Three years ago today we lost Leonard Cohen. As I write this I’m listening to ‘Democracy’, a song which made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it (have a listen and perhaps you’ll see why). People had the idea that he was gloomy and depressing – the prince of suicide, the bard of bad vibes, the grocer of despair – but with his self-deprecating humour he could be a total hoot (‘people were very rude about my guitar-playing: they used to say I only knew three chords, when in fact I knew five.’)
It was hard in the early years to be a Cohen fan because people were so mean about him; my own mother used to call him ‘old groaner,’ which was very rude and disrespectful. After all, I was never allowed to criticise Eartha Kitt.
Actually I quite liked Eartha Kitt. But I wasn’t so keen on Mendelssohn’s Elijah which we had to listen to quite a lot. Musical taste (amongst other things) was a one-way street in our family: basically we had to listen to whatever the adults liked, which meant listening to what our Mum liked. Tired of this, one Christmas I assembled the family, turned down the lights and put on Dark Side of the Moon. Ten seconds in my Granddad grabbed my Grandma’s arm and joked ‘Gigs! I’m scared!’ and when Breathe began he started playing along with the maracas. I gave up. As for introducing them to Cohen, it was unthinkable. You might as well stand outside and ask people to throw snowballs at you.
But it got better; in the ’80’s Cohen drew widespread acclaim with ‘I’m Your Man’ and when the financial shenanigans of his manager forced him out of retirement and back on the road, a song from ‘Various Positions’ was picked up and covered by just about everyone from Rolf Harris (no, scrub that) by everyone from Willie Nelson to Justin Timberlake. My favourite apart from the original is Rufus Wainwright’s, though Jeff Buckley’s is probably more famous. It also featured in Shrek, sung by John Cale.
It was Cohen’s refusal to shy away from the darker side of life that made him challenging, especially in America where, as Jennifer Warnes put it, you’re supposed to ‘put on a smile and come out swingin’, no matter how ruined you’ve been.’
Cohen was not the most prolific of writers but over the course of his career he released 15 or so albums, the penultimate of which, ‘Popular Problems’ he joked would be succeeded by ‘Unpopular Solutions’ but which was in fact followed by ‘You Want it Darker’. By the time of recording this he was so ill that he had to sit and sing the lyric into a desk mic while his son Adam produced the album.
I won’t sport with your patience by giving you a full bio; there’s plenty of information out there including the recent BBC series ‘Marianne and Leonard‘ about his time on the island of Hyra with Marianne Ihlen and her son Axel, but it seems both ironic and fitting that his two most famous songs should have both gotten away from him. He lost the rights to ‘Suzanne’ when they were stolen by an unscrupulous agent, and though he retained the rights to ‘Hallelujah’ it’s other versions which are more widely known than his.
Soldier of the heart, grocer of despair, go well.
RIP Leonard Cohen, Sept 21 1934 – Nov 7th 2016
STOP PRESS: there’s going to be a new album!!!!! composed of material he was working on, assembled by Adam Cohen and including collaboration by people who worked with him during his life. It’s called Thanks for the Dance and it’s due out on Nov 22nd. Oh. My. God. Even when he’s dead that man just can’t lie down and let himself be buried.