Saturday, November 12, 2016

Leonard Cohen

"There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." - Leonard Cohen, Anthem

"I know you're really great," a Columbia Records exec once said to Leonard Cohen, "but are you any good?" The answer, thank god, was no. Cohen was no good at being a cog in the pop music machinery that keeps the music business humming. He was no good at toeing the folk music line, moving further and further away from being a guitar-toting troubadour into his own chilly blend of synth-noir-gospel-muzak. In fact, the transition from Various Positions, the 1984 album that contains the original recording of Hallelujah, to 1992's The Future (via I'm Your Man, 1988), is a quieter but even more startling musical transformation than when Bob Dylan went electric.

I think it may have been Various Positions that caused that uncomfortable conversation with his label boss in the first place. Perhaps it was at that same meeting that Cohen was informed that Columbia was done releasing his albums in the U.S., putting out the album on Portrait, a subsidiary label, and only in Canada. How ironic that the album containing one of Cohen's most covered songs wasn't deemed fit for wide release. I guess those head honchos were not yet aware of the "long tail" - and it's a good thing John Cale buys import records!

The Columbia guy was right about one thing: Cohen was great, one of the greatest poets to grace the world of music. There are endless lines to quote, from love songs to apocalyptic prophecies, words to puzzle over, and words to take to heart. How lucky that he could also come up with melodies, or find the right collaborators to create them, to hang his brilliant words on, and could deliver them in a voice that, post-Dylan, seemed at first rather sweet and which was always persuasive. The fact that he even tried is down to Dylan, whose example led Cohen to come back from his never-ending Greek vacation to see if there was a place for him on the folk scene.

The story I heard had him coming to New York with a sheaf of songs, hoping to get Peter, Paul & Mary or someone like that to record them. He showed up in Judy Collins's living room and tentatively strummed a few chords and sang Suzanne and one or two others. She was immediately taken with the man and the songs, recording Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag in 1966 and putting Cohen on the map as a songwriter. The next year, Collins literally pushed Cohen back on stage, launching him as a performer. We owe her a lot for being his champion, which really only worked because her engagement with his work was so sincere. "His songs carried me through dark years," Collins wrote in her autobiography, "like mantras or stones that you hold in your hand while the sun rises or the fire burns." I can relate. "It's Father's Day and everybody's wounded" - just one line that has helped me as much as therapy. Thank you for finally saying it!

Now that Cohen is gone, dead on November 10th at the age of 82, we can see his career as a whole in all it's beautiful idiosyncrasy, marveling at the perfect capstone of his last album, You Want It Darker, which came out just weeks ago. Brilliantly produced by Cohen's son Adam, there's a pitch black slinkiness married to European and American melodic tropes (with a dash of the Synagogue on the title track) that ties up many of Cohen's virtues in a fascinating package. Speaking of packages (Cohen liked his puns), one of his virtues was his carnality, his recognition of the body - a burden and a blessing - and the leavening that lust can bring to love. The biggest clue to me that the new album might be his last were these lines in Leaving The Table: "I don't need a lover, no, no/The wretched beast is tame/I don't need a lover/So blow out the flame."

He was already singing about Suzanne's "perfect body" back in 1967, his continental sophistication making the open sexuality seem suave rather than just the fantasies of another horndog. He was like your perpetually cool older brother, a man of the world who had seen it all and done it all before you even realized it could be seen and done - and always with style, grace, compassion, and seamless craftsmanship. He was also generous, giving the many musicians on stage with him their due in charming introductions and solo spots. One of his most magnanimous acts was allowing the singer Anjani Thomas (who accompanied him on several albums, including The Future and Dear Heather) to rifle through his old notebooks and create songs based on the lyrics she found there. The result, an album called Blue Alert, is one of my favorite products of Cohen's career, and one that is criminally underrated.

On a remarkable live recording of the two of them in concert in Poland in 2007, Cohen makes a lengthy introduction, which concludes: "These are songs that Anjani and I wrote about the little places, about the little loves, about the little corners." Here's to all the little things that loom so large because they matter so deeply to each of us. Cohen was one of the few that recognized them as worthy of being the subject of poetry and song, inscribing them in our hearts and in the firmament forever. Above all, here's to Leonard Cohen's indomitable humanity, a quality I fear we shall miss with a sharper sting over the next four years.

Rather than try to outsmart the master, I'll show my gratitude with a few words from the last song on Blue Alert:

"Thanks for the dance
It's been hell, it's been swell
It's been fun
Thanks for all the dances
One two three, one two three one"

Here's a quick playlist of some of my Leonard Cohen essentials - subject to further refinement, because he deserves no less:

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