Leonard Cohen has died; and for those of us who came of age in the sixties, and found his melancholy words and music an effective counterbalance to the raucous rock that otherwise permeated our lives and threatened out eardrums, it is a sad day, and a reminder of our own fragile mortality.
The man himself made mention of that encroaching endgame recently when he said a public goodbye to one of his muses, Marianne Ihlen, his Norwegian girlfriend during the sixties (on the Greek island of Hydra), who was the subject of his enduring endearing prophetic songs, Bird on a Wire and So Long, Marianne.
On that latter note, just prior to Ihlen’s death last August, Cohen wrote her a goodbye – “Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
An elegy like that tells you all you need to know about Cohen who died on Thursday evening at the age of 82. And it is tempting to think that he let go of life in shock at the Presidential election of a man who represents all that is crass, vulgar, repulsive and objectionable, which is to say, the polar opposite of Cohen’s own endless class.
And given the imminence of his departing, few would have complained if the Nobel for Literature, recently given to his equally influential contemporary Bob Dylan had been awarded to Cohen.
You can find plenty of biographical material on Cohen, it’s all over the airwaves. This is more of a personal reflection of how my own little life intersected with his glorious trajectory.
The Canadian born Cohen started writing and publishing poetry at university in Montreal in the fifties, but it was his novels, little mentioned nowadays, which first attracted my attention a decade later. The autobiographical reflections of The Favourite Game demonstrated the influence of one of his own favourite authors, the Henry Miller of Tropic of Cancer. But Beautiful Losers which was later credited with introducing post-modernism to Canada was an hallucinatory ride through national history, folklore and contemporary politics, with a lots of sex ’n drugs ’n rock ’n roll, thrown in, and written in an exciting variety of literary styles.
The latter book only took off however when penury forced Cohen to re-imagine his artistic career by becoming a modern troubadour, and putting his poems to music. The Songs of Leonard Cohen soon insinuated itself into the interstices of quiet reflection between the reverberating howls of rock, and both became the complementary soundtrack for those generations who sought to reject the post-war, Cold War race towards a capitalist nirvana which, despite those desperate voters, is clearly never going to return.
Two of the highlights of my time in Paris in the mid-seventies were attending concerts of those polar opposites mentioned above – a tumultuous rock concert by the Rolling Stones at the most appropriately named venue possible – The Abattoirs (I kid you not); followed a few weeks later at the rather more sedate and far more prestigious and aptly named Olympia, to see and listen to the quiet poet Cohen.
And coming up to date in the wake of a dozen more influential albums, and the seminal track Hallelujah, covered it seems by close to 550 others, it was via Cohen that I recently got back in touch with a university pal, the music writer Sylvie Simmons after I read her definitive biography of Cohen, I’m Your Man.
Now the man is gone; but the memories and melodies will long linger on.
So long, Leonard.