Remembering Leonard Cohen: A poet with the 'gift of a golden voice'
Leonard Cohen called it like it is. Armed with a Fedora and a voice so bass, he wrote because he wanted to.
He staggered four steps to reach me, every cogwheel of his being, toiling against his tenacious will. His time was nigh, he argued. Miffed, he tottered four steps from his bed, two more than he did the previous day.
A weak smile of triumph broke the vexed wrinkles across his face.
“Take The Waltz?” I asked, smirking at a pun he’d relish.
His hazel eyes lit up characteristically. “Okay, but to Hallelujah,” he said, with an ounce of authority. We weakly “waltzed”, a happy option to the prescribed walking, he admitted. Forget the doctors.
“You do know Hallelujah is an expression of praise, not some kind of RIP anthem,” I needled him, “Although it’s played a lot at memorials…” He rolled his eyes, his optic muscles still being his most youthful.
“I know!” came the swift retort before he said, with remarkable clarity, “You know I can’t do this much longer, you just don’t believe me…” We did not discuss the “this” in question.
Two days later, Pop was gone.
By relation, he was my father-in-law, by responsibility a trusted partner-in-crime. And now by circumstance, a forever reminder of Leonard Cohen’s music.
Like him, Cohen saw it coming too. After all, the feted singer-songwriter spent much of his 40-year career, singing of death with a calmness so noir, a candour so rare and humour so unique. “Hineni, Hineni, I’m ready, my Lord,” he sang in You Want It Darker, the title song of the album he released just three weeks ago.
Cohen spoke much about mortality this year. In an interview in The New Yorker last month, he says, “I’m ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”
It’s another matter that he later retracted a portion of that comment, admitting that he may have over-dramatised it, when in fact, he intended “to live forever”.
He then wrote a farewell letter to Marianne, his muse of songs like 'So long, Marianne' and 'Bird on The Wire', days before her demise, blessing and comforting her for that final journey. “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine,” he penned.
Cohen reached out to his fans for almost five decades on matters of love, longing, despair, spirituality, God, politics, justice and of course death, in a bass voice of such stunning depth, it didn’t matter that sometimes he could hardly stay in key. It didn’t matter that sometimes his rich vocals were supported by the tinny tune one associates with a cheap synthesiser sound. By his own admission, he was always a poet with the “gift of a golden voice”.
But his poetry, ironically, was hardly recognised until he put his voice to it. Between 1964 and 1966 while living in Greece, Cohen published three books— Flowers For Hitler, The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers — yet failed to quite hit the mark. His move to New York introduced him to Andy Warhol, Judy Collins and Nico, the latter inspiring Cohen’s vocals in his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967).
Even then, it was his songwriting that shone, quickly making him a singer’s go-to songwriter. He wrote lyrics for Willie Nelson, James Taylor and Judy Collins, while simultaneously working on Songs from A Room and Songs of Love and Hate.
His various relationships inspired his writing and singing, never once holding back his thoughts on the most complex of matters. He battled with depression since his teenage years and after producing albums in the 60s, 70s and 80s, gave up music to go and live in a Buddhist monastery in the 90s.
By the turn of the century, Cohen returned to music only to realise a few years later that he had been swindled. The discovery of having his retirement funds embezzled by his own manager, forced him to return to touring, with Cohen performing over 400 times between 2008-2013
Through this all, Cohen called it like it is. Armed with a Fedora and a voice so bass, he wrote because he wanted to. Even when his record label didn’t believe in it. How ironic is that his Various Positions album almost didn’t see the light of day because CBS Records refused to release it. Hallelujah, Cohen’s most haunting, timeless song, was in it.
After a decade of high-stress newsroom work, I quit my job in 2014 to just take time to reflect, recompose and recalibrate my life. Cohen had just released Popular Problems then, an album that may as well have been a masterclass in deception. Carefully curated lightness masking the smoky seriousness of thought, this was a concept that Cohen had come to embody.
My introspection process got a soundtrack, while I first picked Alan Light’s The Holy or The Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & The Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah to help me untangle from the vagaries of mainstream media. The book is a fascinating chronicle of how the song was constructed, deconstructed, almost shelved, and resurrected by Cohen and a whole host of singers after him.
Upon release it was well-received, but it wasn’t until Jeff Buckley’s cover of John Cale’s version that the song reached its iconic status. Followed by everyone from Elton John and Sting, to k.d. Lang, Alexandra Burke, Popa Chubby and even U2, Hallelujah became the great concert unifier, where crowds after crowds would sing along, particularly getting the “hallelujah” bits on time.
In many ways, Hallelujah was Cohen; arriving late into the scene, losing its way before finding the map to superstardom. He followed through his vision, until the very end, leaving behind a legacy of work that will continue to reach out to his fans.
He had so many sobriquets. “Troubadour of sad”, “master of erotic despair” were among the many that did the rounds. Well, The king of dirge is no more. I can already sense Pop rejoice with his growing musical companions up there.
Perhaps he’s taken inspiration from Kurt Cobain’s Pennyroyal Tea where he sings, “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld. So I can sigh eternally…”
The author runs a content consultancy firm, after ending her decade-long stint with The Asian Age as senior editor.
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