“I’ve got this rig that runs on memories.” — Leonard Cohen “I Can’t Forget”
Leonard Cohen wasn’t always clear on when he began writing, but he was utterly certain when asked about the first poetry he remembers reading. About a third of the way into Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, a 2005 film, he says, “The first poetry that affected me was in the synagogue — the prayer book and the Bible. That would send shivers down my spine.”
Coming on the heels of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature, Cohen’s death Nov. 7 at age 82 suggests a valedictory moment, a passing of the guard in the Jewish singer-songwriter-prophet division. Cohen’s music and poetry were touchstones for so many musicians and writers of a certain generation that it’s hard to imagine a time when he wasn’t around and creating. Somehow, Cohen and Dylan just were always there.
Of course Cohen had perfected a look that is now back in style, the bolo ties, lounge-lizard shiny suit, and stingy-brim fedora, a “hipster” avant la lettre. It announced him in the late-’50s and even more in the ’60s as a man consciously out of step with his times, the sort of diaspora Jew who was at home nowhere and, as a result, everywhere.
Perhaps it was a tribute to his father, who died when Cohen was nine. Trained as an engineer, the elder Cohen ended up in the clothing business in Montreal and, with his death, left his literary-minded son with a small trust fund that would enable him to pursue his adult ambitions, first as a poet then as a novelist and, most famously, a singer-songwriter.
Fittingly, the first writing of his that Cohen remembered, according to the 2005 documentary, was a message he enclosed in one of his father’s bowties and buried in the backyard. “It was some kind of a prayer, but I don’t remember what I wrote,” he said.
That tyro effort may be lost, and Cohen was never that prolific, but he leaves a rich literary and musical legacy anyway, with a long list of songs that have been covered by a longer list of artists, from his first, “Suzanne,” which was a hit for Judy Collins.
It was Collins who encouraged him to perform his own songs. In one of his best, “Tower of Song,” he wryly describes himself as “born with the gift of a golden voice,” although his quivering, croaking bass is more redolent of silver and lead than gold. As he aged, the instrument became gravelly, his intonation a bit uncertain, but the deadpan tone was a marvelous counterpoint to his words and themes, which ranged from the intensely biblical to the mordantly erotic.
Ron Kampeas rightly observes that Cohen wrote for his own limited musical range. “[The songs] would have been dirges but for their surprising lyrical turns and their reckoning with joy in unexpected places,” Kampeas wrote in his obituary for Cohen published by JTA.
In that respect, Cohen had an affinity with Dylan, to whom he was always compared. Neither had a great voice by conventional terms, although Dylan’s was, until recently, more flexible, dramatic, and startlingly expressive. But each brought an appropriate timbre and solemnity (if occasionally feigned) to mercurial materials, cadences redolent of Torah and a desert-dry humor for those willing to hear it.
Like Dylan, Cohen’s compositions became ear-candy for hundreds of more conventionally gifted interpreters with one-10th his writing talent. His early songs include such standards as “Bird on a Wire,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” and “Famous Blue Raincoat.” As his career proceeded in fits and starts, stalled at times by battles with depression and reclusiveness, the songs became fewer but the cover versions proliferated: “Dance Me to the End of Love,” “I’m Your Man,” “Everybody Knows,” and “Tower of Song.”
But the earthquake epicenter of all of these tributes, homages, and reinventions is surely “Hallelujah,” of which there are already more than 200 recordings by different artists. The most famous of these, Jeff Buckley’s 1991 version, turns Cohen’s droll, dark meditation on the need for spiritual comfort in a wounded world into a six-minute-long howl of despair. It’s a transformation that points up the shortcomings of most covers of Cohen and Dylan that turn nuanced, emotionally complex numbers into vehicles for unbridled emotions bordering on the inchoate, with vocal pyrotechnics betraying their message. Still, “Hallelujah” is a brilliant song, and if you had to choose a “Stardust” or “Body and Soul” for the 21st century, you could do worse.
Cohen was raised in an Orthodox home. His mother’s family included prominent Litvish rabbis, and to the end of his life, the writer was observant, famously cancelling a series of UK concerts in 2013 when they were mistakenly scheduled for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. He became active in Zen Buddhism, turning away from music completely in the mid-’90s and being ordained as a Buddhist monk; he remained a self-identified Jew, and his Jewishness permeates some of his most striking and potent songs, “The Story of Isaac,” the Days of Awe-inspired “Who By Fire,” “If It Be Your Will,” and, inevitably, “Hallelujah,” with its invocation of another Jewish troubadour, King David.