Cohen: ‘an anchor flung into a churning sea’
Leonard Cohen has died. He was the ‘Godfather of Gloom.’ His songs were ‘a manual for living with defeat’. His most famous line was a ‘broken Hallelujah’. What was he trying to tell us?
It took Leonard Cohen five years to write his most famous song, Hallelujah. He often found himself ‘in his underwear, banging his head on his hotel room floor’. He filled notebooks, whittling down the lyrics from 80 verses. He meticulously crafted its melody: ‘the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift’, as the opening verse explains. But when he finally presented the album to his record company in 1984, they thought it was a ‘disaster’.
Thirty-two years later, the song is one of the most recognisable in the world, a ‘modern hymn’ that has been covered over 300 times by everyone from Regina Spektor to Justin Timberlake.
Cohen died last week at his home in LA, less than a month after releasing his 14th album. You Want It Darker ‘feels like a pristine, piously crafted last testament, the informed conclusion of a lifetime of inquiry,’ said one review. Indeed, it came on the heels of a New Yorker profile in which he spoke frankly about his own mortality: ‘I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.’
The morbid honesty and self-deprecating wit was typical of Cohen’s style. Before he became a singer-songwriter he had found success as poet and novelist; he only turned to music in 1967 as ‘an economic solution to the problem of making a living and being a writer’. His songs mixed sex, violence, religion and death from the very start, earning him the nicknames ‘Godfather of Gloom’ and ‘High Priest of Pathos’.
Yet his lyrics were the careful ‘investigations’ of a poet, with moments of light in the darkness — or, as Bono put it, ‘shades in the blackness that feel like colour’. Over the years, as his voice grew deeper with ‘500 tons of whiskey and millions of cigarettes’, those shades of blackness became a source of comfort for his fans.
‘Nobody has a life that worked out the way they wanted,’ he said. But good songs exist so that ‘we feel less isolated and we feel part of the great human chain which is really involved with the recognition of defeat.’
How depressing, say some. He may have been a genius, but his outlook on life was overwhelmingly sad. After all, he was one of the most revered songwriters of all time. He had fame, fortune, a loving family, and he died peacefully aged 82. If he was ‘defeated’, what hope is there for the rest of us?
That is missing the point, respond others. Far from mutually exclusive, hope and suffering are both important parts of being human. Cohen understood this. And when he died his fans took comfort in one of his most optimistic lyrics: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.’
- Are you a fan of Leonard Cohen?
- Do you agree that life is about learning to cope with failure?
- List your five favourite songs of all time. Are there any recurring themes or emotions that appear in all of them?
- Write a poem inspired by Leonard Cohen’s work.
Some People Say...
“The best art is always about tragedy.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I don’t know his music — why should I listen to his philosophy?
- His music may not be for you, but there is no denying that his words touched millions of people. As the poet Paul Muldoon once wrote: ‘his songs have meant far more to me/ than most of the so-called “poems” I’ve heard.’ The idea that there is a grace and nobility in accepting defeat is not new — but it is interesting, even comforting in a world with so much pressure to be perfect.
- I want to listen to his music. Where should I start?
- It depends on your mood. For a (slightly) more uplifting tone, start with the song Bird on the Wire from 1969. For something political, try The Future from 1992, inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall. For philosophical, you can’t go wrong with Anthem. There is more under Become An Expert.
- Leonard Cohen
- The Canadian songwriter was born in 1934, although he did not begin his career as a musician until he was 32, in 1967. He has often been compared to this year’s Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan. Both were considered iconic poets of America of the 1960s and onwards, who have used music to reach vast audiences.
- The song is in the key of C-major, in which F is the fourth chord and G is the fifth. Major and minor refers to the type of chord being played.
- 300 times
- It was Jeff Buckley’s cover which helped the song to gain popularity, and Rufus Wainwright’s (featured on the soundtrack for Shrek) which brought it to a new audience. One of the most recent covers was performed this weekend by the comedian Kate McKinnon, who was impersonating Hillary Clinton in the wake of the US election on Saturday Night Live.
- Cohen was Jewish, but spent five years living in a Zen Buddhist monastery during the 1990s, where he was an ordained monk.
- From the song Anthem, on his 1992 album The Future.