Just as there have been books written about Leonard Cohen’s best known song, there are movies being made about his best known love. Cohen had the archetypal artist-and-muse relationship with a real person named Marianne, a relationship we see as so anachronistic and exotic that we keep wanting to examine it and pick it apart, even though Marianne, unlike other famous modern-day muses, was a private citizen with no aspirations of being a celebrity in her own right. It’s a relationship dynamic we can’t quite wrap our heads around anymore, now that women are very rarely likely to settle for a life of making sandwiches in the warm glow of their partner’s genius. We even ask if it’s somehow unethical for an artist to leech inspiration not only from his own life but from the life of his partner. But we still find it romantic, because poetry. Who doesn’t want to be remembered forever in the flattering glow of love? That feeling when you’re in love that everything is more special, more beautiful and imbued with deeper meaning? It’s a feeling most of us can’t articulate, and may not even be able to hold on to in our memory. But poetry keeps that glow burning forever, and it serves as a proxy for people who don’t have the ability to set their feelings down in words and images.We may be uncomfortable, now, with the implications of articulating love and desire too well. It makes us think about objectification, possession, jealousy, control, all the things that can turn beautiful experiences into ugly ones. To be in love is to be subsumed, on some level, by another person’s view of ourselves, and it’s terrifying, especially now that the social rules of courtship have changed and we’re all fighting so hard to nail down the boundaries of our identities. How do you allow yourself to be another person’s object of love and desire, and yet still remain yourself? Well, don’t fall in love with an artist, I guess. Fall in love with someone who will take their vision of you to their grave with them. I guess that love songs and art will always be a little bit unethical, because they drag the most private feelings out into the open, and the artist opens themselves up because that’s what the artist does, but the muse is opened up, with or without consent, and on the artist’s terms. And the reward is to be loved by the world, not as you were, but as your loved one saw you.
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.