Goodbye to Leonard Cohen, and thanks for that tower of song…

TOO much time, too many words, too much damn despair has attended one bad man this week. Let us instead use a few words to honour a good man

It was announced this morning that Leonard Cohen has died at the age of 82. In a recent interview with the New Yorker he accepted his death as imminent and addressed it with calmness, saying: “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”

Those last five words make for a great sort of self-obituary: “That’s about it for me.” Simple words that say a lot, almost a throwaway phrase and yet one with too much lovely weight to discard.

It took me a long time to fully appreciate Cohen, although I did learn to play Suzanne on the guitar as a teenager. Even then I wrongly accepted the unkind theory that Cohen was miserable, a godfather of gloom.

To subscribe to that view is to misunderstand Cohen, a writer of wry, funny and nakedly human lines. When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature recently, some said that Leonard would have been better measured for the honour.

I don’t wish to get into that argument, which seems ill timed for today. I like them both very much. Let’s just agree that Cohen’s lyrics have the condensed purity of deceptively simple poetry, while Dylan’s lyrics sometimes have a more furious intensity, although he can do simplicity too. Cohen is easier to understand, but Dylan stirs up a puzzled storm in your head. Will that do?

Dylan made a good point about Cohen, telling the New Yorker: “When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius… As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music.”

This is true. Cohen is singing now as I write. I may have some vinyl somewhere, but the only Cohen CD I own is Live In London, recorded a few years ago. Cohen was in his late 70s by then and on what turned into a five-year tour to recoup funds after his former manager, Kelley Lynch, stole millions from his estate.

This double CD opens with Cohen, said to have been shy of the stage at times, greeting the audience with a typically wry piece of gratitude: “Some of you have gone to financial and geographical inconvenience,” he says, “so we are happy to play for you tonight.” Then it’s straight off into Dance Me To The End Of Love – as lovely a song as it is a phrase.

Cohen chats between songs and says that it has been a while since he played London a few years back now – “I was about 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream…”

Cohen’s bone-dry wit is amply showcased on this double live album. He was so funny in that sly, understated way. And what songs, too: Ain’t No Cure For Love, Tower Of Song, Bird On The Wire, So Long, Marianne.

The Canadian singer is talking again as I write: “We’re privileged to play for you tonight when so much of the world is plunged in darkness and chaos…”

It’s almost as if he knew the blasted landscape of this week before he made his departure, except the album was recorded in 2009.

The words are spoken before Cohen performs Anthem, a song which contains a brilliant Cohen line: “There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” A great image that seems to suggest damage, and yet offers the cleansing hope of light. Well, that’s how it seems to me. And what a melody, too. The combination is why Cohen’s songs can be so moving – and now I am hearing Tower Of Song… “I was born like this, I had no choice. I was born with the gift of a golden voice…” This raises a laugh from the audience, and from Cohen too, a wry self-mocking nod to the fact that his voice has been criticised.

And, yes, Cohen was gloomy, but in the manner of a deadpan comedian who puts his finger on the human heart.

Anyway, Live In London should be in everyone’s collection. In one bit of repartee, Cohen recalls having a drink with his old teacher, then aged 97. The teacher said: “Excuse me for not dying… I kind of feel the same way.”

I am not sure I am yet prepared to excuse Leonard Cohen for dying. But he chose his week well. Perhaps he looked at the headlines and said: “Nope. That’s me done.”

I need to be somewhere soon, but for now I shall sit here and listen to Leonard Cohen. The only good news is that I have yet to hear his last album, You Want It Darker, released last month to glowing reviews.


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