Edit, 11/11/16: It has come to light that Leonard Cohen passed away on November 7th, with his passing only being officially announced on the 10th. This information was not apparent at the time of writing. I’ve decided to keep the original text so that the post still serves as an initial reaction to the news of Cohen’s passing.
Leonard Cohen passed away today. I didn’t quite believe it at first, it was even hard to comprehend that Cohen was capable of dying (despite his constant references to it in the lead up to his final album, You Want it Darker, which was released not even three weeks ago). I felt that I needed to write something to stop myself from guzzling down the $100 bottle of scotch that I have in my cupboard for important occasions which I’ve only ever opened once before tonight.
I didn’t know Leonard Cohen, as devoted a fan to him I was I had no kind of relationship, so I don’t want to create the impression that I’m somehow uniquely devastated by his passing. However, I found something uniquely enthralling about his music, a collection of works that surpassed the notion of genre and were as varied in their subject matter as the human experience itself.
I really first engaged with Cohen’s music in 2012, my Step-mom’s father, Vince, had passed away, and my Step-mom, her sister, my step-sister, and I were deciding on music for the funeral. The K.D. Lang cover of Hallelujah was chosen because it was the closest thing to gospel that they could get away with, as Vince had not been a religious man. My Step-sister, Ellen, protested, arguing that Leonard Cohen’s original was far better, and put it on. I was intrigued, and later that night searched the original on YouTube, and found the 2008 live cover from a concert in London. I think that version is the quintessential version of that iconic song, if not of his career. It conveys the complexity that the phrase Hallelujah invokes – with meanings that are spiritual, painful, submissive, and finally in the last verse triumphant. The song serves as a microcosm of Cohen’s career, conveying the complexity and variety that can be found in his nearly 50 year discography. Since then, much to the chagrin of many of my friends, Leonard Cohen became the backbone of my musical interest (and still will, even in his passing).
My favourite Leonard Cohen song is by far Famous Blue Raincoat. The song is simply a letter detailing a complicated relationship between L. Cohen (who is identified as the writer in the final line), a woman named Jane, and the recipient of the letter. The song itself is the epitome of its album, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate, as while it does describe a turbulent relationship between L. Cohen and the recipient, it also has a tenderness to it. The bridge of the song exemplifies this,
And what can I tell you my brother, my killer?
What can I possibly say?
I guess that I miss you
I guess I forgive you
I’m glad you stood in my way.
The song shows a nuance to the idea of relationships that music tends to step aside. Its brutal complexity about the dynamics of relationships is delivered in a box of the personal, with the failings of L. Cohen being accentuated by the use of the first person. The importance of the personal in Famous Blue Raincoat is demonstrated in failing of Jennifer Warnes’ 1987 cover of the song. While the cover is a fine enough song, Warnes removes most of the personal element, making the song a weird mixture of the first and second person, and thus diluting the emotional power of the song. Simply put, I love the song because Famous Blue Raincoat is a raw yet refined glimpse into the complex reality of love and hate, and the power that forgiveness can bring both to the one forgiven and the one who forgives. I’m also very foud of the 2014 song Samson in New Orleans, an ode to love and pain with explicit references to the story of Samson (who is also referenced in the second verse of Hallelujah). The song lacks the complexity of Famous Blue Raincoat, but instead contains this power in the lyrics which I’ve only ever been able to describe as biblical.
But Leonard Cohen was more than just my own personal muse, he was (in my opinion) by far the world’s greatest songwriter, and the champion of Canadian music. Cohen’s passing is a loss for this country, as if our soul has faded quietly into the night, for which all of us will be entirely the lesser. Leonard Cohen was also a person, and I feel a great remorse for those close to him, and I hope that they know that Canada as a nation grieves with them.
Rest well, Leonard. Thank you for all you gave us. I hope you stand before the lord of song, with nothing on your tongue but Hallelujah.
I leave you with the final verse from the final song of Leonard Cohen’s final album, String Reprise/Treaty,
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
It’s over now, the water and the wine
We were broken then, but now we’re borderline
And I wish there was a treaty
I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine