“Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be free.”
Three issues ago, Rolling Stone ran a story on the release of Leonard Cohen’s newest album—just out on October 14th. The issue ran for the first half of November, still “current” when he passed away on the 7th.
The magazine ran his obituary in their most recent issue. I was particularly taken with it, writer Mikal Gilmore’s framing of Cohen and his life. Gilmore revisited past interviews he had with Cohen, transitioning between quotes so smoothly that it read intimately, more like a feature than an obituary. Cohen’s poignant realities came across so vibrantly that it felt as though he had not yet died. Gilmore managed to leave me even more in awe of Cohen than I already was.
Leonard Cohen may be most noted for writing his classic ballad “Hallelujah.” Born into Jewish tradition, inspired by Jesus Christ, and ordained a Buddhist monk, Cohen became a kind of “modern prophet” of religious synthesis. He explored spirituality over a lifetime. Enigmatic and philosophical, he mixed spiritual and romantic symbolism in his texts and music. He sang about life, women, and religion, in simple, Biblical prose.
Cohen dedicated songs to Joan of Arc and Isaac, to Babylon and Bethlehem. 1979’s “The Window” compared a woman to the divine, calling her, “darling of angels, demons and saints.” “Who by Fire” read like a modern Book of Revelation. In 1984’s “If It Be Your Will,” Cohen seemed to surrender to an all-mighty force, gently pleading for an interference. “Draw us near, and bind us tight. All Your children here, in their rags of light.” In “Suzanne,” he sang of a “you,” a “lady of the harbor,” and Jesus Christ, linking them by their alluring minds.
“The figure of Jesus always touched me, and still does,” Cohen shared with Gilmore in 2001. “Love your enemy. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the Earth. These views were not foreign to the Jewish education I’d had, but I felt they were a radical refinement of certain principles.”
At another time, Cohen wrote, “I wanted to stand with those who clearly see G-d’s holy broken world for what it is, and still find the courage or the heart to praise it.” That may sound optimistic, but Cohen’s work felt marked with sadness. Gilmore nicknamed him “the poet of brokenness.”
“Depression,” Cohen told Gilmore, “has often been the general background of my daily life… whatever I did was in spite of that, not because of it.”
A college English major, Cohen published his first book in 1956. He found inspiration in the works of Yeats and Auden, as well as Rumi and Attar. He moved to Hydra, Greece in 1960, published Beautiful Losers in ’66, and began writing folk music soon after. Before 1970, Cohen moved to America and released his first album.
“Nobody was mentioning the tunes; it was all about the lyrics and my ‘seriousness,’” he said of his 1968 music debut. Cohen spent decades recording music and touring.
Feeling himself fall into a real depression, and disillusioned by prescription medications like Prozac and Zoloft, Cohen took up meditation in a California Zen monastery in 1994.
“There was no sense of dissatisfaction with my career… On the contrary, if anything, it was, ‘Well, this is what it’s like to succeed.’ But the predicament, the daily predicament, was such that there wasn’t much nourishment from that kind of retrospection.” After Zen, he went to Mumbai to practice non-dualism.
“What happened to me was not that I got any answers, but that the questions dissolved… By imperceptible degrees, something happened, and it lifted… it lifted, and it hasn’t come back for two and a half years,” he said in 1999. “That’s my real story. I don’t feel like saying ‘I’ve been saved,’ throwing my crutches up in the air. But I have been.”
I find it difficult to write about people who have died. Who’s to say I’m correct in my analyses? My deliberation? Would Cohen, for example, approve of how I spoke of him?
But, the best way, I feel, that I can show my admiration and respect for Cohen, is to candidly, simply, express it. Express the way I interpreted his work, his views, and how I was inspired by him. I’ll pay my tribute that way. If I was inspired by him at all, and it was genuine, wasn’t that enough? Wasn’t that what really mattered?
I remember reading in a psychology class that the most intelligent human beings typically were those with habits of risk-taking, who craved new experiences. Cohen enjoyed a great amount of success in his life and, I feel, a healthy appetite for exploration and discovery.
I’m thankful Cohen lived for 82 years. The way I see it, he exemplified how to be open-minded to the people and beliefs of the world; how to continue discovering new things, and evolving, over a lifetime. How to really see and revel in the various stages of humanity. There’s an astounding mark of intelligence in what Cohen left us, a meta-physical dialogue, to be awed and appreciated. He “tried, in [his] way, to be free.” Do you think he accomplished it?
Gilmore, Mikal. “Leonard Cohen; Remembering the Life and Legacy of the Poet of Brokenness.” Rolling Stone 15-29 Dec. 2016: 52-59, 67.