-by Denise Sullivan
“It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there”
- William Carlos Williams
As if Tuesday's election result wasn't enough to knock out poets, artists, activists and other sentinent beings, Thursday's announcement that singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, 82, had died earlier in the week was simply too much bad news in an already unprecedented year of loss. Not only will Cohen obviously be missed by fans and fellow artists who relied on his wisdom, but women have rarely known an artist of Cohen's generation who loved, admired, honored, respected, and employed them in the studio and on the road as consistently as he did.
The women in Cohen's life were not simply ornaments, adjuncts, or names in song titles: Marianne, and Suzanne were famously real people as was Joan of Arc. But Cohen who notoriously loved the company of women, was also an advocate for working women artists and paid them (we hope equally as their male counterparts) to write with him, produce and engineer his records, and sing on the road. Even in the so-called liberal, open-minded and progressive music business, there are relatively few working female producers and engineers and too few top name recording artists who employ them. But Cohen consistently placed female collaborators in the highest levels of operation. That he should be such a hit with us is no surprise. Elevating women in song and verse is one thing but having the knowledge and humility to take our value into the workplace added a layer and depth to his own art. His actions are pretty much unprecedented in the male-dominated music business, unless I'm missing something: Jennifer Warnes, Sharon Robinson, Leanne Ungar, Perla Battala, Anjani Thomas, Julie Christensen and Rebecca DeMornay were among his most frequent collaborators; I've missed some, but you get the idea. Cohen's biographer was Sylvie Simmons and Lian Lunson directed the 2005 concert film, I'm Your Man.
One of Cohen's best-known songs, “Everybody Knows,” was co-written by Sharon Robinson
This was not a good week for a champion of women and a great empathizer of the human condition– with our frailties and foibles– to leave us. Perhaps the conspicuous loss of our 20th Century cultural icons, artistic geniuses, and principled public figures (men like David Bowie, Prince, and Muhammad Ali,) is not entirely a coincidence. I have to believe that there is something greater than us that called them away from this plane at this time. That they would've all happily and humbly passed the torch to make room for others–including the feared and dreaded “other”– and inspired us to shine our light through those proverbial cracks as we confront the abyss (which, in case you are not Biblically-inclined, goes straight to hell).
Moved by the language of the synagogue as a child in Montreal, Cohen gravitated to poetry quite naturally when he first read the work of Frederico Garcia Lorca as a teenager. Spanish guitar, gypsy melodies, and the Beat writers inspired him to write and publish poetry and prose before making albums. Music was a second-calling he took up, he joked, so he could make a living. He was signed to Columbia by John Hammond in the mid-'60s during the folk boom.
Recording 14 albums over six decades, Cohen sometimes took years to write songs, and like Bob Dylan, could be said to be a Nobel-worthy wordman. “His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres,” said Dylan of Cohen in last month's New Yorker. Known on the surface for his songs of love and longing Cohen also delved deep into matters spiritual and socio-political, his existential truths often filtered through the lenses of Judaism and Buddhism. His 1992 album The Future (his only album recorded in the' 90s) took a headlong look at world matters and our US experiment gone awry. The Future, and it's leading song, “Democracy,” was inspired in part by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Cohen told Paul Zollo, “It's a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country. That this is really where the experiment is unfolding. This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another. This is the real laboratory of democracy.” Co-produced by his then-partner DeMornay, Cohen had officially moved into his late-period, synthesized sound which carried through to his final recordings. The album may be considered his masterwork.
Not long after The Future, Cohen checked himself into the Mt. Baldy monastery he'd been drawn to for decades to live a monk's life with his zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi. Cohen's exploration of Buddhism dated back to the '60s and he practiced as a means toward inner peace, though Roshi, not exactly ascetic, had an appetite for drugs, alcohol and inappropriate conduct that landed him in some trouble before his death a couple of years back at the age of 107. Perhaps not surprisingly, after decades of studying Buddhism with Roshi, a trip to India and an intensive study with a Hindu practitioner, Cohen claimed he was relieved of his lifelong depression. By 2001, Cohen returned to recording with Ten New Songs, a collaboration with Robinson; it was followed by 2004's Dear Heather. But during his absence from the material world, it was learned the woman he'd charged with his business affairs had been embezzling from him. At a time of life when he had intended to be winding down, at age 70 Cohen began a steady touring and recording regime; it turned out to be a revitalizing and fulfilling experience, despite the circumstances, and he earned back his fortune and then some.
Lunson's 2005 film, I'm Your Man, captured artists like Nick Cave, U2. And Rufus Wainwright paying tribute to Cohen and kicked off the resurgence of his music with a younger generation, much like an early '90s tribute album recording, I'm Your Fan, had done with covers by The Pixies and R.E.M. The results of Cohen's persistent late-stage touring were nothing but a triumph and he was further fueled to record Old Ideas (20102) and Popular Problems (2014), though his touring days had been curtailed. You Want It Darker, released last month, was made at home with his son Adam once Cohen had become too weak to work in a recording studio: It is a stunning effort by any measure, not just because it was recorded by a dying man, but the recording technique and the songs themselves are high level, contemporary sounding, and spiritually demanding. We will be listening to this record for a long time.
Cohen, like all good seekers, had spent his life living, preparing to die.
Aside from his children and grandchildren, his albums and his songs, Cohen left two novels and a number of collected works of poetry. The following piece is taken from his 2004 collection, Book of Longing:
I've worked at my work
I've slept at my sleep
I've died at my death
and now I can leave
Leave what is needed
And leave what is full
Need in the spirit
And need in the hole
Beloved, I'm yours
As I've always been
From marrow to pore
From longing to skin
Now that my mission
has come to its end
Pray I'm forgiven
The life that I've led
The Body I chased
It chased me as well
My longing's a place
My dying a sail
Sail on, Leonard Cohen, your work here is done. Thank you for bringing the news in your celestial poems and songs and for showing us how to die with dignity.
May future civilizations take note, listen to its poets, heed their advices, and God willing, be spared a miserable life.
Denise Sullivan reports on arts, culture and gentrification issues for Down With Tyranny!
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis