I first bought a Leonard Cohen record in high school or college. He was an old guy even then, to me, and I have a complicated relationship with his music. I admire him, I revere him, I could wax for hours about his talent. I’d love to have met him. But I have to admit that in some ways his music was never really mine.
His songs are amazing. He’s an untouchable lyricist. His best songs are (great) short stories. The music is beautiful, interesting and elegant. To write what he did is unparalleled in rock. But my usual music was, and probably still is, a little younger, a lot ruder and less complex, more urgent. The Ramones. The Clash. Even Kanye. Not a seven-minute song with traditional Greek instruments and a jazzy thrust.
Leonard Cohen, though, always broke through my usual preferences. He started as a writer and poet, and I’m sure I read an interview years ago in which he said he started writing songs as an adult after hearing Bob Dylan. I hate to throw that in, because Leonard Cohen was nothing like Dylan. No comparisons. He’s Leonard Cohen.
He grew up in Montreal, in a prominent Jewish family, and he always identified as Jewish, but he had a Catholic nanny as a child, and was also fascinated by Catholicism. And by religion in general. He stopped making music for years when he lived in a Zen Buddhist monastery (and I believe actually became a Buddhist monk). He later spent time in India studying with a guru.
Bits and pieces like this have stuck in my mind over the years. Another is my impression that he loved women, and that women loved him. Women weren’t objects to him. Women were people: friends, lovers and collaborators, too. He’s the type of man who stayed friends with his exes all their lives.
Anyway, the music. If I can be blunt, his songs are long and often slow, and his voice is not necessarily a strength. So the genius of Leonard Cohen’s songs might be even better appreciated when interpreted by other singers. At least by me.
His early work was stunning, and I could write another piece on that, but the peak of my own Leonard Cohen fandom came in the 1980s with a pair of great albums: one by Cohen called I’m Your Man, and one by his frequent backup singer and friend Jennifer Warnes called Famous Blue Raincoat.
Here’s Warnes’s version of the title song. This has always been my favorite version, even though Warnes had to change a few words to turn this into a song sung by a woman. It’s such an emotionally complex song that it still works beautifully.
“And thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes / I thought it was there for good so I never tried.” That couplet tells a short story.
But I need to skip ahead in time, because in 2001 my husband and I had three young children, and I think the only movies we ever saw were children’s movies. Most of which were dreadful dross. Until DreamWorks made Shrek, which was not just watchable, but actually enjoyable.
And best of all, it had a great soundtrack. That CD played constantly in the car. You know the phrase “music saved my life”? For me, many times, including this one.
So here, from the Shrek soundtrack, is still my favorite version of one of Cohen’s most gorgeous, brilliant, awe-inspiring songs.
This song is full of great lines, but I think my favorite putdown ever is: “But you don’t really care for music, do you?”
I don’t want to give the wrong impression, however, in putting up just those two songs. The man had a dark side. His songs have a darkness.
For example, there’s a song he wrote in the 1980s called “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and jazzy, upbeat, romantic versions of it have been recorded for decades. But I’m not putting it here, because it makes me almost cry. What he was actually thinking about when he wrote that song was the string quartets playing while prisoners were sent to the gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps.
There is a lot of darkness in his work, albeit paired with a sumptuous beauty in the music. He’s Leonard Cohen. He wrote about dark truths, about concentration camps, about Joan of Arc, about infidelity, depression, being bad at relationships, and ending relationships.
But his songs are also about hope. Hopeless hope, sometimes, but hope. About the hope to be better. The hope that there are children waiting to be born, somewhere. The hope that even though you just broke up with someone, your love continues.
The hope to finally get it right in life. Or even to understand what to do. About being buffeted between “You must not ask for so much” and “Hey, why not ask for more?”
That was “Bird on a Wire.” From another song comes the half-resigned prayer to be helped, if help there is: “Let your mercy spill / On all these burning hearts in hell / If it be your will / To make us well.”
Yes, I revere Leonard Cohen. I feel privileged to have had his music in my life. So I should end with his own gravelly, dark voice. He co-wrote this song with Sharon Robinson, and it was on I’m Your Man.