Leonard Cohen lays out his philosophy for life, and it’s just what you would expect. He’s a downtempo kind of a guy. When I hear this, I hear it as a decades-too-late reply to Marlene Dietrich, who crooned “A guy who takes his time, I go for every time” back in her day. Dietrich didn’t leave much question as to what she meant, and she was, indeed, a fast-movin’ gal, if you catch my meaning. We can be sure what Leonard Cohen means about it too. He’s talking about cruising along savoring the slow stuff, and sensualism has always been his philosophy. Of course, he comes from a different time, when the pace of life was not so jacked up on synthetic adrenaline, and taking things slowly just to enjoy them didn’t seem like such an exotic luxury. Well, we all have something to learn from the old geezer, don’t we?
The Sisters of Mercy are a Roman Catholic women’s religious congregation (as per their website) and we all know there’s nothing sexier than a lady who’s renounced worldly things in the service of God. We know that because ‘naughty nuns’ is one of the world’s oldest pornographic subgenres. The suppression of passion must lead to its inevitable depraved release, according to the world’s erotic imagination. According to Leonard Cohen, the practice of spiritual service becomes blended with erotic service, because Cohen sees no boundary between the poetic sacred and the boner-making. That’s the opposite of what most of the major religions teach; they tell us that to touch the divine you really, really need to keep it in your pants. Yes, the part of our brains and our hearts that is open to the divine is so fragile and so easily overwhelmed by hormonal urges, and it’s just science that there’s not enough blood in the human body to operate both brain and gonads at full force. But realistically, our journey is an ongoing balancing act, with the spiritually touching moments intermingled with the hormonally driven ones, so much that we very often can’t draw a line between them. Isn’t that where our idea of romantic love lies?
What a bleak record. I haven’t listened to New Skin For the Old Ceremony is several years, and it’s never been one of Leonard Cohen’s records that I think to reach for. Though you wouldn’t call Cohen a sunshiny guy on the best of days, so much of his work is uplifting in the sense that it’s loaded with spiritual portent. This records, however, feels somehow bitter, as if the singer himself were having a reckoning with his calling. Everyone is entitled to a low point, and if Cohen didn’t have the best time in the mid-seventies, he’s entitled to his own rock bottom.
Leonard Cohen can give anyone a run for their money when in comes to portentous narrative ballads, except that his narratives don’t tell stories as such. Cohen really doesn’t get enough credit for his use of surreal imagery; so much of his writing evokes the fever-dream quality of art house French movies (that drives a lot of people away, I know, I know.) The man started his rock career already a published poet and novelist, for goodness sake, he knows his way around a deft metaphor. He knows how to sound like a bard in a Medieval alehouse, he knows how to take the same dumb topics all poets have danced around for millennia and make them sound like they’ve never been touched before, and all the while the bard has the weariness of the modern man who knows that his millennium may be the very last one.
I think that the world throws up certain kinds of figures. Sometime in abundance, sometimes very rarely, and that some of these figures act as archetypes or prototypes for another generation which will manifest these characteristics a lot more easily, maybe a lot more gracefully, but not a lot more heroically. Another twenty years later she would have been just like you know, the hippest girl on the block. But twenty years before she was – there was no reference to her, so in a certain way she was doomed. – Leonard Cohen
That is a very lyrical and generous way to characterize what is, simply, the poet’s own memory of a person who struck him when he was young. And he’s right about it; the one person who lives differently, alone and unprecedented becomes the precedent for the next generation. Which is, in a small and lonely, heroic. This woman Nancy, whatever became of her, she sounds like someone I would know.
Leonard Cohen never flagged in his old age, and for that he is an inspiration to us all. He made being elderly seem nearly appealing, or at the very least, not appalling. Who wouldn’t want to be a gentleman-poet in their sunset years? Cohen’s persona was well-suited to it, of course; he had an air of well-weathered wisdom even as a young-ish man. If it wasn’t the wisdom of age in his voice on those early records, it was at least the pursuit and the promise of such. His last couple of records are unmistakably works of wisdom earned. That’s not a perspective that pops a lot in the pop world, because the pop world exists mostly to inflame the young. It’s a system of planned obsolescence, designed to be outgrown. For anyone who’s outgrown their own pop moment, it’s a comfort to turn to Leonard Cohen’s placid and pithy voice. He offers an aspirational image: no longer an attempted ladies’ man, but still fully creative, spiritual, and much given to canes and good hats.
Leonard Cohen died two weeks ago, the latest light to disappear into the death vortex that David Bowie appears to have torn open in the fabric of the universe. You can view that as a string of particularly bad luck or as the beginning of the rapture, but you can’t write off the loss. Cohen was 82, a very respectable age to exit the mortal plane, but his voice was still vital and he had attained a position among his fans not unlike that of an evangelist. (A very carnal one, obviously.) People came to his concerts to hear something elevating and left with a feeling of having been anointed. He had become, for a certain subset of people, a somewhat reluctant spiritual leader. He may have argued that he was merely a wordsmith who happened to strum a guitar, but the power of his delivery spoke otherwise. As one of the greatest poets of our time, he very rarely felt the need to reach for other people’s words, but of the few covers he did record, he chose wisely. His performance of the European standard La Complainte du Partisan – an ode to the heroism of the French Resistance – is one of the most moving things he’s ever recorded. His live performance is even more powerful, though typically of Cohen, delivered gently and with subtlety. Cohen was a modest man, but he was a transporting performer, and he knew it. His final series of concerts, which must have been exhausting for a man of any age, were a blessing and gift.