So Long, Mr Cohen
20 December, 2016
Songs of 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 prescient 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) from his formidable body of work, which is relevant to mental health, and broader contemporary concerns.
Writer and observer of human nature
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 genre.
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 life.”
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.
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.