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R.I.P. Leonard Cohen, Oh To Sweep Up The Jokers You Left Behind

By Petr Knava | Music | November 11, 2016 |

By Petr Knava | Music | November 11, 2016 |

And so it is under these curious November skies that another irreplaceable voice takes leave of this world.

Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer, songwriter, author, and poet, has died at the age of 82. No cause of death has been given yet.

As per his official Facebook page:

Cohen’s son, Adam, told Rolling Stone:

My 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 humour.

Born in 1934 in Westmount, Quebec, Leonard Norman Cohen, though learning guitar as a teenager, started out as a poet and an author. His talents in the field were recognised early on by critics and fans, and though he would continue to write novels and poetry his entire life they would not remain the only sirens whose call he’d heed. It did not take long for Cohen to hear the uncanny, resurgent strains of folk music emanating from New York City. Travelling down in 1966 and immersing himself in that world, he absorbed its traditions and learned from its forms while filtering it through his uniquely powerful voice and dark, seductive worldview, and delivering it with the help of his nylon-strung guitar.

Over the decades Cohen sometimes withdrew from the musical world for years at a time — at one point becoming a fully ordained Zen Buddhist monk — but his passing now will be felt immensely by millions of people; for even through periods of physical absence his presence became such an ineffable, almost mystical thing that it seemed as if he would always be with us.

Indeed this felt particularly potent just this year when he released what we can now understand to be his final album, ‘You Want It Darker.’ In an interview with the New Yorker, Cohen addressed the idea of death with characteristic humour and candour:

The big change is the proximity to death. I am a tidy kind of guy. I like to tie up the strings if I can. If I can’t, that’s OK. But my natural thrust is to finish things that I’ve begun. […] And maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know. But I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.

Not long before this Cohen had written a letter to his longtime friend and muse, Marianne Ihlen. He had learned that she was dying. Marianne was read his letter before she passed. It said:

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.

Cohen, it turns out, wasn’t following too far behind his dear Marianne, and we now find ourselves in a world bereft of him, lonely and confused. For how do you express your grief in words when you are grieving the person who gave you your words in the first place?

Leonard Cohen’s music was a singular presence in the world. It came to us from forbidden places, a mystical voice floating in from another world, grounded somehow perfectly in the dirt and sex of this one. Dappled shadows danced across Cohen’s compositions, and though he suffered at times from stage fright and depression he was never afraid to bare his soul to the world through his music. It had a magical ability to speak to us of loneliness, of longing, of eroticism, of spirituality, and of a searching need like nothing else. It could show us the void and wrap us in a warm embrace at the same time. He was alone in being able to give voice to this. For us to have been alive at the same time as Leonard Cohen’s quest is a special thing.

It is Cohen’s poetry that most often gets mentioned when his music is talked about, and rightfully so, but what’s criminally under-discussed is just how much of a master of melody he was. Bob Dylan, in an interview with the New Yorker, said of Cohen:

When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius. […] Even the counterpoint lines — they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music. Even the simplest song, like ‘The Law,’ which is structured on two fundamental chords, has counterpoint lines that are essential, and anybody who even thinks about doing this song and loves the lyrics would have to build around the counterpoint lines.

A telling example of this is Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’. It was covered by singer songwriter Lloyd Cole in the early 90’s, and while his is a wonderful version in its own right it loses great amounts of power not just because it lacks Cohen’s delivery, but because that haunting original melody has been tweaked ever so slightly and made smoother, safer. It is still unmistakably the same song, but it is leagues apart because of these minor-seeming changes. Lloyd Cole’s version is the direction that most songwriters, had they written ‘Chelsea Hotel’, would have taken taken the song. Cohen did not. Cohen understood exactly the precipice on which the melodies needed to sit to really tell the stories that they were meant to tell.

Everyone who was touched by Leonard Cohen’s music will have a song or an album that speaks to them like nothing else. It was his 1967 debut, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’, that shook my world to the core. When I first gave it a spin I had never heard anything like it. I still listen to it all the time. The sparse, ethereal arrangements and Cohen’s nylon strings provide the perfect backdrop for the introduction of this incredible man; this searching figure who spoke to us so beautifully of love and lust and loss and longing. Good night, Mr Cohen, and thank you.

I believe that you heard your master sing
when I was sick in bed.
I suppose that he told you everything
that I keep locked away in my head.
Your master took you travelling,
well at least that’s what you said.
And now do you come back to bring
your prisoner wine and bread?
You met him at some temple, where
they take your clothes at the door.
He was just a numberless man in a chair
who’d just come back from the war.
And you wrap up his tired face in your hair
and he hands you the apple core.
Then he touches your lips now so suddenly bare
of all the kisses we put on some time before.


Petr Knava
lives in London and plays music

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.