The first time I heard Leonard Cohen’s music was in Godalming high-street at the turn of the new millennium. A white-haired busker in a Mediterranean shirt and John Lennon glasses was singing “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” to waves of Saturday morning shoppers, who watched their own shoes as they passed by his guitar case. The irony wasn’t apparent at the time, and besides, only a few of them said hello to then say goodbye. But there was a small gathering of people who had stopped in their own spaces to listen; they didn’t faction together as an obstacle to those around them, but stood to themselves, by themselves, to watch the old man playing tribute to the greatest lyricist that’s lived in music.
In 1960, Cohen could barely play an instrument. He had received guitar lessons from a flamenco troubadour he met in a Montreal park, and was gifted a three-thousand dollar-grant from the Canada Council to practice poetry, following the release of his debut collection four years earlier. His writing was first nurtured in a well-to-do district on the Southern Peak of Mount Royal, where the city was his proverbial circus. It existed in the tensions between the French and English language, where the post-diasporic Yiddish folk schools lined up next to well-heeled businessmen and upside-down jazz clubs.
By 1968, Cohen was moving between Montreal, London and – once the English skies had dampened his resource – a small Greek island named Hydra; he had written two novels and released five collections of poetry. A mutual friend had also arranged for him to meet Judy Collins, where his transition into music began. The few times they met, Collins described Cohen as entrancing; he had taken a guitar to her, with versions of “Suzanne,” “The Stranger Song” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag” – all formerly written as poems – which he played in her company. A friendship emerged, as did Cohen’s reputation as a one-of-a-kind songwriter: his philosophy was too well-groomed to be a Dylan, and his political mind too considered to be a Baez. Both musicians owed huge debt to the other, though; Collins needed his songs as much as he needed her to sing them.
The ears that first heard Dylan were the same that brought Cohen to Columbia Records, and the comparison between the two artists will remain as long as their music informs and permeates the discourse of folk music. His debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), spent almost a year and a half in the UK album charts. It was intelligent music; cognizant of the heavy riffs of the blues, the joyous dejection of Northern Soul and the off-beat heehaw of Downtown jazz, but Cohen’s focus was resolutely lyrical: “Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m a great musicologist, but I’m a lot better than what I was described as for a long, long time; you know, people said I only knew three chords, when I actually knew five.”
his philosophy was too well-groomed to be a Dylan
His second and third records, Songs From a Room (1969) and Songs of Love and Hate (1971), brought out further remarkable poems to music, telling of desperate isolation and stunted creativity in “Bird on a Wire” and “Last Year’s Man,” alongside the stunning acknowledgements of an unfaithful love in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” thanking his adulterer for taking the trouble from his wife’s eyes, “I thought it was there for good so I never tried.” Where modern musicians have a penchant to write themselves into songs to achieve a quasi-desirable state of vulnerability for their listener, Cohen did it with defiance. The final words on the track read: “Sincerely, L. Cohen.”
Nonetheless, a trait that stayed with Cohen until his death was his humility, arranging itself into different forms throughout his career. First, it came as embarrassment and stage fright, when Collins had convinced him to perform “Suzanne” at a concert for Sane against the Vietnam War in 1967. It may have seemed a disingenuous protest for one: Cohen the poet found fascination in violence – he predicted the Bay of Pigs Invasion at the start of the decade, and spent his time in Havana amidst an excited frenzy, fighting for both sides. But his legs shook inside his trousers as he ended the first verse, performing for the first time as a musician; he stopped singing, and left the stage while the crowd begged him to continue.
Over the 49 years that Cohen went onto perform from that point, stage nerves continued. “I’m scared enough as it is up here, and I think something’s wrong every time you begin to applaud,” he’d say. But even when ending a show early, Cohen justified it with grace: “These songs… they become meditations for me, and sometimes you just don’t get high on it.”
A performance in Israel in 1972 ended early for this reason, eventually going backstage with his band, to take acid to calm his nerves. The audience then started singing to him – “Hevenu Shalom Aleichum,” or, “We Wish You Peace” – moving him so much that he went out to finish “So Long Marianne.” It was at this point that the acid started to kick in, and he saw a hallucination of his ex-lover standing in front of him. He started crying, and turned to see his band in tears, too. At this point he noted, “the entire audience had turned into one Jew, and this Jew was saying, “what else can you show me kid? I’ve seen a lot of things and this don’t move the dial.”
When it went right, however, Cohen’s live performance was sublime. I remember the first time I saw Cohen at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, as part of a sequence of films made about the festival. A year previously, the organisers had ‘stolen’ Dylan from Woodstock, and now were about to face 600,000 people flocking to the island as they announced it a “free festival,” despite of thousands of pre-bought tickets that weren’t to be refunded. Mass protests broke out on the island; fences were trampled down; the campsite became a political arena; Kris Kristofferson broke down on stage as electrical failures led to jeers which he took to be directed at him; Jimi Hendrix set fire to the stage. Amid the chaos, at 4 a.m., Leonard Cohen emerged from a caravan in his pyjamas, and silenced over half a million people with a performance that was as wry as it was gracious, and as earnest as it was demanding of peace.
He went on to write eleven more studio albums. From these, “Hallelujah” became his masterpiece, despite a lack of commercial success with the song. Cohen had pained over it, originally writing over 80 verses; the song initially got rejected from his album, and it’s now the most covered song in the English language. On religious salvation, Cohen went on to spend ten years in the Californian mountains, studying to be a Buddhist monk: “all I have to tell you is that in school I was good at sports and I have ruined the cliché of the poet forever.” When he returned, it was to the news that his former manager had stolen the royalties to his music. Cohen’s response and forgiveness is telling of his philosophy, simply: “it would be wrong to write this song and get rich from it too.”
a trait that stayed until his death was his humility
Cohen said of experience, that when he listened to an 82-year-old Alberta Hunter in New York, one could hear the age and wisdom in her voice. So much, that when the blues singer said “G-d bless you” at the end of her set, you really would feel blessed. Cohen’s humility continued in this form: when he thanked you at the end of a show – “thank you, friends, really thank you” – you really felt thanked, and you really felt like a friend.
He said his music was for the inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists. Whichever category I fall into, the reason I tried to learn French was from a verse in “The Partisan”, and the only French I can now remember is a translation of “The Stranger Song”. The reason I came to Exeter to study English was a love of Beautiful Losers and The Book of Longing; the reason I became involved with music journalism was in wanting to justify his later recordings; my longing for Poltimore Festival to take a place in Exeter’s culture was from endless nights replaying his performance at Isle of Wight.
There are many different versions of Leonard Cohen. Writing an obituary for all of them would be impossible. He was a Christian, a Buddhist and a Jew. He was an army-man: the only tourist in Havana who turned his thoughts homewards. He taught us to not exaggerate – to not make your voice weigh less than an ounce when talking about butterflies; to not close your eyes and lean your head to one side when you talk about death.
On the title track from last month’s record, You Want It Darker, Cohen acknowledges that he is ready to locate that which he will serve, with the Jewish word Hineini. Released in the month before his death, it’s a fitting end for the perfectionist wanting to tie up the loose strings, but the selfish-sided fan that needs his music and comradery, one can’t help wishing that he’d waited a little longer. Leonard Cohen is the idealisation of poetry, humility and grace, and will be sorely missed.