RIP Leonard, We Miss You

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.

Kirk out

11 thoughts on “RIP Leonard, We Miss You

    1. I recommend starting with I’m your man ‘ and working ‘outwards’ to Various Positions ‘ ‘The Future ‘ and then to the earlier albums Songs of Love and Hate and then catching up with later ones like Popular Problems and You Want it Darker

    2. I’d add: your age and previous listening preferences may have a bearing on where you start with Cohen. If you grew up in the 80s, you may gravitate more naturally to his later albums (from Various Postions onwards); if you’re more of a folkie, you may prefer to start with the earlier stuff (Songs Of Loneard Cohen up to Recent Songs). I prefer the acoustic-based stuff but L.C.seemed more comfortable with technology than many of his peers and I don’t think you can really go wrong with any of his stuff.

      1. Oh, yes, I forget about DoaLM. I don’t really think of it as a Leonard Cohen album, more a Phil Spector album on which Cohen guests. No, you’re right; it’s not very good, but it might qualify as an ‘interesting failure’. I think the book that accompanied it – Death of a Lady’s Man (note the subtle title difference) is his best poetical work.

  1. Thanks For The Dance’s title song is already out there – it’s a collaboration between Cohen and his final (?)) squeeze Anjani Thomas, who happened to be the ex-wife of his final manager (the guy never could learn, could he?). I think it’s one of his best songs and the albums it comes from Blue Alert is highly recommended, by me at least:

    I don’t find Cohen depressing. Never have. And I’ve never understood people who do. If all you listen to is sunshine pop, then, yes, you might not know what’s hit you when you hear Cohen (and I have a vivid memory of asking the sales assistant in a record shop to play me some of Songs of Love & Hate: the shop had emptied of all but yours truly after thirty seconds of Avalnche). Speaking of depressing, I’ve just finished reading Michel Houellebecq’s current novel Serotonin – after reading the final chapter, I felt that the only valid thing any intelligent person could do with their life is to end it as soon and as painlessly as possible (and M.Houellebecq even gives you some encouraging advice about how you needn’t worry about ‘the pain’ if you decide to hurl yourself through a window). Despite this, I have no ihesitation in acclaiming Houellebecq as the world’s greatest living writer. Nobody else comes close. Sadly, women cannot read him.

    1. I’m wondering why women can’t read Houellebecq, but that aside I agree. Cohen’s achilles heel was definitely women, and I guess Avalanche and Dress Rehearsal Rag were probably the songs that did the most to foster the ‘depressing’ image. I’ve had a listen to the latest album title track and I agree, it sounds great

  2. Houellebecq is routinely called out for misogyny, though whether he promulgates it, or simply reports it is a matter for debate. I would say he reports it, but then I’m not of the affected gender. I think what some women dislike about his narrators (all of whom are male, middle-aged and either single or separated) is that they seem to confirm everything they’ve long suspected about the way (most) men actually think. Hst, Anita Brookner (of all people) was apparently a fan.

    Dress Rehearsal Rag may be my favourite Leonard Cohen song, though I woudn’t say it’s his best. It seeks to overwhelm the listener, and it succeeds. As you may know, Cohen only ever performed it live once ( for a BBC ‘In Concert’ in 1968) then dropped it because he felt it put ‘too much negative enery’ out there. It’s actually one of his earliest songs. How is it fair that people can write stuff like that without serving an apprenticeship (his poetry – which I don’t rate that highly – doesn’t really count).

    Cohen was a womaniser on the grandest possible scale, though he seems to be given a pass because he was honest about it (‘I would describe myself as a Sinner’) and those who got involved with him knew what they were letting themselves in for. I know one woman (a former Hill’s Angel who became a Cohenesque singer-songwriter) whom he pursued, acquired and then gently dropped. She bore him no ill will. Nor did Marianne Ihlen, it seems. But the mother of his children (Suzanne Valancourt) seems to have been his come-uppance, judging from what is said about her in the Brookfield film.

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