By Steve Silkin
THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF LITERATURE has featured only the rarest examples of lyrics to songs that were played on the radio or stages of concert halls. Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” is one of them. Even divorced from the droning, wistful melody, the subtext evokes the lightness and weight of the ideal love an artist has for his muse. “And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind / And you know that she will trust you / For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.”
Cohen died on Nov. 7 at the Los Angeles home of his son Adam and daughter Lorca. He was 82. His passing follows the recent release of “You Want It Darker,” which Adam helped him produce at their upstairs studio while the great singer-songwriter was struck with limited mobility. The New Yorker profiled Cohen on the occasion of the album’s release. The writer of the profile was the magazine’s editor David Remnick, leader of the standard-bearing publication of American letters. Remnick wasn’t going to assign this baby. This one, he must’ve said to himself, is mine.
Let us take a brief tour of the man’s catalog. The obituaries noted that he was seen as the master of gloom. His version of “Greensleeves” may begin that way – “I sang my song / I told my lies / To lie between your matchless thighs” but then he moans in anguish: “Now ain’t it fine, now ain’t it wise / to finally end this exercise!”
“Famous Blue Raincoat,” is a story song. The narrator is with Jane. She sleeps. In an early morning hour, in the cold of New York, he writes a letter to a friend, a one-time rival for her affection. The rival has moved deep in the desert and is living on nothing. The narrator notes that he loves and hates his rival but is grateful for the role that he played. Jane awakes, sends her regards. It’s a short story in a few verses. A novel. An intimate, tragic romance. In a brief series of rhymes.
Cohen said it was a failure. He wanted to express the idea that a man must give freedom to a woman in order to be free himself. The song didn’t do that, in his opinion. Now talk to any other writer alive. Ask if that song is not a high-water mark of modern poetry. Throw it down next to Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath. It stands right up there with them.
Among other examples of his authority and authenticity: “Who by Fire” is his updated reading of the key prayer in the Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur liturgy. “Who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate?” (Marilyn? He put Marilyn into a sacred Hebrew text?) He was Jewish by background, but Buddhist by study. Jew-Bu, is it? Or Bu-Jew? Either way would be fine with him.
On his 2009 tour, captured on the “Live in London” double album, he told the same jokes every night and delighted audiences around the world with them each time. He hadn’t toured for a while – “I was 60 years old at the time, just a kid with a crazy dream.” He’d taken all the anti-depressants, studied all the religions and philosophies of the world, but they didn’t help because “cheerfulness kept breaking through.”
Everyone has their favorite covers. Highly recommended is Tori Amos’ version of “Famous Blue Raincoat” and John Cale’s of “Hallelujah,” even though Jeff Buckley’s interpretation of the latter is better known.
A wise man once said that if an artist can speak to more than one generation, then he has become immortal. There is no doubt that Mister Cohen may have shed the proverbial mortal coil, but there also is no doubt that he lives forever.
Steve Silkin is author of the novel “The Cemetery Vote,” several collections of short stories, the poem “The Bishop Moves Diagonally,” and editor of Conquistador Publications, which recently released “Flight of a Hell Hawk: The Autobiography of Edward J. Lopez, World War II Fighter Pilot.”