Leonard Cohen

I remember, back in the seventies, my father thought one or other of my sisters must have been particularly depressing / depressive because they had either bought or borrowed an album, a  vinyl LP, by Leonard Cohen, who was part but separate from, a growing band of musicians like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Browne and of course, Bob Dylan, who wrote their own primal ballads instead of pandering to the masses. In common, they could all perform as soloists, using either piano or guitar (in Cohen’s case) for accompaniment but this trimmed back, spare notion of their music also served to accentuate an aura of directness and to distinguish them from the more mainline rock and rollers of that time.Certainly, Leonard Cohen’s appeal had far less to do with his guitar playing or (limited) vocal range but more to do with his personality and that is probably true for the other singer / songwriters mentioned above.Document_2021-06-24_173108 (3)

So taken was I at the time back in the seventies that I bought Cohen’s novel, Beautiful Losers, but in all honesty, I have to say that I didn’t understand or appreciate anything in it. All I can remember now is that the paperback had a plain red cover!  Whatever mournful aura my father perceived hanging around Cohen at that time was balanced by superb songs and lyrics of love and regret on the 1975 album Greatest Hits in songs like Suzanne

And she feeds you tea and oranges / that come all the way from China / 

and just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her / 

Then she gets you on her wavelength …

or the beautiful break-up line from Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye

its just the way love changes / like the shoreline and the sea…’

I have to admit using that line or a variation in my clumsy attempts at immature breakups!Handwritten_2021-06-24_173211

Cohen’s personality and distinct variations as artist, poet, novelist, singer, author and songwriter was compelling  and his voice was so subtle in his own versions of his songs that no other artiste attempting to cover his material could convey the same emotions and depths of feelings and the sense of urgency and impending doom. Nevertheless he then kind of drifted away from my mindset until a friend insisted that I listen to The Future (1992) and I was blown away by songs like the title track with raw anger and despair expressed so blatantly in lines like –

‘Take the only tree that’s left / And stuff it up the hole / In your culture / 

Give me back the Berlin wall /Give me Stalin and St. Paul / 

I’ve seen the future, brother / It is murder’

or the harsh honesty in songs like Be for Real

‘Are you back in my life to stay / Or is it just for today? 

So don’t give me the world today / And tomorrow take it away. / 

Don’t do that to me, darling.’

While the final track, the instrumental Tacoma Trailer soothes and calms the anger and hurt expressed in the other songs. His seeming passivity towards love and relationships and the helplessness he expresses through both humour and a mature insight perhaps stem from the fact that he was already an established poet and author before he released his first studio album when he was already in his thirties.

The Essential Leonard Cohen (2002) is full of the frustration and bliss of love as in Closing Time

‘And I just don’t care what happens next / Looks like freedom but it feels like death  / 

It’s something in between, I guess… /

And I lift my glass to the Awful Truth /

Which you can’t reveal to the Ears of Youth / 

Except to say it isn’t worth a dime…

The sadness and recognition of loss is beautifully captured in Alexandra Leaving with lines like 

Even though she sleeps upon your satin / Even though she wakes you with a kiss

Do not say the moment was imagined / Do not stoop to strategies like this …

Do not choose a coward’s explanation / That hides behind the cause and the effect …

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving / Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost

Document_2021-06-24_172958 (2)Recently, on a whim one afternoon in a Perth Mall, I bought Cohen’s last studio album You Want it Darker (2016) made before he died. The title track is both accusatory yet suffused with a dull acceptance

‘A million candles burning / For the love that never came

You want it darker / We kill the flame

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game

If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame’

Treaty, the second track, mourns the barrenness of his relationship, despairing of the inability to connect with his love

‘I’m angry and I’m tired all the time

I wish there was a treaty,

I wish there was a treaty

Between your love and mine’

and the same wish is repeated in the last, semi-instrumental, track, String Reprise / Treaty.Document_2021-06-24_172806

An unhappy man, Cohen seems constantly torn in On the Level between love and the rejection of both gratification and temptation

‘You smiled at me like I was young / it took my breath away’

yet, nevertheless,

‘They ought to give my heart a medal / For letting go of you

When I turned my back on the devil / I turned my back on the angel too’


‘I was fighting with temptation / But I didn’t want to win

A man like me don’t like to see / Temptation caving in’

The only genuine love song on the whole album – If I Didn’t Have Your Love – where the world appears dark, cold, sterile and bare without a sustaining and creative love

‘Well that’s how broken I would be / What my life would seem to me

If I didn’t have your love to make it real’

but almost immediately he swings back into loss, accepting it and acknowledging both his own and his lover’s faults in Travelling Light

‘It’s au revoir / My once so bright, my fallen star…/

I guess I’m just somebody who / Has given up, on the me and you … /

I’m just a fool, a dreamer who / Forgot to dream of the me and you

I’m not alone, I’ve met a few / Traveling light like we used to do’

Old age and the increasing futility of chasing something so ephemeral as love strikes a resigned note of acceptance of the finality of relationships in Leaving the Table 

‘You don’t need a lawyer / I’m not making a claim.

You don’t need to surrender / i’m not taking aim … /

I don’t need a lover, no, no, no / The wretched beast is tame

I don’t need a lover / So blow out the flame’

Throughout all of Cohen’s songs, the overriding theme seems to be one of loss, rejection, and a love that fulfils yet torments but this last studio album, You Want it Darker seems to be the bleakest of all his albums (with the exception of the love song mentioned earlier), and yet somehow transcends despair and hopelessness and speaks to all those who have ever loved and lost. True poetry can never be nihilistic and Cohen brought poetry into mainstream music, not just through the beauty of the words but thought the inflection and the subtle variations in tone, his voice, so low and husky, so close and intimate in one’s headphones.

Document_2021-06-24_173435 (5)

Author: serkeen

I am Irish, currently living in West Australia. I have a degree in Old & Middle English, Lang & Lit and, despite having worked in Kuwait, Italy, Malaysia, USA, Brunei, Australia and Hong Kong over the last 40 years, I have a strong interest in Ireland’s ancient pre-history and the heroes of its Celtic past as recorded in the 12th and late 14th century collection of manuscripts, collectively known as The Ulster Cycle. I enjoy writing historical novels, firmly grounded in a well-researched background, providing a fresh and exciting look into times long gone. I have an empathy with the historical period and I draw upon my experiences of that area and the original documents. I hope, by providing enough historical “realia” to hook you into a hitherto unknown – or barely glimpsed - historical period.

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