Leonard Cohen R.I.P.

cohen

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), September, 2016

Dance Me To The End Of Love

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin

Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in

Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove

Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the end of love

Oh 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

Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on

Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long

We’re both of us beneath our love, we’re both of us above

Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born

Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn

Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn

Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin

Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in

Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove

Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the end of love

-Leonard Cohen, 1984

[About “Dance Me To The End Of Love”: According to Leonard Cohen, “It’s curious how songs begin because the origin of the song, every song, has a kind of grain or seed that somebody hands you or the world hands you and that’s why the process is so mysterious about writing a song. But that came from just hearing or reading or knowing that in the death camps, beside the crematoria, in certain of the death camps, a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on; those were the people whose fate was this horror also. And they would be playing classical music while their fellow prisoners were being killed and burnt. So, that music, “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,” meaning the beauty there of being the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation. But, it is the same language that we use for surrender to the beloved, so that the song – it’s not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.]

The incomparable gravelly voice of Leonard Cohen is silenced. Cohen died a week ago on November 10. There are others with similar gravelly voices. Tom Waits and Bob Dylan come immediately to mind. But there is no voice quite like Leonard Cohen’s. And it is not just the voice, but what the voice sings about that is unique and distinctive.

For me, last week was a terrible time. On Tuesday, November 8, Hillary Clinton was defeated in the election by Donald J. Trump. So we now have a foul mouth, thrice married, pussy grabber for President of the United States!

I was devastated, distressed, and distraught at the news.

And then on Thursday, November 10, came the news that Leonard Cohen had died. Cohen was one of my favorite singers/songwriters/poets. Cohen death was announced with a message to his fans on Facebook Thursday stating “We have lost one of music’s most revered and prolific visionaries.” A memorial will take place in Los Angeles at a later date.

I was dispirited, depressed, and dismayed at the news.

Cohen’s son and producer, Adam Cohen, said that his father “passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records. He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humor.” Adam Cohen penned a touching note about his father: “My sister and I just buried my father in Montreal,” Adam wrote on Facebook Sunday. “With only immediate family and a few lifelong friends present, he was lowered into the ground in an unadorned pine box, next to his mother and father. Exactly as he’d asked.”

“As I write this I’m thinking of my father’s unique blend of self-deprecation and dignity, his approachable elegance, his charisma without audacity, his old-world gentlemanliness and the hand-forged tower of his work,” Adam continued.

“There’s so much I wish I could thank him for, just one last time. I’d thank him for the comfort he always provided, for the wisdom he dispensed, for the marathon conversations, for his dazzling wit and humor. I’d thank him for giving me, and teaching me to love Montreal and Greece. And I’d thank him for music; first for his music which seduced me as a boy, then for his encouragement of my own music, and finally for the privilege of being able to make music with him. Thank you for your kind messages, for the outpouring of sympathy and for your love of my father.” Cohen’s private burial took place at Montreal’s Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery.

Leonard  Cohen was born in 1934, a year before Elvis Presley, and his background – personal, social, and intellectual – could not have been more different from those of the rock or folk stars of any generation. Though he knew some country music and played it a bit as a boy, he did not start performing on even a semi-regular basis, much less recording, until after he had already written several books as an established novelist and poet.

He was born Leonard Norman Cohen into a middle-class Jewish family in the Montreal suburb of Westmount, Quebec. His father, a clothing merchant, died in 1943, when Cohen was nine years old. But it was his mother who encouraged Cohen as a writer, especially of poetry, during his childhood. This fit in with the progressive intellectual environment in which he was raised, which allowed him free inquiry into a vast range of pursuits. His relationship to music was more tentative. He took up the guitar at age thirteen, initially as a way to impress a girl, but was good enough to play country & western songs at local cafes, and he subsequently formed a group called the Buckskin Boys. At seventeen, he enrolled in McGill University in Montreal as an English major. By this time, he was writing poetry in earnest and became part of the university’s tiny underground “bohemian” community. Cohen only earned average grades, but was good enough as a writer to earn the McNaughton Prize in creative writing by the time he graduated in 1955. A year later, the ink barely dry on his degree, he published his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), which received great reviews, but did not sell especially well.

He was already beyond the age at which rock & roll was aimed. Bob Dylan, by contrast, was still Robert Zimmerman, still in his teens, and young enough to become a devotee of Buddy Holly when the latter emerged. In 1961, Cohen published his second book of poetry, The Spice Box of Earth, which became an international success, both critically and commercially, and established Cohen as a major new literary figure. Meanwhile, he tried to join the family business and spent some time at Columbia University in New York, writing all the time. Between the modest royalties from sales of his second book, literary grants from the Canadian government, and a family legacy, he was able to live comfortably and travel around the world, partaking of much of what it had to offer – including some use of LSD when it was still legal – and ultimately settling for an extended period in Greece, on the isle of Hydra in the Aegean Sea. He continued to publish, issuing a pair of novels, The Favorite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966), with a pair of poetry collections, Flowers for Hitler (1964) and Parasites of Heaven (1966). The Favorite Game was a very personal work about his early life in Montreal, but it was Beautiful Losers that proved another breakthrough, earning the kind of reviews for which authors dare not even hope.

It was around this time that he also started writing music again, songs being a natural extension of his poetry. His relative isolation on Hydra, coupled with his highly mobile lifestyle when he left the island, his own natural iconoclastic nature, and the fact that he had avoided being overwhelmed by the currents running through popular music since the ‘40s, combined to give Cohen a unique voice as a composer. Though he did settle in Nashville for a short time in the mid-‘60s, he did not write quite like anyone else in the country music field or anywhere else. This might have been an impediment, but for the intervention of Judy Collins, a folksinger who had just moved to the front rank of that field. Collins had a voice just special enough to move her beyond the relatively emaciated ranks of remaining popular folk performers after Dylan shifted to electric music; she was still getting heard, and not just by the purists left behind in Dylan’s wake. She added Cohen’s “Suzanne” to her repertoire and put it on her album In My Life, a recording that was controversial enough in folk circles to pull in many listeners and to receive a wide airing. The LP’s “Suzanne” received a considerable amount of radio airplay, and Cohen was also represented on the album by “Dress Rehearsal Rag.”

It was Judy Collins who persuaded Cohen to return to performing for the first time since his teens. He made his debut during the summer of 1967 at the Newport Folk Festival, followed by a pair of sold-out concerts in New York City and an appearance singing his songs and reciting his poems on the CBS network television show Camera Three, in a show entitled “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen.” It was around the same time that actor/singer  Noel Harrison brought “Suzanne” onto the pop charts with a recording of his own. One of those who saw Cohen perform at Newport was John Hammond, the legendary producer whose career went back to the ‘30s and the likes of Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and extended up through Bob Dylan and, ultimately, to Bruce Springsteen. Hammond had Cohen signed to Columbia Records and he created The Songs of Leonard Cohen, which was released just before Christmas of 1967. Producer John Simon was able to find a restrained yet appealing approach to recording Cohen’s voice, which might have been described as an appealingly sensitive near-monotone; yet that voice was perfectly suited to the material at hand, all of which, written in a very personal language, seemed drenched in downbeat images and a spirit of discovery as a path to unsettling revelation.

Despite its spare production and melancholy subject matter – or, very possibly because of it – the album was an immediate hit by the standards of the folk music world and the budding singer/songwriter community. In an era in which millions of listeners hung on the next albums of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel – the latter whose own latest album had ended with a minor-key rendition of “Silent Night” set against a radio news account of the death of Lenny Bruce – Cohen’s music quickly found a small, but dedicated following. College students by the thousands bought it; in its second year of release, the record sold over 100,000 copies. The Songs of Leonard Cohen was as close as Cohen ever had to mass audience success.

“I’ve never chosen a style that was deliberately obscure,” Cohen once told Entertainment Weekly. “I never came up with the idea of writing a song that would mystify anybody or prevent anyone from tapping their foot to it.” And mining the dark side of the psyche was a stock in trade he came by naturally. “I always experience myself as falling apart,” Cohen explained to Rolling Stone magazine. “The place where the evaluation happens is where I write the songs, when I get in that place where I can’t be dishonest about what I’ve been doing.”

Cohen became a practicing Buddhist during the mid-70s and spent time between 1994-99 secluded at a monastery in Mount Baldy, Calif., as a personal assistant to his teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki – an experience that produced his 2006 poetry collection Book of Longing, which inspired a song cycle by Philip Glass.

After his monastery years, Cohen jump-started his musical career with Ten New Songs. After discovering his close friend and longtime manager Kelley Lynch had bilked him out of his life savings and music publishing, leading to a rash of lawsuits, Cohen began touring in earnest again in 2008, delivering generous, acclaimed shows chronicled on a series of concert albums and live videos.

“Maybe he went back on the road for financial reasons, but he really started to love it,” said longtime bassist and musical director Roscoe Beck. “He knows there’s an audience out there who wants to see it, and he enjoys the lifestyle. He likes hotel rooms. He likes the camaraderie of the band and crew. He just felt comfortable being on stage, and you could see it in his performances. It was an amazing thing to be part of and to witness.”

During his career, Cohen won four Juno Awards and one Grammy and was also given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. In addition to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cohen was also part of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, and received a Princess of Asturias Award among other literary prizes and honorary university degrees. He was named a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian award, in 2011.

Inducting him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, Lou Reed said Cohen was among the “highest and most influential echelon of songwriters.” And frequent Cohen backup singer Sharon Robinson, who recorded many of his songs and co-wrote her 2001 album Ten New Songs with him, explained that, “The beauty in Leonard’s songs is that he expresses really universal feelings. A hundred singers could sing the same (Cohen) song and they’d all be different.”

Of Cohen’s death, actor Russell Crowe simply wrote: “Thanks for the quiet nights, the reflection, the perspective, the wry smiles, and the truth.”

Yes, especially the truth.

Pick up an album of Leonard Cohen’s music, sit back and listen for yourself. I guarantee that you will not regret the experience.

Rest in peace, Leonard Cohen. You will be sorely missed.

cohen2

Leonard Cohen in 1987

Advertisements

One thought on “Leonard Cohen R.I.P.

  1. Thank you for your lovely tribute to Leonard Cohen. I, too, have loved him and his poetry and songs for most of my life. I just retired this year and am babysitting my one year old grand daughter. Every day, I put her to sleep by singing “Hallelujah”; I introduce nap time by saying “Let’s go talk to Leonard Cohen.” When he died so close to Trump winning, it was devastating. Leonard Cohen was courtly, gracious, intelligent, spiritual, and articulate — everything Trump is not. I’m a Canadian and like most people in my country, obsessed with what is currently going on in yours. I sincerely hope America recovers.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s