Silent Music: Leonard, Prince of Paradox

Today I am spending the entire day honouring the memory of Leonard Cohen; poet, singer, guitarist and songwriter (1934-2016).  Although his death wasn’t announced until Nov 16th, he actually died on 7th, so it was one year ago today that we lost him.

Here’s how I found him.  It’s 1972 and I’m in a schoolroom in West London.  We are awaiting an English lesson when in comes a student teacher followed by a caretaker carrying a record player.  Great excitement: we rarely have music in class.  The teacher puts on the record and says, ‘we’re going to listen to this song and then discuss the lyrics.’  The guitar sounded, the voice began – and I was lost.

In those early days his voice haunted me like a busker on the underground, seeming to echo from afar down a long, dark tunnel.  But from the first inoculation he was in my blood, and there was no getting him out.  Vast wastes of emotion opened up in me: here was a way to link god and sex (which the church had cast asunder) here was a landscape of sublimity and pain – above all, here was one who was not afraid to stand and open his heart for all to see.  I loved that in him, as so many did.

Leonard was not a whole man, and he was unafraid to tell us so: the word ‘broken’ seemed to resonate through his early work where despair often won out over exaltation.  Whirled by winds of ‘deep distress’, he landed on Mount Baldy, a Zen monastery outside Los Angeles where he woke before dawn and walked through the snow to sit, silent and shorn, in meditation:

Since he never spoke, the other monks knew him only as zhikan, ‘the silent one’, having no idea that outside the monastery he was a famous singer.  But then, Cohen had so many incarnations: poet, Cuban revolutionary, Scientologist (‘did you ever go clear?’) Jew, Zen Buddhist, prophet and guru – and those are only the ones I know about.

And as for me, what can I tell you, my brother, my killer?  How can I possibly explain what Cohen meant to me?  I loved the openness in him, the way he never put on a front or pretended to be other than he was.  I loved the way he pursued each line of a song, even to the point of crawling across a hotel bedroom floor at 3 am trying to get it right.  And most of all I loved the way he treated his audience.

For Cohen, tours were not so much a way of promoting a record (though they were of course that) as a kind of reconnaissance, a way of experiencing the zeitgeist.  He had a great respect for his audience and in concerts he gave his all, dispensing with a support act and doing encores which sometime stretched out as long as the main set.  The last time we saw him, though he looked so much older, he skipped off the stage at the end: he was then 75.

And yet in those early years I suffered for his art.  Like other disciples before me I was pilloried in public for my allegiance to Cohen; I was mocked and jeered at.  The ‘grocer of despair’ was too easily dismissed as the bard of the suicidal (‘one hand on my suicide’) by those who never glimpsed his beauty.  As for Cohen himself, in those early years he was described as having ‘the stoop of an aged crop-picker and the face of a curious little boy’ but with meditation the stoop went and by and large he aged well, still looking good right into his sixties:


Image result for Leonard Cohen

(image removed on request)

In public Cohen was courteous and dignified, refusing to hit back at his critics or fight rudeness with rudeness.  But, though many consider him a sort of guru, Cohen was no saint; and his Achilles heel was women.  He did go through a period of celibacy at Mount Baldy, but in general seemed unable to stop pursuing women; and not limiting himself to one at at time either: Jennifer Warnes once sadly remarked that she never had a relationship with Cohen because she knew it wouldn’t be exclusive.  From the outside it appears that he never found lasting happiness or stability in relationships: his early affair with the Marianne of the song seemed a brief oasis in a stormy life; a storm which escalated into a crisis when his agent Kelly Lynch stole $5m and left him penniless.  Cohen showed remarkable public forbearance in the face of such devastation: all he would say was, ‘we understand that these things happen.’  But though we felt for him we were also delighted because a career which had seemed dead and buried was resurrected: Leonard was on the road again.

He continued recording almost to the day he died: his final album, ‘You Want it Darker,’ was released just 19 days before his death and recorded with difficulty.  In the end his son Adam had to stick a mic on a desk and into this Leonard breathed his last songs.  They do not, of course, have the vigour of his earlier work, but are nonetheless infused with a bleak beauty.

No, Cohen was no saint: but he was a prophet of sorts and for me a kind of paradoxical guru.  Leonard never would have wanted to be anyone’s guru: I never wanted to have a guru.  It’s the perfect relationship; and for me he will always be a guiding voice; bleak, sublime, courteous and above all, to his own self true.

If you want to know more, here’s the official site:

and here’s my blog post about that concert in 2008:

RIP Leonard, we love you.

Kirk out


Cohen’s Legacy to Me

What can I say about the legacy Cohen left me?  How can I attempt to describe what his songs meant then and then and now; the feelings they engendered, the images they brought before me?  It is impossible but still I have to try.

I guess part of it was the religious imagery.  Here was a man who knew the God of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New; who wrestled with God like Jacob; who followed that path like a pilgrim, who like me found solace in an Eastern way (for him it was Zen, for me, yoga) and who, above all, wasn’t afraid to open in song the very darkest corners of the heart.  Cohen confronted himself daily, opening the maps of his depression and the charts of his love:

please understand I never had a secret chart

to get me to the heart of this

or any other matter.

(‘Stranger Song’)

Cohen was a stranger in this world; a pilgrim, a mystic; a lover.  He was a priest without a temple, a soldier without a war, a guru without a religion:

and I sing this for the captain

whose ship has not been built

for the mother in confusion

her cradle still unfilled…

for the prima ballerina 

who cannot dance to anything.

(‘The Heart with No Companion’)

Cohen is full of paradox and contradiction; he is baffled and bewildered, confused and crossed as Jesus on a bad day, yet still he sings:

and even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah


What I love the most about Cohen is that he defies logic.  I know people who say, ‘I can’t understand what ‘Suzanne’ means.  What is it all about?’  I could tell them that it was about a woman he once knew; how the Jesus motif is about a statue of Christ in Montreal who looks down on sailors or how there’s a statue of Mary called ‘our Lady of the Harbour – but all this is irrelevant.  What those images brought to me when I first heard them transcends the geography of Montreal.  They spoke of drowning men able to see Jesus; they spoke of an eccentric woman dressed in Salvation Army flowers; they spoke of love and longing and being most lost when you are most found.  To ask what the songs are about is to ask the wrong question, as it might be to ask someone who meditates what they are thinking about.  Meditation is not thought; and song is not logic.  The song is about your experience of the song, and it’s about the connection Leonard makes with your heart.  The songs are transfusions.

Kirk out

Just when you thought it was safe to come back to this blog…

This is of course a reference to the tag-line (if that is the phrase I want) for the seminal 70’s film, Jaws la-water/just-when-you-thought-it-was-s/ –

– and I’m afraid Cohen is resurfacing once again and preparing to bite off your arm, as I’ve just been given “The Essential Cohen”, a retrospective walk through the man and his music – a bit like exhibiting a painter’s work.  You know – there’s the famous picture of his muse that everyone has on their wall (Suzanne)  then the dark blacks and greys of one hand on his suicide with those astonishing glimpses of rose light.  You can see the Jewish and the Zen influences without the programme pointing them out (Who by Fire) – and as you move on you can see the work maturing, the colours deepening, the palate broadening, until you come to the flowering of later works (Hallelujah) has been copied everywhere– and then you sit arrested, poleaxed, by your favourite painting of all time, the one that never fails to pierce your heart and wound your mind with its sublimity – “If it Be Your Will”. You sit before the canvas in a kind of swoon, dead to yourself, until the curator comes jingling his keys, when you get up and take a final walk through the last rooms, including Ten New Pictures Ten-New-Songs-Leonard-Cohen/dp/B00005Q45Wand his most recent which are in a different style and include a couple of copies of Old Masters. exit with a sigh as the curator locks the door.

The next morning you are waiting when he opens.  You have been there all night, your pilgrim feet stamping in the cold.