The harshest put-down Leonard Cohen ever delivered is a line in “Hallelujah,” the song that became the Canadian song-poet’s most widely heard composition, thanks to cover versions by John Cale, Jeff Buckley, and hundreds of others.
“Now I've heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord,” sang Cohen, the enduring and influential songwriter who died Monday at age 82. “But you don’t really care for music, do ya?”
Cohen got his start publishing books, not singing songs, with the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966), as well as a poetry collection called Flowers for Hitler (1964). And in June, the octogenarian had a poem, "Steer Your Way," published in the New Yorker.
But though he didn’t release his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, until he was 33, and he's revered for the poetic grace in the lyrics of signature songs like “Suzanne,“ “Sisters of Mercy,” and “Bird on a Wire,” it’s a common mistake to regard Cohen as merely a word guy and not also a musician of sophistication and subtlety.
Sure, he didn’t have the prettiest of pipes. It was thinner and more delicate in the 1960s, before years of cigarette smoking left him scarred and sandpapered.
He joked about it in "Tower of Song," from the 1988 album I’m Your Man, which launched the first great comeback of his career, recasting the sensitive coffeehouse singer-songwriter as a seen-it-all Eurobeat troubadour. “I was born like this, I had no choice,” he growled, with the dry humor that is one of his underrated traits. "I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
But like Bob Dylan, Cohen's south-of-the-Canadian-border brother in song, Cohen was very much in the tradition of grizzled tunesmiths who -- save for a few exceptions, like Buckley’s luminous, heavenly “Hallelujah” -- are their own best song interpreters. As an unidentified fan once said, “No one can sing a Leonard Cohen song the way Cohen himself can’t.”
Cohen was a philosopher of love and death, of sexual ecstasy and societal doom who didn’t flinch from harsh reality but who also almost always saw hope in some form of spiritual redemption. “There’s a crack in everything,” he sang in “Anthem,” from 1992. “That’s how the light gets in.”
Raised Jewish in a Montreal suburb, he was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk in 2006. In the last decade of his career, after being allegedly bilked out of millions of dollars by his manager, he returned to the stage for a glorious three-year tour that played the Academy of Music in Philadelphia and the Tower Theater in Upper Darby in 2009.
The Academy of Music concert and another I saw at the Beacon Theatre in New York were remarkably generous, and gracious, three-hour performances that vie for spots on my list of the 10 best shows I’ve ever seen.
From the female back-up singers who served as Cohen’s Greek chorus to the flamenco guitar flourishes and the Hammond B-3 organ nods to American soul and gospel music, every exquisite sonic detail was perfectly in place. And Cohen, at that later stage in his life, with a fedora cocked on his head or held over his heart as he skipped across the stage or knelt in musical prayer, seemed both an ancient sage and utterly ageless.
In a late-breaking burst of creativity, Cohen went on to release three superb albums in the last four years, starting with Old Ideas in 2012, Popular Problems in 2014, and, finally, You Want It Darker, which came out last month.
His latter-days songs were distilled down to their purest essences -- stately rhythms clearly spaced for his sepulchral voice in tunes that, though often dirgelike, are melodically entrancing.
“When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius,” Bob Dylan told the New Yorker’s David Remnick in a revealing Cohen profile the magazine published last month.
(In 2012, when Cohen, along with Chuck Berry, was awarded a Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award by the New England chapter of the literary organization PEN, Dylan called him “the Kafka of the blues.”)
This calendar year has felt like a punch in the gut for so many reasons, no matter how you might feel about the election results that were the other big news of this week. 2016 has brought the deaths of a number of musical giants, and Cohen belongs high up on the list.
Like David Bowie, whose death in January was the first of what has been a series of wrenching goodbyes for music lovers, and who released a final studio album, Blackstar, just days before he died, Cohen, who was known to be exceedingly frail in recent months, was able to make a final artistic statement before his exit.
You Want It Darker portrays a wandering soul and spiritual seeker who was at peace with his departure, even as he gets set to leave a world where many prayers have gone unanswered. “A million candles burning for the hope that never came,” he sings on the title track, a song that begins, “Hey baby, hey baby / I’m ready my Lord.”
“My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records,” Cohen’s son Adam, who produced You Want It Darker, wrote in a statement on Thursday night.
In 1974, on “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” Cohen sang of the sustenance that songs can provide in times of sorrow and strife: “We are ugly / But we have the music.” And in 1988 on “First We Take Manhattan,” he asked, “Remember me? I used to live for music.”
We do, and until the very end, he never stopped.