There Is A Crack In Everything: A Farewell To Leonard Cohen, By Luke Turner
, November 11th, 2016 13:49
This morning we learned that Leonard Cohen has joined the silent majority. Luke Turner explores how this man's realist, poetic anthems of love and politics changed uncountable lives
On his last album You Want It Darker Leonard Cohen told us he was ready to go, but we were not ready for him to do so. 82 is a ripe old age, especially for one who poured so much smoke into his lungs as he worked himself to the bone to fill the world, our lives, with his poetry. I've been dreading this moment, as have so many of my family, friends and you our Quietus readers, for a long time - years really. For many Leonard Cohen had a presence that verged on the mystic, a teacher, a leader, a parent. He taught us how to love and how to be lovers, not how to think but how to be thoughtful, and how to comprehend the human truth that life often feels like a wound. This is why around the world today there are countless of us "with this broken feeling / Like their father or their dog just died", as he put it with such great bathos in 'Everybody Knows'.
As I suspect many of my generation did I encountered Leonard Cohen through my parents. I also imagine that like me many were initially skeptical about this jangling music with a voice that seemed to hold a careful disdain for tune, and I remember moaning to my dad about this suicide music or whatever. Yet dad was right and I can picture him now, bellowing along to 'So Long Marianne' in the car and thumping the steering wheel. He texted me this morning: "what a sad and deep day, how much his music has meant to me over fifty years". Another text arrived, from a dear friend whose first child has been born this week, a picture of her on a pillow wrapped in white. "Playing Greta Songs Of Love And Hate for the first time. She gets it, man". Long may the relay continue, the music of Leonard Cohen rolling through countless lives.
Sitting here listening through his back catalogue (skipping 'Diamonds In The Mine' - what were you thinking, Len?! It's a terrible song) is like listening back through my own life. At first I didn't know quite why I was compelled to return again and again to the yellow cassette of Leonard Cohen's Greatest Hits or I'm Your Man - for a while perhaps it was just the funny picture of Len eating a banana. But his songs, perhaps because they were crafted over vast periods of time as poetry rather than entertainment, gradually revealed themselves to me in both their unexpected humour and their wisdom, becoming a guide to a teenage brain grappling with ideas of faith, sexuality, self and what it is to be in love. Every one of his songs, as I hear them, brings back another lover, another place, another intimate frame snatched from the dark reel of memory. This might be common across music with which we have a historic connection, for sound has immense powers of recall. Yet with Leonard Cohen's music there's a greater depth, for his words have such a power that they become part of these moments that make us, that are never lost.
Leonard Cohen's music contains truths that gave themselves up to provide not solace, for he was not one whose music made for panacea or balm, but strength. In his songs of love Leonard Cohen was a romantic but also one of the greatest realists we've ever had, in music or letters. It seems strange to see him within the context of rock & roll, a form he transcended even as he first started putting his words to melody in 1967 as an accidental musician with an impure voice. He isn't part of the rock & roll myth because, as a realist, he never became mired in the false dawn of the 1960s as a new age of enlightenment and change. His earliest songs were odes to lovers and explorations of the human quest for spiritual grace, but they rarely fell into the period's clichéd expressions of woolly hippy hope. Indeed arguably his strongest work, and the songs that I suspect will receive renewed attention in the coming years, are in the great mid-career albums I'm Your Man and The Future. Within them love was ever-present, but it was love against a world that was turning against the spiritual that Cohen's Jewish background and eternal explorations of the world's faiths held so dear.
Early reports suggest that Leonard Cohen died on Monday, November 7th. It seems almost cosmically fitting that he passed away in the week that Donald Trump, a man who stands against absolutely everything Cohen sang for, became president of the the most powerful country on earth. The Future is the most terrifyingly prophetic record I have ever heard, his Book Of Revelation: "Get ready for the future / it is murder", he sang. Leonard Cohen, as Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson's bomber jacket had it, was right.
It's strange sitting here with tears coming from my eyes as his words float into my ears for the memories I have are only happy ones. Let's not forget that for years it looked as if we'd never hear another note from Leonard Cohen, sat up Mount Baldy drinking whisky with his spiritual guide Roshi. Only the fraud perpetrated by his manager brought Cohen down from his retreat and back into our lives - an odd thing to be thankful for, but I am thankful nonetheless. I spent years wishing that I might one day get to see Leonard Cohen with my parents, and it happened. This reacquaintance with the older Leonard Cohen gave us so many wonderful moments, like roars of laughter when he told the O2 Arena that "we appear to have ended up on the wrong side of intimacy" and later that evening the cheers that greeted "I was born like this I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice" when he sang 'Tower Of Song'. He had so much energy in those later gigs, bounding onto the stage for encore after encore, referring to the audience as "friends" with such humility that you knew that his gratitude for what he'd earned in the strange transaction that exists between the rock star and their fans was worth as much to him as it was to us. The memory that makes me smile the most was the time when after a press conference with Jarvis Cocker he was dutifully signing the books and records proffered by a line of nervous men. My friend Leonie and her pal appeared on either side of him wearing fabulous dresses and looking a million dollars. They asked for a hug and a photo. Despite Cohen's dark glasses and frailty his entire countenance lifted and a very, very naughty smile cracked the lines of his face as he put his arms around them.
I want to remember Leonard Cohen and celebrate him, not grieve him - for with his last album he almost told us not to. He had done all he had set out to do. A great light has gone out of the world just as things do indeed seem to be about to "slide in all directions", just as he foretold. The Future might be Leonard Cohen's darkest album but it also contains his simplest and most important truths: "love's the only engine of survival" and "there is a crack in everything / that's how the light gets in". The physical being of Leonard Cohen, that gorgeous twinkling sparkling man in a magnificent suit is no more, but he will endure for you, for me, for everyone, forever. We have his words and his music, the lessons he taught us, that will continue to give us the most profound and indelible strength just when we need them the most. Hallelujah.