Few singers write their own lyrics. And fewer of those who write their own lyrics are sufficiently well read. Leonard Cohen was one of those rare entertainers endowed with “a golden voice”, to quote a phrase from one of his own songs.
He was a Canadian and he died knowing he did not have long to live. He wrote a letter to his dying muse Marianne Ihlen, an 81 year old Norwegian, who predeceased him on 28 July 2016, with the words “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 have always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom….But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.” His love for this lady was the subject of his 1967 song “So long, Marianne” which included the words that she “held on to me like I was a crucifix as we went kneeling through the dark.” Both died embracing Buddhism.
Several Leonard Cohen songs were weaved into a classic 1971 Hollywood Western film “McCabe and Mrs Miller” directed by Robert Altman with actors Julie Christie and Warren Beatty. The film introduced Cohen to an even wider public, including this writer, because the classic film could not have had the maturity it showed without Cohen’s songs.
Born to a Jewish Canadian family, and an alumnus of McGill University, Cohen wrote an autobiographical novel “The Favourite Game” and several books that compiled his poems. Much of his writing was done on an island in Greece, where he met his muse Marianne.
In 1991 he followed up with another novel “Beautiful Losers.” He won Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award and Canada’s Authors Association’s literary award for poetry. Awards came his way but not much money. He moved to USA to write songs, became a friend of pop-artist Andy Warhol and several musicians. This put him on the road to singing.
His songs gained in strength because of his distinguishable voice. He introduced into his songs spirituality, politics, sex, isolation, social unrest, and tributes to musical giants that preceded him. He had his fan following in the Sixties. Decade after decade new generations noticed him and revered his contribution to music and poetry. He went on producing albums and the last one You want it darker was released just 3 weeks before he died. By then he was honoured with the Companion of the Order of Canada, the Grammys Lifetime Achievement Award and he was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Very few know he was an ordained monk of Tibetan Buddhism. He was so well read in various religions that in an interview he quoted Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna tells Arjuna that “he (Arjuna) will never untangle the circumstances that brought him to that moment…embrace your fate” as he readies for war against his uncles, aunts, cousins and gurus who had taught him. There were songs that Cohen wrote which included various aspects of Jesus’ life as well. His range of theological subjects was awesome for those who listened to his songs to savour the meaning more than its music. When Cohen sings a song line “if it be thy will” it will pull a similar chord in the Hindu, who reveres Arjuna and Krishna readying for war, a Christian who reveres Jesus agonizing in the Garden of Gethsemane before he is arrested, and a Jew who recalls David’s unqualified obeisance to God’s purpose while playing on his harp.
A whole generation of movie goers might have appreciated the song “Hallelujah’ without realizing the range of emotions that Cohen had infused into the words. For that, the listener had to be well read. If we look for the perfect epitaph for Canada’s iconic figure it would be in these words of his song “Hallelujah”:
“I did my best. /It wasn’t much. /I couldn’t feel so learned to touch. /I have told the truth. /I didn’t come to fool you./ And even though it all went wrong, I will stand before the Lord of Songs with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”