When Leonard Cohen was 15, he discovered Federico Garcia Lorca and the consolations of poetry.
Around the same time, he also began showing an interest in Jesus as a universal figure, regarding him as a man of unparalleled generosity and madness. Each verse, both biblical and poetic, hit him like a ray of blinding white light. And therein lay Cohen’s genius: to embrace his own psychic and sensual carnage, and create some of the greatest documented beauty the world has ever heard.
You don’t so much as hear a Cohen song as you experience one. One thing that remained consistent throughout his six-decade long career as a musician was his unnerving control over the music, both onstage and off. For every airtight and rhythmic couplet, there is an equally polished chord kissing it goodbye.
I remember the first Cohen song I ever heard sending me into a spiral of self-evaluation, inspired from the moment he told me, “You live your life as if it’s real” in ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’. I felt his cold embrace, his sly caress. You see a man in a suit, lying in his room for days on end. Whilst his voice swooned with emotion on every album, Cohen’s face gave you barely anything.
Cohen is the kind of artist who managed to carve a career out of creating art wrapped in intense, intellectual significance and surviving off the prestige of being a coveted member of that group of artists that created lifelong bonds between themselves and their listeners. Once you hear him, you can’t go back.
Over the course of his prolific career, Cohen introduced us through his music to his misunderstood gang of misfits: the enticing traveller of ‘Suzanne’; the beauty-obsessed protagonist of ‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’; the self-offering romantic of ‘I’m Your Man’. Even ‘Hallelujah’, surely the world’s most covered song of all time, will go down as an epic poem drawn from the Book of Judges as a diagnosis of the human condition and youthful dreams of love. His stories of being tied to chairs and sunbathing on roofs are experiences within an experience. Cohen took you places you’d never been to before and left you there.
And now he’s left us for good. His death almost seems impossible. After spending decades analysing his relationship with his own mortality, it’s strange to think that now he has the answers. Leonard Cohen was a tyrant who knew things about you and me, a fictional character who spoke a private, intimate language with few. “I’d die for the truth” he sang on ‘In My Secret Life’.
In his own long-lasting and legendary way – he has.
RIP – 1934-2016