If Roy Orbison Sang For the Lonely, For Whom Did Leonard Cohen Sing? 

Celebrating the Bard of Canadian folkmusic five years after his passing

Leonard Cohen on the cover of The Best of Leonard Cohen (Image: Amazon)

If Roy Orbison sang for the lonely, for whom did Leonard Cohen sing? 

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Perhaps, those for whom “lonely” would be an emotional step up from where they are now — or once were. Certainly, there was more to Cohen’s music — and we’ll get to that later — but there’s no way around the obvious: Sadness, despair and longing figured rather prominently in Cohen’s scheme of things — always did. They figured in the choice of lyrical imagery, the use of minor keys, the slow, deliberate tempos. 

Go back to the dark chords of 1967’s “Suzanne,” Cohen’s best-known tune (covered by Judy Collins); listen to the musings on the varieties of death in 1974’s “Who by Fire”; or take in 1993’s “Tower of Song.” The first line runs this way: “Well, my friends are gone and my hair is gray/I ache in the places I used to play.”

And, of course, you can factor in Cohen’s deep, rumbling voice. 

“I’ve got a very, very limited voice,” Cohen told me during an interview in 1993. He was, no doubt, weary of the topic but polite enough to answer the query. “I mean, I never presented myself as a singer.”

I saw Cohen and his backing octet at the Citi club in 1988 in Boston’s Kenmore Square. Outside was a whirlwind of action and noise – people going to dance clubs, restaurants and bars. Busy and clamorous. But once I stepped inside Citi is was dark, cool, calm and cavernous. It was truly, another world.

 

VIDEO: Leonard Cohen “I’m Your Man”

He kicked off a 25-song set with “Dance Me to the End of Love,” just beginning to spin his magical web: intricate, soothing, stimulating, romantic “chamber rock,” music rife with religious and historical references, tales of love gone awry, songs of a society where the deck is stacked against the good guys, or, maybe, songs where the protagonist has stacked the deck against himself. Most songs started with Cohen solemnly reciting a verse. Then, the band would ease in. Delicately. Gently. Artfully.

Talk about a decompression chamber.

Cohen’s detractors would, no doubt, simply call it a depression chamber. The man knew doom, the man knew gloom — no way around it. The tall, graceful Montreal native was a vital source of inspiration to post-punk rockers like Nick Cave and Ian McCulloch, men who’ve found dark empty spaces in their lives and the lives of those they write about. But there could be a beauty in sadness – Nico told me that a long time ago – and Cohen found it just about every time with this band’s quiet storm. A narcotic with no down side.

Not that everything Cohen touched was mournful — redemption, it seemed, was always lurking around the corner, Jesus’ image was frequently raised. But the overall tone was somber, serious, the antithesis of let-the-good-times-roll rock. 

Cohen — the Eeyore of pop I once posited, half-jokingly — was very much aware of this. “So happy that you stayed,” he intoned before kicking off his second set alone with “Avalanche.” He referenced the ’60s thus: “There was a brief period of time a thousand years ago, 11 or 12 minutes called the ’60s. It was a heady time. It has become a black hole and a Bermuda triangle of the cosmos. . .   It was a seductive moment, but being the gloomy chap that you know I am, I was able to miss it.” Cohen’s major contribution to ’60s folk-pop was indeed “Suzanne,” Yes, it’s romantic, but – especially when Cohen sang it voice — it’s dour, too.

I spoke with him five years after that Citi show. He was touring behind his 11th album, The Future and in the title song he gave the politically correct brigade a jolt. Consider the climactic verse: “Give me back the Berlin Wall/give me Stalin and St. Paul/Give me Christ/or give me Hiroshima/Destroy another fetus now/We don’t like children anyhow/I’ve seen the future, baby/it is murder.”

One might wince at the graphic imagery, turn away from the apocalyptic vision, or be angered by the apparent equation of abortion and murder.

That’s OK. If he wrote it, he stands by it.

“What I find in writing,” Cohen said, on the phone from Minneapolis, “is that at the beginning of the process you try to support your opinions — about the environment, about politics, about where you stand — and I find that even though that may make you a good citizen, it makes for a very bad songwriter. You may get positions you can applaud, but they’re boring, they’re alibis. . .  If you think by saving the forest you’re going to redeem your soul, you’ve got another thing coming. There’s something else at stake.

“The Future is dark and funny. If I’d have nailed that to the church door like Martin Luther it’d be a very sinister document. But it’s married to a hot little dance track so, in a sense, the words melt into the music and the music melts into the words and you’re left with a kind of refreshment, a kind of oxygen.”

“The lyrics are so raw, so bare …” I started to say.

“My only regret is that they’re not bare enough,” Cohen interjected. “I hope if they give me a few more years, and a few more songs, it’s going to get rawer and barer and more naked.”

 

VIDEO: Leonard Cohen “The Future”

If Cohen was never been anyone’s idea of a joyride, he did offer occasional glimmers of light, hints at redemption. He’d long been torn between cynicism and hope. When we spoke, this juncture, he had acquired and a hip cachet among young rockers. I asked where he found himself at 59.

“I think as you get older that broad base, the range, gets very, very wide,” he said. “You become more tolerant and more crotchety at the same time. More open and more critical. I think the confessional nature contracts at one end and opens at the other. You’re willing to confess to yourself that you really do hate mankind, and, at another point, you’re really willing to confess to yourself that you do feel a deep sense of fraternity with the whole human manifestation.”

This was the kind of worldly wisdom that’s not often voiced by rock ‘n’ rollers. But, of course, Cohen only fit into the margins of the rock world.

And now, of course, he has been gone five years on Nov. 7.

We know that a famous artist’s death does not necessarily mean the end of his or her creative output. There are, of course, live unreleased tracks and those previously recorded, but unfinished, songs that live in the vault. Maybe they were always supposed to be sealed, but with the artist not around to make the call, it’s not up to him or her, but up to his or her estate.

We thought Cohen’s swan song was the wrenching and appropriately titled, You Want It Darker, released in October of 2016, a month before his death. As with David Bowie’s Blackstar, Cohen was clearly contemplating the end of his run, and his ruminative, penetrating lyrics and gruff, rumbling baritone brought us deep into those bowels. There was sadness, anger and grandeur and certainly, a sense of finality. (Not that death didn’t surface in Cohen’s previous works; consider 1977’s Death of a Ladies Man. Produced by Phil Spector.)

But it wasn’t quite the finale. In 2019, we got Thanks for the Dance, a short (nine songs, clocking in under 30 minutes). It was cobbled together by his son Adam Cohen from what’s being called “bare musical sketches” – essentially Cohen’s spoken-word/barely sung poems – and set to spare musical accompaniment. (The music is mostly written or co-written by Adam.)  

Cohen didn’t lack for admiring friends among the world of serious musicians and you can bet many of the folks enlisted on this album jumped at the chance: Beck, Daniel Lanois, Death Cab for Cutie’s Zae Rae, the National’s Bryce Dessner, Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, Damien Rice, Jennifer Warnes and Leslie Feist. Javier Mas, Cohen’s longtime bandmate, plays Spanish guitar and his is the album’s dominant instrument. 

There’s a stark and gorgeous video of “Happens to the Heart,” directed by Daniel Askill and featuring trans actor Bobbi Salvör Menuez, who self-references as “they.” Not unlike Bowie’s “Lazarus,” the song’s power is greatly enhanced by the video. A worried Menuez, dressed like a young Cohen, walks slowly through the woods, stripping off layers of clothes before donning a monk’s black robe. They find peace while meditating (and elevating) at a cliff’s edge, overlooking a lake. 

 

 

The tempos on the album are mostly slow and stately, the moods somber, the singer still wrestling with the labyrinthine nature of love and lust, alongside themes of loneliness, lies and loss. In the title track, Cohen’s character ruefully thanks his wife “for the dance and the baby you carried/It was almost a daughter or son” closing with “It was hell, it was swell, it was fun.”

In “Puppets,” Cohen casts most of the human race as puppets, but seems to load particular ridicule upon some un-named man at the top: “Puppet Presidents command/Puppet troops to burn the land/Puppet fire, puppet flames/Feed on all the puppet names.”

On Thanks for the Dance there is a sense of gravitas – there was always a sense of gravitas, even when he was being playful – but this project, while gorgeous, sensual and heartbreaking in places, is also underwhelming. The delicate music supports the lyrics sufficiently, but they don’t often feel integrally wedded. Unlike, You Want It Darker (and many of Cohen’s earlier works), his voice is not often set among dramatic arrangements or surrounded and buoyed by female backing vocals. 

A welcome exception is the celestial-sounding “The Hills,” where Cohen’s resigned despair – “I can’t make the hills/The system is shot/I’m living on pills/For which I thank God” – is countered by the uplifting voices of Erika Angell, Molly Sweeney and Lilah Larson.

Cohen never got complacent. He remained on a quest for something intangible and often unattainable. “I think the only way I can describe my spiritual odyssey,” he told me, “Is to say that you realize that things don’t last forever — the good ones or the bad ones. Sometimes you feel at home in your skin and sometimes you don’t.” 

I like to think of something the British novelist and essayist Julian Barnes wrote in his 2008 book about facing mortality, Nothing to Be Afraid Of. He said that he would be truly dead only when the last person ever read my words. I’d like to think that about Cohen, that he believed that, too.

 

VIDEO: Leonard Cohen “Hallelujah” Live in London

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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