R.I.P. Leonard Cohen, unforgettable voice behind 'Hallelujah' and so much more
You can’t begin with Hallelujah. It is tempting, so tempting, to begin with the modern-day hymn that defined him to many, but you just can’t. The life of Leonard Cohen deserves more.
The Canadian songwriting icon’s death at 82 was announced via Facebook Thursday. No cause was disclosed. And if you knew his music, admired his music, fell in or out of love to his music, it probably felt like a gut-punch – this, despite knowing that death has always been a prominent part of Cohen’s spirit and personality, and that his health had been failing for a while.
“I am ready to die,” he told the New Yorker last month, as he made the rounds for his 14th and now final album You Want It Darker. “I hope it’s not too uncomfortable.”
Unpleasant, yes, but uncomfortable? Cohen had been turning ruminations on death for decades, and it always turned out like the truth, thrust forth in that gravelly undertaker’s baritone.
He was never quite a superstar; his grim (on the surface, at least) and unvarnished style proved too much of an acquired taste. But his literate, morbid musings on love and lust and God and the grave earned reverence from diehard fans and fellow musicians, some of whom held him in higher esteem than his friend Bob Dylan or ex-lover Joni Mitchell. U2 guitarist the Edge once said Cohen had “almost Biblical significance and authority” – and as if to prove it, he actually performed Cohen’s If It Be Your Will inside the Sistine Chapel earlier this year.
There was much more to Cohen than an obsession with death and what comes after. He was a poet, a novelist, voraciously curious about religion – in addition to Judaism and Zen Buddhism, he briefly dabbled in Scientology – and he always had a sense of humor. Here’s a good one from 2012’s Going Home, sung from the perspective of the Almighty: “I love to speak with Leonard / he’s a sportsman and a shepherd / he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit / But he does say what I tell him / even though it isn’t welcome / he just doesn’t have the freedom to refuse.”
Divinely influenced or not, the words always did seem to flow through Cohen: Devastating love songs like Suzanne and Perfect Blue Raincoat; introspective meditations like Bird on the Wire and A Thousand Kisses Deep; quirky, quasi-pop ditties like I’m Your Man and First We Take Manhattan.
And then came Hallelujah.
Cohen spent ages crafting his 1984 hit that never was. A florid 6/8 stew of sensuality and spirituality, it entered the world in the age of Duran Duran and Wham!, a time when Cohen was not particularly hot property. David’s secret chord may have pleased the Lord, but it didn’t do squat on the charts.
Yet Hallelujah took on a life of its own. It was covered, famously, by John Cale and Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright, but also Dylan and Willie Nelson and Bon Jovi and k.d. lang and literally hundreds, if not thousands, more artists. It was in every film and TV show and reality singing competition and In Memoriam montage you watched. It was everywhere.
Its enduring appeal helped give Cohen a second career, following a couple of fallow decades marked by career and financial trouble, including a lawsuit against a former business manager who’d stolen millions of his savings. He began touring heavily again, even stopping in Tampa in 2009 and 2013.
That last show was a miracle. At 78, the dapper tunesmith owned the Straz Center stage for nearly 3 ½ hours, delivering close to 30 of his songs with mischievous, magical panache.
Hallelujah was as chill-inducing as you would expect. But when I think of that night, and I think of it often, it’s not what comes to mind first. I think of his verve and ageless energy, his indelible performances of Bird on the Wire, Everybody Knows and First We Take Manhattan. I can still hear his whispered rumble through A Thousand Kisses Deep.
This is how it was with Cohen, and how it always will be. His voice imprinted your memory like few others, and is not easily forgotten. For the grace of that gift, there is a word that comes to mind.
-- Jay Cridlin