FUV Essentials: John Platt on Leonard Cohen
Update: Leonard Cohen has passed away at the age of 82.
I’m glad I got to see Leonard Cohen’s last concert at Madison Square Garden four years ago. Based on reports of his declining health at 82, it sounds as though he won’t be touring much in the future. It was a sublime show, even from the back of the hall, with impeccable sound and an amazing ensemble of musicians behind him. Dressed as usual in a suit and fedora, he dropped to one knee and doffed his hat as he eloquently introduced each of the musicians. This combination of elegance and humility seemed to capture the essence of Leonard Cohen.
Even as he’s attained iconic status, Cohen has kept an ironic distance from all the acclaim. In a 1985 "Mixed Bag" interview with Pete Fornatale he said, “I’ve always been an outsider.” His very first album, Songs from a Room, contained “The Stranger Song” (memorably used by Robert Altman in McCabe and Mrs. Miller) with the line, “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.”
That’s just one of countless Biblical and religious references that have resonated through his songs. There’s the cryptic line, “Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water” from “Suzanne,” “the bloody cross on top of Calvary” in “Everybody Knows,” Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son in “The Story of Isaac,” and the prayer of atonement used at Yom Kippur in “Who By Fire.” This thread comes right up to “You Want It Darker,” the title track of his brand new album, echoing Abraham’s response to God:
Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker
I'm ready, my lord
There’s no question Cohen has been a spiritual pilgrim. Raised in a Jewish family in Montréal with an Irish Catholic nanny, he’s been a follower of mystical Kabbalah Judaism, a Buddhist monk, a student of Scientology, and a disciple of the Hindu teacher, Ramesh Balsekar. In a 2012 conversation I had with Adam Cohen (who produced his father’s new album), he told me that in his house growing up, “We had pictures of Jesus and Mary, the Bhagavad Gita in the bathroom, the I Ching on the coffee table.”
During their conversation 31 years ago, Fornatale had asked Cohen what, if he were filling out an application, he would put as his occupation. You could imagine Cohen writing “musician,” “songwriter,” poet,” or “novelist.” What did he reply? Simply, “sinner.” And that gets to the core of his self-image. In a later, 1988 interview with Fornatale, which I produced, Cohen said that he inhabited “a moral universe, where there is something called sin ... Sin is the idea of separation, of alienation from the activity around you. You fall into a trance of loneliness, the trance of solitude. You get hypnotized by the idea that you are separate, and that is the sin. You’re punished for this by psychic pain.”
In that same exchange, Cohen, talking about his songwriting process, said that “I Can’t Forget,” one of the songs from the 1988 album, I’m Your Man, began as a song about sin and redemption before he turned it into something more benign. But isn’t that possibility of redemption (and a sly sense of humor) what keeps us listening to and pondering his songs, no matter how dark they are? His perhaps most-covered song, “Hallelujah,” brings together the art of creation and spirituality:
Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
Bob Dylan paid Cohen the compliment of performing “Hallelujah” in concert in the late ‘80s. David Remnick, in an illuminating article about Cohen in the October 17, 2016 issue of The New Yorker, quotes Dylan: “That song ‘Hallelujah’ has resonance for me. It’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves, and slips back, all in quick time. But this song has a connective chorus, which when it comes in has a power all of its own. The ‘secret chord’ and the point-blank I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself aspect of the song has plenty of resonance for me.”
You can admire Cohen’s craft, but you identify with his humanity. His singing, ever deeper as he’s gotten older, has a “voice of the ages” quality that conveys eternal wisdom. But there’s an intimacy to it that draws you in, that makes you consider the value of even the “broken Hallelujah.” Surely, along with his urbanity, it’s one secret of his famous sex appeal. If we sometimes feel adrift, it’s comforting to know Leonard is searching for the same answers.
Remnick’s article recounts Cohen’s relationship with Marianne Ihlen, the Norwegian woman who was his lover and muse (the inspiration for songs including “So Long, Marianne”) on the Greek island of Hydra in the ‘60s. Told this year that she was dying of cancer, he sent a letter which said in part: “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon.” Even as he contemplates his mortality, we know his songs are timeless.
While “Hallelujah” is just one of many Leonard Cohen songs I savor, my favorite may be “Bird On the Wire” from his second album, Songs from a Room, which was the last song I played on my last show on a Chicago radio station, WGLD, in 1971:
Like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
Kris Kristofferson allegedly has said he’s putting those lines on his tombstone. Would Leonard, too?