Remembering Leonard Cohen
by Arlene Stolnitz
Leonard Cohen died late in 2016, but “each page of paper that he blackened was lasting evidence of a burning soul”, according to his son, Adam Cohen, who recently published a collection of his father’s poetry and songs entitled The Flame. Famous for his soul searching rendition of Hallelujah! , which was said to be rewritten more than 80 times, Cohen also wrote countless songs and poems, beloved by his aficionados. This volume, The Flame, was to be the last one he worked on before his death. A brilliant artist; he delivered his strange but glorious music in a raspy voice that inspired his admirers. Many considered him a “true genius”. Always fastidious in his dress, he never married.
Leonard Norman Cohen was a Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist. He published his first book of poetry in Montreal in 1956, eventually publishing four books of verse, never separating song from poetry. He felt there was no delineation between the two. He was a perfectionist, exacting in his writing, and entirely in solitude.
Many of his early songs were based on European folk melodies which he sang in a high baritone voice. Later he sang typically in lower registers such as bass baritone and bass.
As a teenager he formed a country-folk band with his friends and called it The Buckskin Boys. However, his serious foray into music didn’t occur until he was in his 30’s. His work explores themes of “love, sex, regret, exaltation, piety and gentle fondness”.
Inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, he was a member of the Companion Of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In 2008 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his status “among the highest and most influential echelon of songwriters”. His poetry and music has influenced countless singers and musicians today.
In the preface to The Flame, his son Adam describes his father’s work ethic, and especially while working on this last volume. Adam stated his father would often send “Do Not Disturb” e-mails so that he could work uninterrupted on what would be his last book. Adam talks about the pads of papers and notebooks, a storage locker filled with notebooks, and countless scraps of paper he would find with his father’s poetry and songs as well as notes scribbled on napkins and bits of paper. As a poet, Leonard Cohen felt he had mission from G-d (as he would spell it, according to the Orthodox tradition).Yet much of his poetry and lyrics has a Zen-like quality to it, an influence from his interest in Buddhism and his Hindu teacher. His work is a mix of spirituality and earthiness.
Just prior to his death, he recorded his final album, You Want It Darker. “I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game,” he sings. The poignant words are a portent of what was to come a few days later. Borrowing from his Jewish background, his words are taken from the Kaddish and the Hineni prayer: “Magnified and sanctified, be thy holy name….Hineni, Hineni, I am ready my lord.” An interesting interpretation compares his words to Abraham’s binding of Isaac. “Even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand here before the lord of song, with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.”
In listening to his lyrics and reading his poetry can we wonder whether he was saying our ability to be full of joy but also of despair is the essence of humanity itself? His death is a monumental loss for us.