
In his last major interview this summer, with The New Yorker’s David Remnick, Cohen talked about a gig he played in 1972, in Israel. Disabled by stage fright, Cohen abandoned a show in the middle of a song and went backstage. For unknown reasons, he decided to drop acid. When he heard the crowd singing to him, he returned to play “So Long, Marianne,” which led to him, and the whole band, crying. Unlike the band, Cohen was beginning to hallucinate, and he saw an apparition: “The entire audience turned into one Jew. And this Jew was saying, ‘What else can you show me, kid? I’ve seen a lot of things, and this don’t move the dial.’"
Those may be as close to last words as we’ll get. And it’s OK if Cohen never shook the judgment of his apparitions. For many of us, he was the dial.
Leonard Cohen died on Nov. 7 at age 82. Below, close friends and collaborators share memories of his rare genius.
Singer JUDY COLLINS remembers the shy young poet who came to her door and delivered a hit. As told to Rebecca Milzoff.
A friend of mine who went to school with Leonard knew him as this very obscure poet, little known outside of Montreal, but she adored him and she’d bring him up from time to time. One day she called me and said, “Leonard has written some songs and he wants to come to New York and sing them to you.” By that point, I had made a successful career singing songs that made the people who wrote them more famous. When he came, I was living on 79th Street, and we socialized for a bit and went out to Tony’s Italian restaurant for dinner, spending the rest of the evening just eating and drinking and talking -- no songs yet. When he was leaving, I said, “You know, Leonard, you didn’t play me your songs!” A singer-songwriter will usually walk in, push you aside, sing their song and then leave! He said, “Why don’t I come back tomorrow?” He came back the next day and he said, “I can’t sing, and I can’t play the guitar, and I don’t know if this is a song.” And then he sang “Suzanne,” and I flipped out. I said, “Leonard, that is definitely a song.”
He was terrified of going onstage and singing, and I pushed him on the stage for the first time at this big concert at Town Hall [in New York]. I grew up singing everywhere all the time, but he didn’t have that experience, and frankly, reading poetry doesn’t hold a candle to singing; it’s another world. Everyone was excited to hear him: They knew “Suzanne” and wanted to hear the writer. But about halfway through, he went offstage and put his arm around me. I told him, “It’s OK, I’ll go out there with you. But you must finish this song.” He needed to know it was safe out there. And after that he was hooked.
I trusted him with my life. Leonard’s authenticity and his loyalty -- there was a feeling we were part of the same karmic fabric. He was an absolute gentleman from head to toe, and of course very handsome and charming -- though I never had an affair with him. Much too dangerous! I remember once I was at a hotel in Newport [R.I.] with another guy, having some sort of... physical arrangement. And Leonard was just there in the same room. He was this completely transparent person: It didn’t matter if you were having sex with someone; if he was sitting there, it was OK. In fact, it felt even safer! I fell in love with him as a confidante, but it was the songs to which I really gave my heart. As Leonard said, the laughter, the joys, the tragedies, we have to live with them all. We have work to do, and he was always at work.
Visual artist-actor STEPHEN LACK remembers Montreal nights with his brilliant older cousin. As told to Rebecca Milzoff.
When I started to manifest artistic leanings in that upper-middle-class Montreal environment, the family kept saying, “If you’re going to be such an artist, you have to go downtown and meet your cousin Leonard.” We’re 12 years apart, and I didn’t meet him until I was about 20. We were actually both members of the same fraternity, but I quit it and he was the president back in the day. Right at the beginning of my downtown existence, there were Leonard sightings in the distance. At first I just didn’t feel comfortable imposing myself on him. Then one day, I was at this place Le Fuzz on Crescent Street -- the first upscale hipster restaurant I had ever been in. I remember the hamburger: It was thick, and $3.50! This was a huge commitment for a meal. All the downtown folks who were somewhere in between intelligentsia and outlaws went there -- Leonard, writer Mordecai Richler, the film producer Derek Lamb. The day I met Leonard, I was sitting there right next to him as he was being interviewed. I leaned over and gave him a handshake and said, “I’m your cousin Stephen.” And he looked over and said, “Oh, yes,” meaning he had heard of me. That was it.
We used to have a lot of parties, and Leonard would appear like a shadow, trolling. And then we’d all hang out at the Main deli. Leonard didn’t like [the famed Montreal deli] Schwartz’s -- he said, “Oh, no, I eat at the Main,” across the street. You’d go to the Main if you were hungry and at a certain stage of your intoxicants having kicked in. It had my favorite class of people: low-life criminals. People who were hired by political parties to intimidate voters, taxi drivers who had a baseball bat in an attache case. Leonard loved mutants; he loved extremes. I think that’s what makes his work so great; if he saw a dwarf, he became the dwarf -- he knew there was a dwarf living inside him. If he saw a dictator, he knew he could be in a bad mood and with the stroke of a pen kill a million people. He was aware of the frailties of all of us at our worst. It was the celebration of that, rather than the denial or repression, that makes his work so long-lasting. And Montreal gives you those people. It’s a very unique place; there’s a church on every street corner, and right next door a tavern. Hence, you’ve got Leonard making a lot of Catholic references in his work. It was that bit of outlawness; you’ve got an authority above you, but it doesn’t interface with you completely, so stray strands start to exist independent of that authority. Leonard’s tone was Montreal.
Producer PATRICK LEONARD, who worked on Cohen’s final albums, recalls the singer’s tireless work ethic in the face of illness, and the tuna fish sandwiches that changed their lives. As told to Camille Dodero.
I wasn’t with Leonard when he died, but I’m certain that until he couldn’t hold a pen in his hand, he was working. That’s the way Leonard was. He had been weak and ill for a while, but he was working all the time. The hours in a day that he could work were narrowing, but the determination was still there. I think it was clear that the end was in sight, but I don’t think his October release You Want It Darker is him leaning toward mortality: Go back and listen to his first album [1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen] — there are mortality issues there. The songs we were working on before he died were really light R&B, beautiful Leonard Cohen love songs. Another project we were working on was an extension of You Want It Darker’s reprise of “Treaty.” We had 10 arrangements written and half of them recorded already -- beautiful melodic arrangements -- without his voice on them. Maybe they will see the light of day. I don’t know.
I first got to know Leonard at the end of 2008, beginning of 2009. I produced a very simple, humble, beautiful little record for his son Adam called Like a Man. Leonard liked it and wanted to meet me. We met at a cafe, over tuna fish sandwiches, and then he asked if I’d write a string arrangement. I think he just wanted to see what I did.
The first song we wrote together was called “Show Me the Place” from 2012’s Old Ideas. It was a Stephen Foster-type melody -- that’s how the lyrics struck me. We recorded it, he put a vocal on it, and the next day, he said to me, “I wonder if anybody ever asked the guy who wrote ‘Amazing Grace’ if he had anything else?” Obviously, I hadn’t written “Amazing Grace,” but it was him saying, “This is good. I like this.” When I sent him “Slow” [from 2014’s Popular Problems], he responded with one word: “Done!” And when it wasn’t right -- and many, many times it wasn’t -- I wouldn’t hear anything. No response. At first I’d say, “Hey, did you get what I sent you?” And then I’d realize the message was loud and clear.
Working with Leonard was a collaboration that wasn’t based on a single project. It was ongoing: “We’ve got to crack this one”; “I’m almost there with this”; “What do you think of this?” He’d say, “Nothing’s wasted because we recycle.” He left behind so much stuff. Sometimes working with people, you try to accomplish something that you think is going to please them, and you don’t please them, and it creates this shadow of doubt. With Leonard there was never any shadow. He was always like, “Try again.” That’s generous in a way that I’ve never experienced.
Singer-songwriter SHARON ROBINSON reminisces about corny jokes, backstage chants and moments of quiet profundity with her frequent writing partner. As told to Rebecca Milzoff.
We wrote our first song together on the road in 1980. I showed him a melody I had written, and he immediately started working on lyrics, right there in the hotel lobby. That was “Summertime,” which he didn’t record -- it’s very much from a woman’s point of view -- but Diana Ross and Roberta Flack did. After that, he started to learn more about my songwriting, and I guess he thought I was good enough at it to be someone he’d want to work with. He loved the old soul and blues masters, and I think he loved me bringing soul music into his style.
After that, we wrote “Everybody Knows.” His lyrics pretty much start out as poetry, and you really have to study the meaning to figure out how it should be put into the form of a song. I’d never take apart his stanzas, but maybe I’d move something from one place to another. I remember coming up with a couple of different ideas, and he picked one and just said, “This is perfect.” We came up with the chorus, musically, together, after I brought in a basic vibe. You know, it’s a protest song, a tough song. It’s not pretty or feminine in any way, and I had to come up with music that was in that spirit. The boldness in those lyrics -- all his songs have a certain kind of boldness to them, but especially this one. And it has held up through the years; it maintains a relevance in our lives.
Our writing process in general [Robinson co-wrote 2001’s Ten New Songs] applied to almost everything we worked on. He’d present lyrics to me, I’d work on some music, then I’d go meet him at his house in Los Angeles. He’d make me something to eat first; tuna salad, or he’d scramble up some eggs, or egg salad. He made a great egg salad. Oh, and a roasted chicken! He loved roasted chicken and cauliflower. He’d done a lot of cooking at the Zen monastery. He had a certain very refined sense of hospitality, and he enjoyed when people would come by. Then there would be some discussion of his latest ideas that he was investigating about life and religion and philosophy. Or we’d talk about family and friends. There were these long periods of sort of setting the tone for the work. And then he’d listen to the music, several times, before deciding whether it was something we wanted to move forward with.
We studied Zen together, and there were often just quiet moments, with incense and no words. He called me his “dharma sister.” We toured for so long together, and sometimes it felt like we were soldiers preparing for battle. But traveling with Leonard, there’s a quiet, monastic tone to the whole thing. You’re just respectful of his space and his sense of contemplation. He would carry his own guitar; sit in the front of the bus, or the middle of the plane; sometimes he would write, but there wasn’t a lot of hoopla going on. We benefited from his aura. Still, he would always tell jokes -- some were pretty corny, pretty dry and always with a twist. Even though his image is that of the very dark, solemn poet, Leonard loved to laugh.
Before the concerts, we had these rituals that Leonard sort of designed. A half hour before the show, the band would gather in the green room and he would put essential oil on our wrists. Sometimes there were beverages, smoothies passed around. And we would do a chant as we walked to the stage, singing this Latin folk song as a round. We walked slowly, as if we were monks. But it was all designed to bring us together for the performance. Leonard always encouraged me not to look to other people for guidance, but to do what I felt in my heart. He told me, “You know what to do.”
A longtime collaborator and friend, singer JENNIFER WARNES remembers the “teacher” she met at just 22. As told to Frank DiGiacomo.
My first tour with Leonard was in 1972. Looking into his audience, I saw a sea of beautiful faces not unlike the ecstatic ones you see in old religious paintings, where the men and women were openly weeping -- and even though I was only 22 years old, I knew I was not in Kansas anymore. This was the tour when famously the audience sang to him in Jerusalem [after Cohen walked offstage mid-performance, overwhelmed by the crowd’s applause]. I was onstage when it happened; we were crying, and it was this moment when I understood the depth of his commitment and their commitment to him. I think somebody had given him some windowpane acid, and it was coming on as they were singing to him. He thought a miracle was happening, and you could see it on his face. He just sat down on the stage and listened to them sing. It was a Jewish chant, and it was heart-rendingly beautiful.
I’m just this sunshine girl from Orange County! And when I encountered such depth and richness and spiritual power -- when I finally understood that kind of intimacy within music was possible -- I came home changed. I refused to go out on tour with an opening act for Neil Diamond, not because I disliked Neil Diamond, but because I was still reverberating from that impact. Leonard shattered my relationship with pop music, and now I’ve had this career that kind of vacillated between pop and music with meaning.
You would see the line of women standing at the hotel door, and I didn’t want to join that line. I wanted a piece of Leonard’s heart, which he didn’t give away casually. So I dug in my heels and I tended to the music whenever he wanted me there. That sustained our friendship for nearly 50 years.
Leonard told me once that the most important person in your life might not be your significant other, or your parent, but a special teacher. There is no doubt in my mind that Leonard came to teach. He heard his inner voices clearly. One thing he always said was that he writes and writes and then discards the slogans. Isn’t that nice? That’s probably the way to get to your truth: Look for the difficult answers. Peel all the artifice away from yourself and your writing, and what remains is the news you need to bring forward. No matter how long it takes to heal ourselves and our country, Leonard Norman Cohen, that beautiful Canadian teacher, lover and revolutionary, has left us with tools we can really use.
If only we could hear the song within him, now.