Leonard Cohen and Me

Benjamin Markovits

Leonard Cohen has died. I was sorry to think that the last big world event this guru of chilled-out but vaguely sad-flavoured spiritual love had stuck around to witness was Trump’s victory. (More recent reports say he died on Monday, so at least he got to miss the election.)

There was always an element of kitsch to his profundities, and that probably applies to the music, too, which sometimes sounds like the shy campfire strummings of the guy at school who carries an untranslated Rimbaud in his jeans, the kid at camp in a weird hat who sits around playing guitar not because he has lots of friends but because he doesn’t. Even the backing vocals (soaring women’s choruses, on 'The Partisan', for example) remind me of those paper flames blowing in their own wind that hippies decorated their living-rooms with in 1980s sitcoms, or the illustrations in my 1982 edition of Gary Gygax’s Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook: women in scanty leather armour with long hair and flames behind them, kicking ass. That was the style.

Cohen was never as hip as Bob Dylan, the other great Jewish poet/singer/songwriter/novelist I grew up with, and the taste for him was connected in my mind not just with AD&D and Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft but other nerd-obsessions like Weird Al Yankovic. My girlfriend (she’s now my wife) used to make fun of me for liking Cohen. She couldn’t see past the cheesy backing vocals and the misery-guts guitar-work to the real genius of many of the lyrics. But she also had a reasonable appreciation for the fact that I liked him in part because I associated the desire for poetry and music with a (not particularly attractive) desire to access certain kinds of sadness. (There’s a great send-up of the unsexy male teenage maudlin tendency in Grosse Pointe Blank, where the violently insane high school classmate of the calmly insane professional killer and hero of the movie – played by John Cusack – get in a fight at their reunion. The violent guy tries to read Cusack a poem, which begins: ‘When I feel quiet, when I feel blue’.) The music my wife grew up liking is the stuff you could dance to. I couldn’t dance and didn’t want to.

As a nerdy kid in a nerd-themed household I used to make up words, one of which was a noun derived from 'lugubrious'. 'He’s a bit of a lugub,' I used to say – and Cohen was, at least in his songs. It’s why I liked him; so was I, mostly happily. The fact is, Dungeons and Dragons was great; Edgar Allan Poe was great; Leonard Cohen was great. I had a lot of fun, I felt things deeply, I liked my friends. And Cohen’s style – bookish, seriously but also ironically sentimental, self-consciously poetic, genuinely wisdom-seeking – came closer to something I could realistically aspire to than anything Dylan had to offer, with his experience-hungry, man-of-the-people, travelling-troubadour rough grace. When I heard that Cohen had died I texted an old friend I’ve been slowly drifting apart from, just from the usual vicissitudes of being grown-up, having kids: the bird on the wire has flown away. I’ve been playing his greatest hits all day. Sometimes I miss being a teenager.


  • 11 November 2016 at 8:07pm
    therobber says:
    Disagree about the kitsch--consider the earlier work: poems, short stories, novels, first three albums.

    He'll always be the bird on the wire.

  • 12 November 2016 at 11:43pm
    jeancarveth says:
    Hi, I'm not psychic but I'm pretty sure you weren't around in the 60's or early to mid-70's. Leonard Cohen was more hip than Dylan. He was the guy at camp with everyone around him, wanting him. And all other opposites of your impression.
    Cohen was sex. He was scary sexy. Dylan not. Ever. Sexy. Aloof but who cares.
    I saw Leonard Cohen perform at the Main Point in Philadelphia in the mid-70's. He sang Chelsea Hotel, among other songs that convey a knowledge so counter your image of him. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you were a baby in the late 70's, 80's, right?

  • 13 November 2016 at 5:05am
    outofdate says:
    The best kitsch song is Ballad of the Absent Mare, which is a deeply felt versification of a Marlboro commercial -- 'she steps on the moon when she paws at the sky' is the silhouette of a rearing horse against a telephoto full moon -- until his girlfriend comes in and says for god's sake pull yourself together, a grown man weeping over cigarette advertising... But then Emmylou Harris sang it straight and he wrote her a letter of thanks.

    • 13 November 2016 at 5:11am
      outofdate says: @ outofdate

  • 14 November 2016 at 4:43pm
    Jeremy Bernstein says:
    Dylan Zimmerman discarded his Judaism while Cohen embraced his. Nonetheless I always thought that Cohen had the patina of profundity while being merely obscure while Dylan had the patina of simplicity while being actually profound.

    • 15 November 2016 at 8:03pm
      Joe says: @ Jeremy Bernstein
      This analysis seems to rely rather more on structure than on content for its momentary ring of incisiveness.

  • 15 November 2016 at 7:57pm
    kynolover says:
    While I agree some of Cohen's poems/songs seem opaque or recherché, others are profound insights into both the human and his own condition, from longing and love and to hate and death and everything in between. His recently released final album is the most moving musical and poetic exegesis on death that I have ever heard. While Dylan displayed great profundity in his early career, he has always struck me as a far more accomplished musician than Cohen and most other songwriters. However, like Cohen, his performances left a lot to be desired.

    Although Cohen never "discarded his Judaism," he also eventually became a practicing Buddhist and reportedly remained one until his death. Dylan also experienced a religious transformation after "discard[ing] his Judaism." Dylan embraced born-again Christianity as a "Jew for Jesus." It remains one of the 20th Century's most bizarre, if not flaky, and mysterious events. It seems, thankfully enough, to have been a relatively short-lived "spiritual journey." If he has not done so already. I hope one day Dylan will explain what prompted him to take this short strange trip, what he found or didn't find once he arrived, and how he regained his sanity.

    In the meantime let us celebrate and appreciate the great songwriters of the 1960s and 70s who are still alive and kicking, if not singing--people like Dylan, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Neil Young, Donovan, Van Morrison, Brian Wilson and John Fogerty. (Other great songwriters of that era--like Sam Cooke, John Lennon, Arthur Lee, Otis Redding, Jim Morrison and Lou Reed--are, alas, no longer among us.) But none of these mentioned musicians, living or decomposing, can match the somber, haunting beauty of a Leonard Cohen song.

  • 15 November 2016 at 8:21pm
    Joe says:
    There's a sizeable dose of kitsch in the mid- and late-career work of both Cohen and Dylan.

    But whereas Dylan veered into kitsch seemingly unawares, during the time when he temporarily took leave of his artistic senses, for Cohen it seems to be something of which he was aware and over which he had control.

    Cohen was able to weave in elements of kitsch in a way that was wryly self-aware, but nearly always sincere and rarely exactly ironic.

    He seems to be saying, "I know this is a bit corny, but life does have a it's corny side, right?"

    • 20 November 2016 at 7:48pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Joe
      I think this has it exactly right, especially during the later part of his career: beginning, say, with *I'm Your Man*. I don't know if that was when he was the most commercially successful, though I imagine it was, but to my ears he was at his best artistically from about 1988 onward. Not everything was great, of course; *Ten New Songs*, for example, I found disappointing, and *I'm Your Man* suffered from too much synthesizer, badly applied (as did many records of the period). But the kitsch, and the gloom, was tempered with considerable humour: "wryly self-aware," indeed. "Tower of Song" remains a classic example of that tendency.

      Someone above referred to his performances having "left a lot to be desired." That may have been true in his earlier years -- I wasn't there -- but when I saw him in 1992 and again in 2012, both shows were consummately professional, with none of the tedium or excessive polish that phrase sometimes connotes. Only at that first show did I realize how funny he could be: in a purely deadpan way, of course.

      Some time after that, I read where back in the 80s he'd commented, maybe at an awards show, about the promotional support, i.e. the lack of same, he'd gotten from his record label. From most other artists, this would have been a straightforward complaint. Cohen had said, straight-faced, "I have always been touched by the modesty of their interest in my work."

  • 16 November 2016 at 8:20am
    Lee Hill says:
    As an Anglo-Canadian of a certain age, I can attest that Leonard Cohen was very popular with the ladies literally and metaphorically. To paraphrase Woody Allen on Warren Beatty, if I was reincarnated I would like to come back as L Cohen's fingertips.

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