Welcome to THE PLAYLIST, where HeadStuff staff and friends siphon through exciting art to craft essential listening experiences you didn’t know you needed. Craig Fitzpatrick takes on the Herculean task of summarising one of the greatest musical lifetimes imaginable…
It’s four in the afternoon, the middle of November, I’m writing this now just to see if it makes me feel better. Seems unlikely that I’ll be able to gee myself up with my own words – that’s what Leonard Cohen’s were for. And still are, a few days after his death.
The world seems an increasingly cold and lonely place this year, for myriad reasons, and the news of Laughing Len’s demise seemed like a particularly sick joke on a slate-grey Friday morning. It would be wrong to call the passing of an 82-year-old tragic – for us, sure, but he had lived quite a life and then some – or especially shocking.
We had fair warning. It was there in the final curtain call meditations of his latest masterpiece, You Want It Darker, and in a career-spanning New Yorker interview to promote it, in which Cohen himself stated unsentimentally: “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”
And yet he had backtracked on that during a Q&A session in late September, in what now looks like a move to reassure everyone else that he’d still be around for them.
“I’ve always been into self-dramatisation,” that impossibly deep voice said, soothingly. “I intend to live forever.”
If anyone was able to call those kind of metaphysical shots, you reckoned it was Cohen. You reckoned he knew not only the truths of the universe, but a few handy tricks that would steer him into his hundreds, still sharp of mind and generous of spirit, making the world a better place with his mere presence. Surely he’d learnt how to meditate his way out of mortal expiration during those five years as a Zen Buddhist up Mount Baldy? So we all let out a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that Leonard Cohen had decided not to die.
If Bowie and Prince departing sucked large quantities of magic out of the universe, the Cohen-shaped void somehow feels altogether scarier. Maybe it’s a case of the week on which it happened, as Trumpism swept America and arrived at the doorstep of the White House – with the key – but, for me, learning of his passing made me feel like a small child who had just realised he was utterly lost in a supermarket. The eternal grown-up that made everything okay wasn’t going to be around anymore. We’re fending for ourselves now.
I knew Leonard Cohen before I knew it. His music was always around the family, but it was first billowing through the house in the form of Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat, an album of Cohen covers and collaborations that my mother would play on repeat. Plenty of people will justifiably be lauding Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ to high heaven once again, but if you want to hear the essence of his work through a different prism, Warnes’ beautifully plaintive interpretations won’t steer you wrong.
Then, when you hit your teens and early twenties, you don’t rebel against an artist like Cohen. You identify more with his voice as you find your own, and use him as a crutch when strength deserts you.
We’ve got those songs for back-up forever, thankfully. Songs that seemed to channel the words of prophets, songs that handled the divine and the carnal in equal measure, with a delicate touch. Songs delivered by a voice you had to imagine was on speaking terms with God. And neither party was talking down to the other. Leonard, of course, would dismiss such talk. He was as fallible and flawed as anybody, he’d say, and you can hear that in the songs. But even his failings seemed immaculate, his mistakes carried out with grace and the feeling that lessons would be learnt, applied and passed on.
He was a contradiction. The restless soul who abandoned his Buddhist practice after years of solitude with the admission “I finally understood, I had no gift for Spiritual Matters” just a week before heading to Mumbai to try the teachings of yet another life guide on for size. The roguish ladies’ man who really had no time for such trivial matters of the flesh. Most of the time.
As one commenter says under this clip: “Well. What do you do when these hot birds are chasing you? Leonard, always a gentleman, courteously counters their advances.”
And he was funny. I never bought the “Grocer of Despair” nickname, almost precisely because he knowingly gave it to himself. He did worry that he was “depressing a generation” at one point, bringing up the waggish line that “they should give away razor blades with Leonard Cohen albums because it’s ‘music to slit your wrists by’” to his guru, Roshi. Roshi simply replied: “More sad.”
Not knowing what the heck that meant, Cohen just decided to go deeper. If he struggled with depression, his music was a way of wriggling free of it. Attempting to solve that black puzzle and find some relief. He then shared that relief with the listener. His words were hard-won, worried over, perfected and pure. With great punch lines, self-deprecation and gallows humour. And if his work was a salve for the soul, seeing Leonard live made you want to live. They didn’t give razor blades away with the tickets to those warm, vibrant Dublin shows during his post-brink of bankruptcy renaissance.
Quite typically, one of the Canadian’s final public proclamations pushed the spotlight away from himself and offered a humble, generous appraisal of a contemporary.
Speaking on the decision to give Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature, Cohen said:
“To me, [it is] like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”
Dylan’s enormous cultural impact can’t be denied but, to me, his talents always seemed more like a hot spring of talent. An exciting, zeitgeist-defining stream overflowing and spreading across the landscape. Sometimes bubbling and bumbling over itself, sometimes all second guesses and winks and nudges, sometimes seeming like a parlour trick.
Cohen was the mountain. His work was the slow river, taking its slow, sweet time, but carving itself into the landscape indelibly, without the wider world noticing it.
Really, if it wasn’t Dylan, you’d have suspected he was dodging the Nobel committee’s calls because he thought his old friend Leonard – seven years his senior, and a poet and novelist who only got into the rock ‘n’ roll racket in his thirties to make some decent scratch – was the real musician most deserving of that first nod to lyricism. But it was Dylan.
As Cohen recalled in that New Yorker piece of a drive they once took:
“Dylan says to me, ‘As far as I’m concerned, Leonard, you’re Number 1. I’m Number Zero.’ Meaning, as I understood it at the time – and I was not ready to dispute it – that his work was beyond measure and my work was pretty good.”
A decent line from Bob. As was the retort in that old tale where Cohen revealed to him that ‘Hallelujah’ had taken two years to write and then enquired about the gestation period of Dylan’s ‘I And I’. The reply? “15 minutes.”
Well, as much as I love Dylan, I can’t think of the last time I heard someone attempt to tackle ‘I And I’.
Turning, finally, to Cohen’s body of work then, and this bloody playlist. I’ve been rambling and delaying because this was tough to compile and tougher to explain. Firstly, because it seems ridiculous to put together a “playlist” of his songs. It’s like telling someone you’ve come up with a really sick new mix of the collected works of Shakespeare.
This started as a chronological trawl through album highlights. It was a story most people knew, however, and the sheer sustained excellence of the songs throughout his nigh-on 50 year career was crying out for a little shake-up and comparative work. So the young(ish), nasally and finger-picking romantic Cohen is rubbing shoulders alongside the sophisticated faux-misanthropic synth-enthusiast of later years, both vying for attention next to the high-minded, lower-than-low sing-speaker third act Cohen trying to unravel the great mysteries of the universe.
Throughout it all, he sounds utterly… himself. Another thing you couldn’t say about Dylan.
It was impossible to keep under two hours. Every second is worth it. Jump in. It’s only the shallow waters of a lifetime of genius and a legacy of monumental proportions.