With the recent loss of Leonard Cohen, there is no better moment for us to recognise the enduring impact of his legacy.
I recall vividly the moment I first heard Leonard Cohen’s seductive baritone crooning. It was a relatively uninspiring evening, one of many I would experience as a brooding teenager. Up until the moment I experienced a serendipitous, life-altering moment, that is. Clicking on a random YouTube link with zero expectations, the sultry synthpop tone of I’m Your Man roped me in instantaneously. There was something sublime about his visceral explanation of an infatuated man, paired with what sounded like a less vocally-challenged version of Tom Waits. Simply put: I fell in love with spoken word for the first time. It was because of his work I learned the art of thinking through music — feeling every word penned, every melody crafted.
He was, in every sense of the term, an outlier. Forging his path as a musician at the age of 33 after spending years as an incipient writer, the decades to come filled our lives with his priceless meditations on love, compassion and spirituality. To characterize his music as “depressing” is a disservice to a legacy like no other: he could fell you with his thoughts and transform you into a state of euphoria in one album. As he did, of course, in 1984’s Various Positions — with the solemn prayer of Hallelujah and arguably Sufist-like ecstasy of Dance Me to the End of Love.
For instance; in the 2014 film Rosewater, about Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari’s imprisonment, Bahari’s character relies on Cohen’s thoughts regarding reaching the zenith of happiness to stay alive. In one particularly striking scene, the protagonist extends his arms and spins around to the tune of Dance Me to the End of Love playing in his mind. This in turn allowed him to achieve a state of reverie, in spite of shattering grief. Whilst seeming like a love song, Cohen had intended for it to be a tune regarding the Holocaust. He had an innate ability to craft the ecstasy of the human condition through agony, something few songwriters are able to capture — let alone convey — in such a precise manner.
Cohen was also humbly masterful at forming a coexisting tapestry of varying spiritual concepts. All of this sans judgment, naturally. A Jewish troubadour, he went from interpreting the Jewish Unetanneh Tokef liturgy to recreating a 13th-century Rumi poem based on the religious Sufi tradition with an enviable ease. One would be hard-pressed to think of any Western musician as keenly insightful as well as respectful of differing spiritual possibilities. Opting to live in isolation as a Buddhist Zen monk at the peak of his popularity in the 1990s, he led life being open to possibilities.
And in spite of building a career as an established wordsmith, he was dismissed by former lover and fellow songwriter Joni Mitchell as a “boudoir poet“. Cohen was always sufficiently self-effacing to disregard his title as a poet, too. Being a genuine lover of the craft, he never felt the need to “stand under the spotlight” unless he felt a compulsion to say something he believed to be necessary. With the absence of theatrics, Leonard Cohen gave himself to the world without refrain. This, in itself, merely enhances the profound realism of his work — there is nothing boudoir about taking creative challenges out of passion. There is nothing glamorous about creating one of the more pessimistic songs known to mankind. Unlike his contemporaries, he never had to perfect an image of himself. We embraced him for everything he was: agony and ecstasy in equal measure.
If ever an interview could remotely commemorate the thoughtfully solemn, philosophically layered nature of Leonard Cohen’s immeasurable genius, this recent extended profile in the New Yorker would top the list. Featuring an elaborate depiction of Cohen in his final days, we are gifted with the intricacy of his thought process. Outstandingly, we also witness his calm acceptance of mortality. In a Bowie-esque fashion, his last album also embraced the issue of death – with a hint of self-awareness much-needed in today’s society. One of the most poignant bits, however, would be Bob Dylan’s apt explanation of Cohen’s 1967 hit, Sisters of Mercy – deeming it “anything but predictable”. A sincerely surreal waltz, the sweet tune deceives its listener with a seemingly familiar folk guitar in the beginning. About a minute in, he begins introducing a blend of fascinating instruments in the background – using a conventional framework to infuse quirky musical concepts throughout, like inducing subtle changes in the key. Written over a period of one night during a blizzard in Edmonton, Cohen never failed to craft the extraordinary out of the ordinary in an unusually organic manner.
With compositions involving “tea and oranges from China”, a real-life sexual encounter with Janis Joplin and an astoundingly gentle, heartbreaking recollection of lost love oddly named after his blue Burberry coat, there will never be another legacy quite like his – a matchless combination of factors made him one-of-a-kind. Even as an outlier, he blazed an unprecedented trail; he had no equal, nor will he ever.