By Brian Ives
I discovered Leonard Cohen when I was in college. It was through the 1991 tribute album, I’m Your Fan, which featured a cover of “First We Take Manhattan” by R.E.M., back when R.E.M.’s stamp of approval meant everything. The rest of the tracklist featured Cohen songs as recorded by the Pixies, Ian McCulloch (of Echo & the Bunnymen), James, Nick Cave and John Cale. (The album turned out to be much more influential than most tributes: it was Cale’s version of “Hallelujah” that Jeff Buckley first heard, not Cohen’s.) I didn’t follow all of those bands, but I respected them. And I was curious about this Leonard Cohen guy; I generally knew at least the names of influential elder statesmen and women and “seminal influences” of rock and popular music. I knew Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte, even though you’d never really hear them on the radio. Somehow I’d never heard of Leonard Cohen. My interest was piqued. I liked the tribute album, but I didn’t dive in yet.
Cut to a few years later; like almost everyone else, I was blown away by Jeff Buckley’s Grace in 1994. “Hallelujah” was, of course, one of the highlights. The following year, Bono covered the same song on another Cohen tribute album, Tower of Song, which also featured Peter Gabriel singing “Suzanne,” Tori Amos’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” as well as renditions of Cohen’s songs by Sting, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Trisha Yearwood and Aaron Neville.
The song that really hooked me was — surprisingly — Aaron Neville’s “Ain’t No Cure for Love.” Neville did it as a country tune. I thought of Neville as a soft-rock guy, but I loved his take on this song. Even though I hadn’t heard the original, I instinctively knew that this was a very different arrangement than Cohen’s, which I later learned actually was arranged in an adult-contemporary easy listening style. This was when I became a Leonard Cohen fan (and an Aaron Neville fan).
Was Leonard Cohen still alive? Where was he? What was he doing? I soon learned that he had retreated from his artistic career to become a Buddhist monk. That only intrigued me more. Plus, how many Buddhist monks are named “Cohen?” He was an enigma. I started listening to his music.
Leonard Cohen is, to put it lightly, an acquired taste. Like Dylan or Joni, he has an unusual voice. But as with wine, once you develop that taste, you love it; it is worth putting time into. You feel a bit badly for those who don’t care to put the effort into it; you feel sad for those who don’t try. It becomes this thing that enriches your life.
He was in a class of his own when it came to words. Not just in his lyrics, but, apparently, in conversation as well. You can hear it in interviews with him. Rick Hankey, former producer of MTV’s 120 Minutes, recalled his experience interviewing Cohen for the alternative music TV show. He told me, “I felt like such a hack just trying to hold up my end of the conversation with this man, an absolute intellectual powerhouse and pure poetic genius. He could describe the contents of my gym bag and you’d get choked up at the beauty of his prose. Seriously, Leonard Cohen probably never uttered a clunky sentence in his entire life.”
This doesn’t feel like an era that would be very Leonard Cohen-friendly. Music, more than ever, is almost completely youth oriented; the term “relevant” refers to how many social media followers, streams, and song placements an artist has, not about how many other artists they have influenced. And yet, Cohen was more popular than ever in the last years of his life.
Leonard Cohen was absolutely comfortable with his age. He stared down death itself. In a recent interview, he said, “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” That may have something to do with his spiritual beliefs.
At the end of the last millennium, after Cohen descended from Mount Baldy, where he lived in a monastery, he returned to recording and even touring. Improbably, in his final act, he headlined arenas, including New York’s Madison Square Garden.
“We’re so lucky to be alive at the same time Leonard Cohen is,” said Lou Reed, at his speech presenting Cohen at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. Lou Reed wasn’t a guy prone to hyperbole, either. But he was right, particularly for those who had the opportunity to see the man in concert in those final years.
A word about those final years: typically, when a legend of Cohen’s stature dies, obits concentrate on the early portion of that person’s discography, and without a doubt, he made great music in the ’60s and ’70s. But his most famous song, “Hallelujah,” was released in 1984 (an entire book has been written about it: Alan Light’s excellent The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” ).
But when he returned to music with 2001’s Ten New Songs, he introduced new classics to his repertoire, notably “In My Secret Life” and “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” 2012’s Old Ideas gave us “Going Home.” 2014’s Popular Problems had “Nevermind” (which got some extra exposure as the theme to season two of HBO’s True Detective, a show that did not deserve such an amazing piece of work). And, last month, his final album, You Want It Darker, which has gotten rave reviews across the board.
So, yes, Reed was right: it was exciting to see what Cohen’s new records would bring, what new phrases he would turn. And by all accounts, the concerts were wonderful. But as is the case with all great artists, they are outlived by their art. Cohen knew this, and wrote about it in one of his finest compositions, “Tower of Song.”
“Now I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back/They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track/But you’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone/I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song.”