Leonard Cohen, inveterate romantic and restless wanderer, has died aged 82. Since his first studio recording nearly 50 years ago, the Canadian singer-songwriter-poet-novelist has beguiled generations with his art, and confounded critics with his success.
Cohen has always refused to tow to expectations, at the height of the late 1960s hippy crazy he recorded Songs of Leonard Cohen with its blisteringly beautiful opening track Suzanne, the lyrical wizardry of The Stranger Song, and the album finale of One of Us Cannot Be Wrong – who ends their first album with over a minute of what can only be described as garbled screeching?
But this was the artist who never let his lack of vocal talent hold him back, he poured everything into his songs and as you listened you were caught up in his frequent heartbreaks and spiritual meanderings.
Best known for Hallelujah, covered by Jeff Buckley, used in Shrek, and finally made it to number one when sung by Alexandra Burke in 2008, he reportedly drafted more than 80 verses for the song. As I heard news of his death break, I saw quote after quote from his lyrics, with: “the holy or the broken Hallelujah” among the more popular. The other quote frequently cited was from a more recent album (The Future, one of my least favourite), with the line from Anthem: “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” travelling far beyond his traditional fan base.
It’s a line that has become a favourite of preachers and Christian commentators, with Francis Spufford taking it as one of his cues in his 2012 book Unapologetic. There has always been something about Cohen’s lyrics that have fascinated cultural commentators, he was never as direct as Bob Dylan or his contemporaries with protest songs, but the prophetic edge to his writing resonates down the decades.
In my teenage years I first became fascinated with this artist who my mum had records and tapes of. I remember getting a lift back from my church small group – I was probably 15 at the time – and was captivated by the lyrics of Diamonds in the Mine. I was gone. Soon I’d started collecting CDs to update my mum’s collection, as well as assemble missing albums from the intervening years. When I got his novel The Beautiful Game for Christmas one year, it was perhaps the most unlikely gift for a teenage boy.
Three years ago my mum and I sat close to the rafters in the 02 arena listening to a 78-year-old man groan away with 20,000 fellow onlookers. He sung for three hours, no support just a brief interval – he probably needed a toilet break – and a six song encore. The following year, 2014, he released what I consider his best album since the 1970s in Popular Problems. I wrote then that the test of that album’s brilliance would be whether I’m still listening to it, and two years on I’m still singing.
Trying to understand Cohen’s spirituality is like trying to get a handle on quantum mechanics. You know it’s there, but the more you try and understand it, the more any kind of definition eludes you. Of Jewish heritage, with extensive periods spent in a Zen Buddhist monastery, Cohen’s lyrics often verge on the dark and the mysterious, hinting at contemplating suicide in So Long, Marianne, and replete with his successes and failures in love.
That his former manager ran off with his royalties, and he was pushed back onto the stage to earn a living, adds to his mystique. Cohen had spent most of the 1990s in a monastery, and even this fan will acknowledge his two albums following the turn of the millennium (Ten New Songs and Dear Heather) were far from his best. But his most recent triplet of albums, since 2012, saw a recovery of magisterial form. He kept on singing, he kept on groaning, his backing band were better than ever, and the depth of meaning in his lines backed by a life of success and fame – virtually every album features his face – and pain and failure.
He toured the world 2008-2010, needing to earn his keep once again, and when he was done he just kept on going, writing songs and singing to crowds young and old that were awed by his unlikely beautiful game. His touring days have come to an end, by perhaps the only thing that could ever stop him.
Ah, they’re dancing in the street – it’s Jubilee,
We sold ourselves for love but now we’re free.
I’m so sorry for that ghost I made you be,
Only one of us was real and that was me.