‘What instruments we have agree/ The day of his death was a dark cold day.’- W.H. Auden
When Leonard Cohen was a young poet, beginning to make his way among the literati of 1950s Montreal, he placed two authors at the head of his personal canon: Federico Garcia Lorca and W. B. Yeats. His desire, he later said, was to be a “writer for writers that were already dead”, to place himself within their tradition, and in the image of the Tower of Song, he found a way to realise this ambition, and, whether intentionally or not, to pay homage to the second of his two masters, who built his own statement of artistic purpose around the same eponymous image of The Tower (1928).
Yeats’ tower is staunch, squat and concrete, a refuge from the chaos of the twentieth century; within it, the poet can block out the white noise of our reality, and fix his eyes to a higher plane. Cohen’s is similarly solitary, a place of duty and sacrifice, wherein the personal must give way to a higher calling. It is also, however, shot through with self-doubt, with anxiety, and the sense that the artist may not truly belong amongst his fellow craftsmen, that one day he won’t be able to pay his rent, and will be exposed for what he really is. It is precisely this combination, this fusion of the sacerdotal and the human, that lends his work its extraordinary power and its inimitable appeal; his is at once the voice crying in the wilderness, and the voice inside each of us, crying for help.
No other artist, of his or any other era, could write two songs as diametrically opposed as If It Be Your Will and I’m Your Man, and carry both off without compromising their authenticity. The former is a piece of liturgy, the prayer of the acolyte seeking the reassurance of his god; the latter the earthy, lustful howl of an ageing man, fully aware of the limits of his body, but determined and defiant in his desire. So often throughout his career, however, it was precisely this oscillation from sincerity to self-awareness, to irony, that lost, or was lost on people. In the sixties and seventies, when Cohen was just starting out as a singer, already an old man in a young man’s game, critics derided and savaged his songs: they were funereal, they wrote, music to slit one’s wrists to. What they missed, and what audiences saw, was the humanity, the warmth, the blaze of light that was to be found in every word, that became so apparent in performance, especially in later years, when Cohen grew into the role he’d long played in the hearts of his devotees, as the elder statesman of song.
Few people have been able to properly encapsulate this quality in words, but Judy Collins, who did more than perhaps anyone to introduce Cohen and his music to the world, might have come closest; his songs, she wrote, are “like water to a person dying of thirst”. Even in his darkest visions of humanity, like 1992’s The Future, his words present us with a way forward out of the apocalypse that the twenty-first century holds for us. Unsurprisingly, much has been made in the past few days of the timing of his death; for some, it is one more great cosmic joke, for others, the most potent symbol of the world that we stand on the brink of inheriting. But even in a world plunged into darkness and chaos, beset at every turn by strife and hatred, there will be a voice to remind us that we must not falter, that we must love: that ‘There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.’
In 1994, when Cohen first went up his mountain to become a Buddhist monk, many assumed that the voice of Suzanne, of So Long, Marianne, of Famous Blue Raincoat, had been stilled for good. For seven years he went about the life of the ascetic, the only recourse to the career he’d left behind a battered synthesizer he was permitted to keep in his cabin: the man born with the gift of a golden voice became Zikan, the ‘silent one’. When he returned, to a new millennium, much was changed, but the man himself remained largely the same; his voice was deeper, closer to the gravelled majesty of the three albums he released in the final years of his life than the bittersweet whisper of his early work, and the cloud of depression that had surrounded him all his life had been lifted somewhat. There is a wonderful moment from a recording of a 2008 concert in London, when the singer, deadpan and playful as ever, lists the drugs he’s been taking; there is a pause, a moment to consider the great philosophies and religions he has been studying, before, with a sidelong smile, he concludes that ultimately, “cheerfulness keeps breaking through”, and launches into There Ain’t No Cure for Love.
To watch that concert from start to finish is to witness something remarkable. Cohen himself is humble, clearly affected by the crowd who’ve thronged to see him; again and again, he thanks them, tells them what an honour it is to play for them. In turn, they are adoring; they hang on his every word, and rejoice to see and hear this most remarkable of artists at the height of his craft. There is a communion of love between performer and audience quite unique, and utterly beautiful, as the high priest leads his congregation through song after song, over nearly three hours. It is in this context too that Cohen’s songs take to the wing: simple melodies, like Bird on the Wire and Who By Fire, written for the sparseness of guitar and voice, become anthems in their own right, stretched out and embellished over six or seven minutes. It is this element of his genius that Bob Dylan, a friend of sorts, saw as so neglected, so overshadowed by the focus on his lyrics; the apparent simplicity of his work betrays a craftiness and a cunning that, for Dylan, “no one else comes close to… in modern music.”
One day, when the two men were out for a drive in Los Angeles, Dylan told Cohen that, contrary to the opinion of another famous songwriter of the era, it was Leonard who was in fact the number one. Last month, about a week before the release of Cohen’s final album, Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first musician in history to do so. One cannot help but wonder, as many have over the past week or so, whether Cohen himself might have been a fitting choice for the honour, a possibility which is now, sadly, barred to him. The man himself, one feels, would probably have had no truck with such an idea; humility and self-deprecation were his watchwords to the very last, as the interviews he gave around the release of You Want It Darker make clear.
Much like David Bowie’s Blackstar, released similarly shortly before the singer’s death in January of this year, the timing of You Want It Darker lends itself readily to an interpretation of the album as a final, programmatic statement; songs such as Travelling Light, Leaving the Table, or the eponymous opener play like the thoughts of a man comfortable with the fact of his mortality. Whereas Bowie’s album had something of the performance piece about it, the last act of an artist who dedicated his life to blurring the lines of persona and person, as was encapsulated in the remarkable music video for the single Lazarus, Cohen’s seems more like a testament, a final meditation on love and loss, on faith and despair; its nine songs serve as a crystallisation of a corpus that stretches back nearly fifty years, as an old man prepares to quit the bar for the final time.
In his earliest years as a musician, Cohen actively hated performing live; he felt, he said, like “a parrot chained to his stand”. In Sailing to Byzantium, from the same 1928 collection, Yeats writes of the afterlife that awaits him when he is at last released from the shackles of his body. He envisions himself transmuted into the stuff of fine art, a golden bird sat on a golden bough, crying his prophetic song to the nobles of that city. It is the artist at his most transcendent and his most elitist, rejecting the sensual music of the physical world for the eternity that the intellectual offers. In Cohen’s afterlife, there will be no such division. His song is the holy and the broken, and though he has gone up his mountain one last time, his voice will continue to sound. He wanted to be a writer for dead writers, to have his immortality confirmed by the homage that he paid to them. But the Lord of Song had a different idea, and the voice from the lonely tower far surpassed the hopes of his teenage self. He became the voice of all of us. He made us laugh and cry; he took the trouble from our eyes, and our world will be immeasurably darker without him.