Leonard Cohen: 21st Sept 21 1934 – 7th Nov 2016

Biographer recalls Cohen as a serious man and a great artist

by Sylvie Simmons

 

Photo: Paul Chiasson, Associated Press

I’m shaking as I write this. My brain is numb. In this year of losses, so many losses, in this black week for the world, for me this tops them all.

The radio and newspapers keep calling, wanting details of where and how he died. Well, he died at the top of his game. He went out in a blaze of glory. He died with his boots and his suit on. Not onstage — his declining health put paid to those three-hour shows, the rat pack rabbi falling to his knees — but in his home studio, where his son Adam Cohen helped him deliver a masterpiece,“You Want It Darker.” It came out only days before his death.

The album title didn’t have a question mark; darker is clearly what we want. And Cohen was always so good at dark, be it black humor, the darkness of the soul or the depths he mined for his poems and songs.

This was his third album in five years, which was miraculous, given that in 49 years he had released just 14 studio albums. Cohen was a lifelong perfectionist. He talked about songs having to be torn from him.

That old story about Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan trading lyrics in a Paris cafe is true. Dylan showed Cohen a new song and Cohen asked him how long it took to write it. “Fifteen minutes,” answered Dylan, and asked him how long it took to write “Hallelujah.” Cohen replied, “A couple of years” — too embarrassed to tell him it was five.

Maybe it was longer still, and Cohen was too embarrassed to tell me. But when those remarkable comeback tours came to an end, he returned to his original job, writing, with gusto. “Time speeds up the closer it gets to the end of the reel,” he told me. “You don’t feel like wasting time.”

“You Want It Darker” is one of the richest, deepest, most beautiful albums in a lifetime of rich, deep and beautiful work. He was a serious artist. A deep man, very deep.

“How do we produce work that touches the heart?” he said two decades ago, when he was living on Mount Baldy as an ordained Buddhist monk. “We don’t want to live a superficial life. We want to be serious with each other, with our friends, with our work. Serious has a kind of voluptuous aspect to it. It is something that we are deeply hungry for.”

Cohen was born in Montreal to a family of stature — his forefathers were rabbis and founders of synagogues and newspapers — and never denied that he was from the right side of the track. He grew up pre-rock; the tradition behind him was poetry. Raised on the English poets, at age 15 he discovered the work of Federico Garcia Lorca. That was the same year that he started to play guitar.

He said that there was music behind every word he wrote. He was a published poet, a golden boy of Canadian poetry before he tried his hand at writing songs. He never stopped writing poetry. He also published two novels. As a visual artist, he painted a series of droll self-portraits.

Cohen sang himself back home in his last album. The cantor and the choir of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, the synagogue that his great-grandfather founded, accompanied him as he sang “Hineni,” I am ready. Yes, he’d been saying that for years, if not in Hebrew.

Although he could laugh about himself and often did, he was serious about life and death, about family, about being a Jew. His lifelong spiritual explorations were also serious; they were never an accessory for him.

So many stories of the lives of musicians and poets have an unhappy ending. But not Leonard Cohen. He had his career upside down, more popular at the end than in the beginning, when there were critics saying they should give away razor blades with his LPs. For decades Cohen suffered clinical depression. He knew darkness and looked right into its eyes and managed to raise a smile. And an extraordinary body of work.

“This world is full of conflicts and things that cannot be reconciled, but there are moments,” he said, “when we can embrace the whole mess.” I was just thinking of that quote after the election on Tuesday, Nov. 8 — not knowing that Cohen hadn’t lived to see the result.

I’m going to miss that man. Everything. The whole mess. I’m so very grateful to have known him, to have had his support and friendship. And so grateful to have his words and music. He is irreplaceable.

Sylvie Simmons is Leonard Cohen’s biographer. “ I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Ecco) was published in 2012. She is a San Francisco-based music journalist and singer-songwriter.

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