RIP Leonard Cohen

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A farewell to a genius

No politics. I don’t want to hear anything about how X killed Cohen. Don’t put the name of that man in the same sentence with an artist of genius, of brilliance, of compassion, of sensuality, of sly humor and a wicked sense of irony.

There have been very few artists who have more of an impact on my life, personally. The wild and raw and poetic sexuality of his novel Beautiful Losers deeply impacted me, for its profane grace and nearly sacred positioning of the terrors and wonders of the human body. His poetry spoke to me in a way I hadn’t realized was possible.

And the music: from the sparse tremors of the early albums to the deep bass of the later ones, to his role as the prophet of aging. But he never lost it: he never lost that probing questioning into being a human. And his last album–god, his last album–is a masterpiece.

This article, found on a blog by a non-profit that does amazing work for the aging, does an uncanny job of encapsulating up how I feel about the album, and about him.

The voice comes as we’ve heard it over the last 20 years—a deep gravel, almost impossibly low, and barely singing. It’s more like the singsong speech of a man hanging out under a lamppost, barely lit against the darkness, trying to tell you something with insistent urgency. It is, of course, Leonard Cohen—unmistakable from the first gravely note of his voice, imbued with ancient wisdom, rueful sadness, and endless wit. It’s less an aging voice than a voice of age.

And the end…

So I don’t think it is saying goodbye. He’s just saying, maybe this is goodbye. Maybe it isn’t. We don’t have the answer to all the mysteries, and we barely have the questions. So as long as we’re still here, let’s talk. Let’s remember. Let’s continue to explore these questions that trouble us when we’re young, and still gnaw at us when we’re old. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the idea that we are who we are, immutable.

The deep voice is the same one that plied Montreal streets, and found love on Greek Islands. The body is the same one that once knew Janis Joplin in the Chelsea Hotel. The heart is the same one that famously cried, “So Long, Marianne”, a sad and joyful parting to his muse, who herself died earlier this year. He told her it was time to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again. That’s the heart of his music. We suffer, and then we remember our suffering with fondness, because it is something that happened to our souls, simply from being alive.

This wild and impossible life is his main target of inquisition, and, like always, he’ll interrogate it until he can no longer. If we’re looking for inspiration as we grow older, and the strength to still be awake and alive in the world, Cohen can answer as he has so many times: I’m your man.

Maybe you only know Cohen from “Hallelujah”, or its million covers, and that’s ok. It’s a great song. I think it actually sums him up better than people, annoyed by its ubiquity, think: that blending of the religious and the sexual, and the knowledge that there is no actual difference. The knowledge that love contains the deepest terrors, and the knowledge that life grows within itself its own seed of destruction.

I don’t want to really use the word “sums him up”, because that’s not fair. He contains too many multitudes. He is the gentleman and the lecher. His is the quiet voice on the street and the howl of the pained lover. He is the observer at the corner of the dance, falling in love and getting hard and wondering if there is a difference. He is the bandmaster at the last waltz, urging you to take it. He’s the strange prophet of a troubled future, anticipating something cruel coming. He knows that Nazis are running the brothels.

He made me fall in love with dead saints, with women on Greek islands, with Suzanne. Who wouldn’t? Who couldn’t listen to him, or read his words (as if the two could be separable; as if the poetry wasn’t in every song and the strumming insistence in every poem) and see a form of God, a binding humanity that rises to the level of the miraculous even as it pays deep and bowing homage to the animalistic, the dog in heat?

Cohen had an unimpeachable sense of musicality, which is lost in deserved discussions about his poetry and grace. Seriously, read David Remnick’s amazing article on him, if for nothing else than Bob Dylan dropping his oracular pose to gush about Cohen’s songs. (“‘When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius,’ Dylan said. ‘Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music.'”)

Still, though, his great gift was uncovering the violence and fear in love, that it was war, but it was always worth fighting for. That it was what made us human. That searching for answers was, in and of itself, the actual answer. That to be human was to question, and to wonder, and to give in to base instincts and our highest desires, and to see the face of the infinite in the smallest drop of bodily fluids. His work was, quite literally, seminal. It was the beginning, and it was the whole journey.

And now his journey has come to an end, with an incredible parting gift, an amazing goodbye. In every period of his life, he looked for the answer to the only question that matters: is the space in between lovers–whether it is a space of time and years and pain, or just the volume of a shared drop of sweat– empty, or is it filled with the entire universe?

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