” He does not accept your company, Not at the centre of the world…”
One of the things that almost always amused and fascinated Leonard Cohen was the widespread public opinion and claim that his vinyls were sold accompanied by razor blades. His sepulchral voice, his lyrical meditations on life and death, running like an undercurrent through the majority of his lyrics gave the impression that the records didn’t ooze the musical air of a recording room, but rather the air of a tomb. This common perception of Cohen being the crooner of doom and gloom went with him wherever he would go. And yet, when he was asked about the supposedly prominent streak of pessimism in his worldview, he responded in his characteristic inimitable candour, ” I don’t consider myself a pessimist. Pessimists are waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin.”
Cohen’s mind was a sharp one, forged in the smithy of discipline and rigour, not without the distractions of life on the road, drugs and women, but despite them. In an interview to Patrick Watson in the early 1980’s, Cohen remarked, ” The regime locates your everyday…(the writing), Involves biting through the mess, but some discomfort is necessary.” The regime found the full flowering in Hydra, where he bought a house with the money he inherited from his grandmother and a while later, he moved in with Marianne Ihlen and her son Axel. That house and the typewriter by the window was what he called his laboratory and this fondness for simplicity stayed with him all life. In a conversation with Jian Ghomeshi, Cohen elaborated on his choice, ” I like to live simply… But that is not a virtue, it is a preference.”
Photographs from Ann Shapiro
Cohen would have been 86 this September. In this day and age of digital media and easy availability at the tip of the finger and the click of a mouse, his words burn bright and his voice rings true. Because that voice speaks to us in the dead of night, when one can hear the shadows melting in beat down lives and houses lit up by tungsten bulbs. Long before Cohen had been ordained as a Buddhist Monk during his stay at Mount. Baldy, he had calmed tempests- be it his own heart in turmoil, his listeners listening to his records or a rowdy hostile crowd at the Isle of Wight music festival. Sometimes regarded as one of the most iconic performances by a solo artist, Leonard Cohen tamed a raucous crowd that had previously heckled the likes of Kris Kristofferson off stage.
One wonders how a man, accused of dipping his pen in morbidity could speak to all of us, in the chaos and the pandemonium of everyday life. As I look back at this puzzle, I am reminded of the words of Jennifer Warnes who talks of Cohen’s lyrics being a reference point and fountainhead of solace to his readers and listeners because. “Leonard would say, Look at the shreds of my heart.” Here is one man, who does not make any bones about the fact that there will be suffering in life and on earth, who does not claim monopoly over the pain one goes through, but helps us negotiate with it. We only have to look at the song Dress Rehearsal Rag to come to terms with a heart in dialogue with suicide, and yet it is not the only heart that is doing so. It is a dialogue with another soul that is in the same trouble. In an interview at the Canadian Embassy Leonard weighs in on this when he says, ” First of all acknowledge the fact that everyone suffers, everyone is engaged in an almighty struggle for self respect, for meaning and significance. The first step would be to recognize that your struggle is the same as everyone else’s struggle, your suffering is the same as everyone else’s suffering. I think that is the beginning of a responsible life. Otherwise we are in a savage battle with each other, unless we recognize that each of us suffers in the same way and there is no possible solution.”
Cohen’s songs and lyrics are an exploration and an investigation of questions that have plagued human life since time immemorial. He is not providing answers or solutions, but helping us see ourselves for what we are– fragile and vulnerable– and being okay with it. He is not concerned with immortality or the idea of life and legacy going on forever, but rather the idea of an extended life after death. Abbas Kiarostami in The Taste of Cherries, presents the theological and religious conundrums involved in committing suicide, something that is considered against the religious laws and scriptures in his native Iran. Cohen too dabbles with these ideas, but there in his life comes a point where he himself admits that now, ” It is too late to change my name and too late for suicide..” In other words, when many like me, have sat with razor blades and at the edge of an ever diminishing cliff, Cohen has spoken to us, ” At four in the morning, The end of December..”. His legacy will live on, his music lives on, as long as there is suffering in the world and the heart and as long as there is a voice in the midst of that suffering, capable of taming the sea monster on a stormy full moon night.