Love and Hope
Due to the insightful nature of his work, and its thematic content,
I have considered featuring Leonard Cohen for some time in the
blog. His recent passing prompted me to complete this piece.
Several modern musical greats have died this year, and to many, he
is one of the greatest.
Alongside Bob Dylan, Cohen was instrumental in evolution of the
poetic tradition in popular song, from the 1960s onwards. His style
differed from Dylan’s, being leaner and arguably more finely
crafted, reflecting his background as an established poet and
novelist prior to his songwriting career.
Cohen’s fascinating life story has been well covered in several
biographies and some excellent profiles, including a recent and
New Yorker piece, and ‘Bird on
a Wire’, an intriguing documentary from an early 1970s tour.
Cohen however hated clichés and I think he would also dislike much
of what was written before and since his death, which has repeated
hackneyed stories about his life and music. Hence, I will
spare him, and our readers, any (further) mention here of Janis
Joplin, American Idol covers, or trite interpretations of his songs
as 'suicide’ music.
Instead, I thought the best approach would be to create a themed
playlist (available for Spotify users
here) from his formidable body of work, which is relevant to
mental health, and broader contemporary concerns. I have selected
mostly lesser-known songs which I hope might provide another
perspective on his skills as a writer and observer of human nature.
He was a master of economy in his writing, and thus I have also
tried to keep it brief! As ever, I welcome feedback and commentary,
and I am particularly interested to know of readers’ favourite
songs, especially those which may be less widely known, and of
personal experience with his music.
This is my last blog post for 2016. Next year, I hope to feature
a range of subjects, from choir singers and music therapy to female
rock performers and the role of music in later life. I am open to
suggestions and perspectives from any source, and on any
The Weight of Depression
I always found criticisms of Cohen’s music as ‘depressing’ to be
very superficial. He interjected his work with distinctive black
humour, and enriched it with philosophical reflection and
references to religious and historical texts. Many of his songs
reflect great hope and belief in the better nature of
individuals. Personally, I find most of his music to be
soulful, meditative and soothing.
However, his output over many years did suggest that he
struggled with mental turmoil beyond average experience, starting
with the haunting
‘Teachers’ on his eponymous debut album. In an interview
in 2012, he described his experience of depression as "the
background of your entire life, a background of anguish and
anxiety, a sense that nothing goes well, that pleasure is
unavailable and all your strategies collapse.” Eventually, he
reported, “by imperceptible degrees and by the grace of good
teachers and good luck, that depression slowly dissolved and has
never returned with the same ferocity that prevailed for most of my
I have chosen four songs that perhaps reflect these struggles
the most. ‘Avalanche’
and ‘Dress Rehearsal
Rag’ are both from ‘Songs of Love and Hate’ (1971), perhaps
Cohen’s bleakest album. Amongst other things, both powerfully
capture the hopelessness and self-loathing that can result from a
depressive illness. ‘By
the Rivers Dark’ and ‘Almost like the
Blues’ are more recent works, rich with allusion to
religion and his spiritual life, but which may also be interpreted
as commentaries on his experiences of depression.
Social consciousness in a tumultuous era
Something of an elder statesman, or at least older brother, by
the time he arrived on the music scene in the 1960s, Cohen
witnessed massive social and political upheaval in his lifetime.
Here, as ever, he did not follow a prescribed path, expressing for
example a fascination with war and being close to war zones in the
early 70s. His political views, when articulated, appeared more
complex and subtle than the mores of his 60s contemporaries or
simplistic left-right definitions would allow. Nonetheless, it is
clear that social issues, particularly about violence and moral
decay, concerned him throughout his life. This is reflected in
the songs selected below. At the end of this year of political
turmoil, they offer the perspective of a compassionate and
sensitive individual, aghast at cruelty and inequality, but
alternately hopeful about humanity.
The Land of
Heart with no Companion
Conflict between the spiritual and material world
Cohen’s fascination with spirituality is widely known.
Proud of his Jewish heritage, he frequently referred to the bible
in his songs. He also pursued other religious traditions, including
Hinduism and most famously, a 6-year retreat to a Buddhist
monastery in California in the 1990s, where he led a spartan
existence. On the other hand, he was also a bon vivant, who
relished smoking, fine wine, expensive suits, and romantic
encounters with beautiful and glamorous women, many of which have
been well documented. He was conscious of this apparent
contradiction and the conflict that it created in his life, and he
spoke about it insightfully and with great humour in many
interviews throughout his career. There was also a tension between
his unerring commitment to his craft and his reluctance to commit
to conventional roles as a partner and a father. The songs listed
here explore these dilemmas, with his characteristic intelligence,
compassion and of course, poetic flair. ‘It Seemed the Better Way’
is from his final album, released weeks before his death.
Waiting for the
Did I Ever Love
It Seemed the
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