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.
What blonde ice queen straight out of a Nazi poster did Leonard Cohen get rejected by in the peeling Chelsea Hotel in the 1960’s, before he was rich and famous? I like to imagine it was Nico, but who knows, there were many ice queens around for an obscure Canadian poet to be rejected by in those days. (As always there are.) Whoever she was, she inspired the dejected poet to transcribe his pathetic crush into one of the most bleak and witty odes to unattainable desire ever written. It is the duty of poets to make an artful lament out of the simple and pathetic humiliation of being rejected by the cool girls. Leonard Cohen certainly told the age old story in a way it had never been told before. That’s why today he’s rich and famous and gets to sleep in nice hotels and probably hardly ever gets rejected.
Since I am, for obvious reasons, in rather a morbid mood, let me remind you that Leonard Cohen is 81 years old and will probably die soon. Night comes on for everyone sooner or later, of course, but nobody likes to be reminded that mortality exists. Cohen’s unique schtick (if you can call it that) has always been to write in the voice of someone in his twilight years. Even as a relatively young songwriter in the 60’s, Cohen had the persona of a man with a lot of weary years under his belt. It suited him then and suits him even better now, which is rare. (Tom Waits is another who seems increasingly at ease in his persona as he gets older.) At the time, it set him apart from the rock’n’roll generation and their so-called youthquake culture, but now the rock’n’roll generation has outlived its own revolution and everyone has too many years behind them. And if there’s beauty to be found in decrepitude, it will be found by someone who was never one of the pretty things in the first place.
If you didn’t think Leonard Cohen was an important pop cultural figure, well he is now. He’s scored the much coveted opening credit slot on the second season of True Detective. That divisive show, if you haven’t seen or heard of it, presents a view of the world about as tar black as a creative vision can get before descending into pure horror territory. But not without a hard-won sliver of redemption. Leonard Cohen is not an artist with quite such a dark view, but he too has a vision of spiritual redemption as something fought for against horrific odds. With occasional specks of graveyard humor, he tells us that we find our light despite other people’s best efforts.
Leonard Cohen’s popular problems as of 2014 are mostly the same ones he was dwelling upon in 1967; the bittersweet business of pursuing love in an increasingly ugly world. It may sound trite when I put it that simply, but those are the things that have been Cohen’s concern, and he, being one of the poets of our time, can elevate such basic topics into the realm of high meaning. Getting older doesn’t seem to have changed his perspective much – he still sighs a weary sigh at the grotesqueries of the world around him and turns back inward to pursue desire. He’s always sang in the voice of a slightly battle scarred old rogue, a ladies’ man just past his prime, having lived to an age when being a ladies’ man is as sad a life as a fun one.
Here’s a way more intelligent anthem for people who like BDSM! Though I guess that’s a pretty loose interpretation, actually. The magic of poetry is freedom to understand it in many different ways. Still, I’m fairly certain that this is about some kinky living. Leonard Cohen just makes it sound a lot more majestic than these things normally are.