So Leonard Cohen has died. It is, says Simon Wilson, the end of the Bacchanal.
When I was a boy of 15 I was infatuated with a girl who was perfect in every way except one: she was not infatuated with me. I know. Still, she did like me and she was kind, and she did not mind my spending as much time as I could at her place. She had an older sister whose boyfriend – actual boyfriend, unlike me – was in a band, and the band also hung out there. There was music all the time. Singer-songwriters, mostly: Crosby Stills, the Beatles, Judy Collins, Cat Stevens and, lurking with provocative intent, Leonard Cohen.
He was different, not just because he was a baritone in a crowd of high tenors. Cohen’s world was so murky few other singers seemed even aware of it. Not the world of sex – everyone sang about sex, and mostly the others made it seem simple and emotionally straightforward. Anything but murky.
In Cohen’s world, pain rode with pleasure. Romance was a delirium. Confusion trumped truth, longing was unfulfilled and life was lived in the gloom. And yet the promise seemed exquisite. ‘So Long, Marianne’, ‘Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ and, most of all, ‘Suzanne’: these were not songs about my life, but they were, I dared to hope, songs about the life I was going to have.
Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river, where you hear the boats go by and you spend the night beside her. Who, whatever their state of innocence, could not completely imagine themselves in a situation like that?
A little problematically, there was the matter of You know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there. Okay, so the things that make us fucked up make us attractive? It felt like a great insight, but where did it leave me with my friend? She was deeply sane and I so, if I was honest, was I.
But this. She feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China. And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her, then she gets you on her wavelength and she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover. And you want to travel with her and you want to travel blind, and you know that she will trust you for you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.
A lot to unpack. First, role reversal. The song had us the wrong way round! I just needed to get her on my wavelength and the river would do the talking, so to speak. There was no actual river, but there were pine trees, all around the house, sighing continuously in the wind. As for touching her perfect body with my mind, was that an almost mystically perfect line or did it mean what I thought it meant? And either way, how would that mean she trusted me?
Sadly, the sighing pines never did any talking. But we did eat tea and oranges, although I never thought they tasted good together. Also, we wondered why Cohen thought oranges came from China.
They used to say he was the singer to slit your wrists by and maybe that was true of one or two songs. ‘Bird on a Wire’ seems like it should be quite an upbeat number, but Cohen sang it with such a desultory whine he evoked not so much the miracle of a bird poised effortlessly on a thin strand, as a stiff bundle of feathers lying in the mud with its feet sticking skyward. ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ is a lament for love and friendship perverted by heroin; the song’s genius is that it is both beautiful and uncompromisingly bitter.
Those occasional death marches aside, Cohen wasn’t an existential doom merchant. He was a lover. Love for him was dirty and complicated and there was always heartbreak, but it gave him wings. He seduced and was seduced, and he soared. Love consumed him in ecstatic lyricism and took him as close as he could get to real flight – into the dance.
And I’ll dance with you in Vienna… the hyacinth wild on my shoulder, my mouth on the dew of your thighs… and I’ll yield to the flood of your beauty… You can’t write lyrics like that (from ‘Take This Waltz’, which really is a waltz) without knowing what it is to drown in love and yet survive.
There’s ‘Dance Me To the End of Love’, a remarkably bouncy tune led by those unparalleled musical aphrodisiacs, the accordion and fiddle: Let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone, let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon, show me slowly what I only know the limits of, dance me to the end of love… That, right there. When I die I want to be listening to that.
Sometimes Cohen was a guy in a suit sitting in the corner of the bar, but not often. ‘Closing Time’ has him up on the tables, limbs flailing, total party animal: The women tear their blouses off and the men they dance on the polka-dots, it’s closing time. Partner found and partner lost and it’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops, it’s closing time.
He was a Bacchanal, subject to gods of all kinds, including the devil-goat, which was certainly in him when he wrote his nasty song about Janice Joplin, ‘Chelsea Hotel No 2’. I remember you well in the Chelsea hotel, you were talking so well and so sweet, giving me head on the unmade bed while the limousines wait in the street. You couldn’t write a lyric like that now and actually you couldn’t then: he got slammed for it. And mark that last bit – they both had a limousine. They weren’t even there together.
As Cohen already knew, the Bacchanal is a curse. Desperation overwhelms escapism, ecstasy turns to hysteria and what follows sex is death. ‘Closing Time’ is a bawdy Irish jig that’s really about what’s coming to us all, far sooner than most of us want.
He was open to everything, he told David Remnick of the New Yorker in a wonderful profile published just a month ago. By everything he meant drugs and sex with lots of people and religions. But Cohen wasn’t a hippy from the Age of Aquarius searching for some kind of blissed-out nirvana. Through all the songs you can hear his search for equilibrium, his Buddhism, charged with anguish that he didn’t sit right in the world. He had a sore conscience and a heart full of regret, and the pain of all that made him one of the greatest love poets of the age. His curse is not ours.
That New Yorker profile, by the way (I know, who am I to say?), has a hole in the middle. While Cohen was chronicling the thwarted happiness of love, who inspired him? We know about the women of the early years – ‘Suzanne’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’ are both on the first album, released in 1967. But how did he keep on writing love songs 30, 40 years later? And who sustained him towards the end? Or did he do it all himself, through memory and imagination?
His last album, You Want It Darker (there’s no question mark), was released last month and every song is about his own imminent death. It’s lovely and yet hard to listen to. He knew. The last track reprises the second one, called ‘Treaty’, this time with a gentle refrain of strings, and it’s the job of those strings to release the tears. While they play, this is what he sings, his last words to us: I wish there was a treaty we could sign, between your love and mine.
If love made Cohen a Bacchanalian, faith gave him grace. Fifteen years ago he released Ten New Songs, which includes ‘Alexandra Leaving’, an ode to the state we reach when we love and then lose the one we love, and yet do not lose the love itself. Suddenly the night has grown colder, the god of love preparing to depart… Even though she sleeps upon your satin, even though she wakes you with a kiss, do not say the moment was imagined, do not stoop to strategies like this.
In 2009, I went with my then 15-year-old son to hear Leonard Cohen at Vector Arena. We were both fans, the only ones in our family, and we both found it thrilling. Song after song of such immense desire, so many tapestries of a life that his music made seem so beautifully lived. At the end of it all, my son and I looked at each other and I fancied he was thinking what I was thinking: I love that I shared this with you, and yet I also wish I had shared it with, well – how do I put this? – someone whose hand I could hold.
In truth, I have no idea what he was really thinking, whether there were moments he was imagining, because none of us knows those things about each other. But music sure does make us believe we do.
Faith gave Cohen grace. Some of the Darker album’s songs are prayers, although none comes close to ‘Hallelujah’. He spent five years writing that, before he abandoned the process and recorded it. His most famous song, five years, with lyrics that confound rational explanation: a true mystic at work.
And while it wasn’t mysticism that made him write ‘The Future’, it’s not surprising that in the week of his death, other events have found some resonance in one of his songs:
There’ll be a breaching of the ancient western code and your private life will suddenly explode. There’ll be phantoms, there’ll fires in the road and the white man dancing. You’ll see a woman hanging upside down, her features covered by her fallen gown, and all the lousy little poets coming round, trying to sound like Charlie Manson. And the white man dancing.
The Film Festival screened I’m Your Man a few years ago, a tribute show to Cohen. I saw it in the Civic in the middle of the afternoon; when the lights came up at the end I discovered I was sitting quite near an old friend, and we just beamed and beamed at each other. Both there to get our souls recharged.
That film is full of marvellous interpretations. Rufus Wainwright, gleefully wringing the sleaze from ‘Chelsea Hotel No 2′; Nick Cave swaggering his way through ‘I’m Your Man’ in a manner never quite adopted by Cohen himself; Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen soaring to majesty with ‘Anthem’: The birds they sang at the break of day. Start again I heard them say… There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. That’s probably a song you can’t sing without soaring.
I’m Your Man also features Anhoni, then still known as Antony, singing an achingly transcendent version of ‘If It Be Your Will’. If it be your will, if there is a choice, let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice. Let your mercy spill on all the burning hearts in hell, if it be your will, to make us well.
I’m an atheist. I don’t feel the need of faith in the great quest to celebrate the sublime. The bounty of nature and the richness of human imagination and our skills are more than enough, and even if they weren’t, they’re all we have, so we must make the most of them. That’s what I think.
But I don’t want to deny the greatness that faith confers on so much music, and right now it’s that song, that hymn, Antony’s ‘If It Be Your Will’, that feels like my favourite Cohen recording.
Although, I also want to say, there’s the song that rolls on like the ocean, the one you drown in and yet you’re alive, the one that tells us this: Confined to sex, we pressed against the limits of the sea. I saw there were no oceans left for scavengers like me; I made it to the forward deck, I blessed our remnant fleet and then consented to be wrecked, a thousand kisses deep.
A thousand kisses deep. I would be thankful just for that.
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