Hey, That's Some Way To Heave A Sigh

Little did we know when we published this feature that just a couple of months later we'd be saying goodbye to Leonard Cohen, who passed away on 11th November 2016

Originally published on 27th September 2016

You could divide the world up into halves: one of which likes and “gets” your favourite musician, and the other which doesn’t so much: maybe what really annoys you is that the second half even goes so far as to treat them as a joke, or a punchline. You’d have to be beyond a music snob to seriously divide the world up like this, but perhaps there is a fairly good claim to be made that, in the case of Leonard Cohen, the lines have drawn themselves.

The first half of the world, of course, can see why he’s so chuckled at: maybe it’s even a shame that the laughter can’t be packaged up and thrown his way. Everyone can see he could sometimes use it. He’s never been a giggle-trousers exactly, and that, roughly, is why he gets laughed at. He started out as a young poet and novelist in very early 60’s Montreal. He carried on writing, moved to the Greek island of Hydra, and launched into singing and songwriting as the 60’s wore on (a number of agents said to him – “Aren’t you a little old for this game?” He wasn’t even 35. He is now 81, and his last studio album, “Popular Problems”, was released in 2014). Legend has it that he moped around the earth with an acoustic guitar, a hank of dark hair and a lot of charm while based in the USA as he settled into singing, with the spare-sounding early folk-rock eventually giving way to more worldwide, worldly and electronic sounds. The common perception that he is miserable, that his voice is a despairing whine, and that his music is an unbiddable mixture of desperate and glum doesn’t ring true to us Leonard Cohen fans: though we can see how the rumours got started. Can they be true? And does it matter if they are?

A genuinely random dip into his back catalogue is likely to bring up a song at least superficially melancholic, whether it’s something spare and acoustic from the early days – “The Stranger Song”, “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”, “Stories Of The Street”, or a later track where he’s getting hot and sweaty over a Casio beat – see “The Future” or “Waiting For The Miracle”. These are among his best known songs, their popularity dovetailing with their sadness, helping to secure his place in the general psyche as a moaning Michael.

It’s also true that Cohen has been hemmed in badly by depression at various times in his life, and from a young age. Not for him the trappings of psychotherapy and medication. Speaking to Swedish journalist Stina Lundberg in 2001, he said he thought there was an interface between the melancholic soul and the mystery that surrounds us: “I think that psychological explanations can be valuable and that psychotherapy can be valuable for some people, but the fundamental question of how and why people are as they are is something that we can’t penetrate in this part of the plan”. He said later that “a sense of shipwreck” inspired his retreat to the Mount Baldy Zen Centre in Los Angeles for five years in the 1990s, and was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1996. He was assistant to Old Roshi, a Zen master at the centre, and Cohen described the place as a “kind of hospital for the broken-hearted and for people who have forgotten how to walk and talk”.

Perhaps understandably, Leonard Cohen has been quizzed a lot by interviewers about his depression: in one way, it is inseparable from his music and the lack of a gap, plus lazy journalism suggesting that he is the “godfather of gloom” and the prince of darkness and misery, has put some people off. People can sense that there is a mystery to be got to the bottom of, which has led to fairly abrupt questioning from some members of the press. Journalists probably want to scratch that itch when they’re sitting in front of him, and it does seem important to the rest of the story. What helps is when he has an empathetic biographer: Toronto-born documentary film producer and “poet with a camera” Harry Rasky joined Cohen on his 1979 Field Commander Cohen tour. Writing about it , and about their times together as friends on Hydra years ago, Rasky said “He was a poet in development. All was passion and pain, limited by the words to express the ecstasy and the agony. No music yet, to suffer along with the suffering.” The switched-on Rasky knew that Cohen was a deeply-feeling and often melancholy man, and welcomed the despair as part of Leonard Cohen, to get to a rare, deep, seemingly sacred friendship.
It’s probably an act of gender treachery to say that a female biographer and chronicler also might help, but Sylvie Simmons, the London-born and US-based music journalist whose comprehensive biography of Cohen “I’m Your Man” appeared on the shelves in 2012, employed a delicate touch. There is a totally understandable hint of admiration in the writing. He has inspired a heck of a lot of female love, though he claimed that “my reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke that caused me to laugh bitterly through the ten thousand nights I slept alone”. The women who didn’t like him as he wished, and even the ones who did, were grist to the mill. He can’t believe his luck when he’s standing in front of a naked woman in “Light As The Breeze” from the 1992 album “The Future”: “and like a blessing come from heaven / for something like a second / I was healed and my heart was at ease”.

His is not the first name which comes to mind when thinking about melancholic musicians, of course. Morrissey is on the surface of the subconscious of the average right-thinking indie music fan when there’s an urge to roll around in one’s own misery. Radiohead, who started out good, become excellent and are now off the planet, orbiting around some world where spacetime has bent and curved sonic laws, do a brilliant line in flailing angst, complemented by Thom Yorke’s help-me dance. You might want to put on a bit of old Tom Waits if you’re in the mood for that voice singing about bourbon and squalor, like a strung-out American Elvis Costello who has spent too long in motels. But no-one does lyrics like Leonard Cohen.

“Poetry” is sometimes taken to mean cleverly crafted song lyrics which are pleasing – “Morrissey is a poet, man!”, but Leonard Cohen really has written books of verse which, of course, stand alone without music. Poetry and song lyrics adhere to different rules of structure. Poetry is also sometimes lazy, inaccurate shorthand for something lily-livered or depressing. Where Cohen is remarkable and rare is that some of his lyrics do read as stand-alone poems, whether by accident or design: the cadences change without the music, and turn the words into something else. “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy”, from 1969’s “Songs From A Room”, is flatter and more direct without the lilting tune: “Seems so long ago, Nancy was alone / Looking at the Late Late Show through a semi-precious stone / In the House of Honesty her father was on trial / In the House of Mystery there was no-one at all / There was no-one at all”. If the lyrics together with the song are melancholic, then the words read from paper, without music, mainline themselves into the listener’s system and disorientate in a way which is both more subtle and more direct.

Cohen does a remarkable line in linking the sacred with the everyday, mentioning earthly things in the same breath as the mystic. “With one hand on the hexagram and one hand on the girl / I balance on a wishing well that all men call the world / We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky / And lost among the subway crowds I try to catch your eye” he sings on “Stories Of The Street”. You could run away with the impression that the heavenly and the terrestrial are part of the same world. There’s also a glorious arc in “The Stranger Song” which catches both “another Joseph looking for a manger” and “an old schedule of trains” in its parabola. “Ain’t No Cure For Love” sees Cohen sing about what’s written in the scriptures, angels; and subways and buses. The effect is of a prayer flung up to heaven, however despairing its contents. However much you may like The Smiths, one thing you can’t say about them is that they married their quotidian concerns and longing to much outside of itself. Horses for courses, though, obviously: and Cohen does it wonderfully.
And like most things in life, it’s a bit complicated. A couple of friends tell me that Cohen practically skipped onto stage at a recent concert, and while he didn’t exactly giggle his way through his songs, he remained present, focused, and full of tangible affection for his audience. Cohen salutes the rigours of Buddhist practice for helping him be able to remain in the moment and direct his energy and attention to whoever is sitting opposite him, and many of his interviewers have remarked on his patience and interest in them. Cohen’s relationship, though, to the tough side of Zen Buddhism, the getting up at silly o’ clock, the discipline and the silence, became lopsided, with Cohen calling himself “the useless monk” and said that “it wasn’t really addressing this problem – distress – which is the background for all my activities, feelings and thoughts. It was a lot of work for very little return.” But he seems to carry something lasting with him which he absorbed on Mount Baldy, including a strengthening of his personal relationship to his Jewish faith. In 2008 he said that “…what I am so happy about is that the distress and discomfort has evaporated”. He is unsure about the exact source of the “evaporation”, but credits the background feeling that he doesn’t think he has a fixed self – which is a Buddhist concept – as a source of ease and aid. It comes as something of a punchline when the man whose self-analysis lay deep in his music and poetry says that it was ceasing to think about himself that helped him so much, but it hasn’t affected the quality of his later musical output.

Blues music is sad, but hardly ever depressing. Leonard Cohen’s music provides a similarly unexpectedly soft cradle for lying in and giving your tired bones over to. The man may lean towards sadness, the voice may be a squawk in the dark, and the whole setup might look like a closed circuit of misery. But lift your eyes upwards, and you might well see a light shining down: look over there, and you’ll see a pair of dark eyes looking expectantly upwards, too. And light and darkness aren’t so far away from each other, really. “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”, lines from 1992 song “Anthem” which Cohen says “sums it up, it’s as close to a credo as I’ve come”. The world of Leonard Cohen is not obvious or straightforward, and it might take a bit of effort to scale the walls put up by lazy journalists around his work. It’s more than worth doing though, and you might just find hope in or between the bars of the music, from the suggestion of angels, or from an aural glimpse of a heavenly face in the subway crowd.

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