Leonard Cohen died on November 7 at the ripe old age of 82, still thin enough to fit into the youth hockey sweater he wore as a boy.
Though Cohen’s frailty became part of his final portrait, arriving in the form of a New Yorker profile wherein Cohen catalogued his pains both of the body and the spirit before casually quipping he was “ready to die,” our man extinguished the light on his own terms. After all, he’d been contributing his own poetry to The New Yorker for years. The Poet Prince of Montréal remained the master of his own narrative until the end.
Cohen played with death’s imagery for years, too, most recently posing on the covers of his final three records like the propped-up, comedic corpse from Weekend At Bernie’s. When his muse Marianne Ihlen lay dying of cancer earlier this year, Cohen prophesied his imminent demise in a goodbye letter to her. The New Yorker profile captured the power of his memories, even as his other systems were failing—most poignant was his recollection that a single flower Ihlen brought back to their old home in Hydra could perfume the whole room.
It had been a long path since Cohen came down from Mount Baldy as an ordained monk to the new millennium, only to discover his then-manager and former lover had run away with his life savings. When Cohen went back on the road, he received three-minute long-standing ovations before even singing a note. During his time at the temple, the student had become the teacher again.
The teacher never rushed to deify his hit, “Hallelujah”, the way that his students did, working out endlessly long versions of verses over and over. When it was covered hundreds of times in many different styles, younger generations knew the song as a masterpiece of Jeff Buckley’s or Justin Timberlake’s. Cohen was frustrated when “Hallelujah” transcended his canon into ubiquity, even though he shared the song freely. Like the old and fading tonal tropes that tell you how to sing a Torah portion, like familiar halls or the unpronounceable name of God, the headier and more surreal verses often disappeared from these covers, abandoned in the interest of brevity. That there was nothing on his tongue might have meant he cured Moses or his lisp, or that there was no psychedelic Eucharist behind his visions. Either way, Cohen could make a bush burn just by looking at it.
In the physical liberation of an orgasm, Cohen saw liberation from war. Thighs were ruins, he climbed beneath her Marble Arch. When singing to Joan of Arc on Songs of Love and Hate, he honored the patron saint of French Canada by defining his solidarity among other soldier lovers—“And though I wear a uniform, I was not born to fight/All these wounded boys you lie beside, goodnight, my friends, goodnight.”
Cohen had fetishized saints before, evoking a sense of primacy as he explored the sacred and the profane. Those with his same investigatory spirit eventually stumbled upon the joys and majesties of his early writings, when he made a name for himself as a poet and a novelist before deciding there was more money in writing songs.
And as a stunning, vulgar portrait of love and death, 1966’s Beautiful Losers captured the ugly side of free love in a cold Montréal, as Cohen prayed to a dead Native American saint whom he perversely lusted after. There is no better document, to my mind, of Cohen’s stunning humanity than this long, rambling feat of narrative.
“What is a saint?” Cohen asks the spirit of Kateri Tekakwitha, as he censors her Algonquin roots in a protective act of mercy. “A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence. A saint does not dissolve the chaos; if he did the world would have changed long ago. I do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a man setting the universe in order. It is a kind of balance that is his glory. He rides the drifts like an escaped ski. His course is a caress of the hill. His track is a drawing of the snow in a moment of its particular arrangement with wind and rock. Something in him so loves the world that he gives himself to the laws of gravity and chance. Far from flying with the angels, he traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape.”
What did Beautiful Losers teach us about being a saint, about the stars, about Cohen’s unapologetic hedonism and the possession of a native deity? He for whom the comparing of mythologies is a most intimate gesture never really grows old.
This led a critic or two to call Cohen a young Henry Miller, the American who wrote his masterpiece, Tropic of Cancer, while lusting after his best friend’s woman in Paris. Like Miller, Cohen’s knotty narrative relies on a stream-of-consciousness format that keeps the ample pieces of wisdom and epiphany obscured, that rewards you for reading through the ugly bits. Debase yourself with these dead luminaries and they will show you their wisdom.
Like Miller, Cohen had a complicated relationship with the French. In his classic interpretation of the WWII-era traditional, “La Complainte du Partisan”, Cohen imagines himself running from the Nazis, when an old woman dies alone protecting him and the “frontiers are his prison.” How can a vast landscape be an environment of confinement? I had that line tattooed on my arm in the place where my ancestors where branded with numbers as a reminder that not all examples of freedom bring liberation. Sometimes living on the fringes can be a curse.
If there is any cruelty to the timing of Cohen’s passing this week, it feeds into the question of how he might respond to the coded rhetoric and bubbling fascist bile we’re seeing at home. He passed away on Monday, the day before our presidential election, but we were not made aware until last night. That, too, feels significant.
In 1985, Cohen wrote this poem: O France, you gave your language to my children, your lovers and your mushrooms to my wife. You sang my songs. You delivered my uncle and my auntie to the Nazis. I met the leather chests of the police in Place de la Bastille. I took money from the Communists. I gave my middle age to the milky towns of Luberon. I ran from farm dogs on a road outside of Roussillon. My hand trembles in the land of France. I came to you with a soiled philosophy of holiness, and you bade me sit down for an interview. O France, where I was taken so seriously, I had to reconsider my position. O France, every little Messiah thanks you for his loneliness. I want be somewhere else, but I am always in France. Be strong, be nuclear, my France. Flirt with every side, and talk, talk, never stop talking about how to live without G-d.
The French also taught Cohen much about the fleeting nature of death. What we call an orgasm they call la petite mort, and insofar as death worked its way into his early lyrics through departing trains and ritual sacrifice, it existed to Cohen as a symbol for the release of energy. Like Baudelaire in “À une passante”, who walks past a woman in mourning and is so moved by her vulnerabilities he finds himself sexually aroused, Cohen’s comments of mortality have long served to highlight his humanities, his vulnerabilities, the countless sleepless nights cataloguing his triumphs and failures as a lover.
“And all the ladies go moist, and the judge has no choice, a singer must die for the lie in his voice,” he sang on ‘74’s New Skin for an Old Ceremony.
Cohen also often sang about light and darkness, which his stunning final album, You Want It Darker, brings to climax. Many recalled one of his most famous Zen kōans, a riddle or phrase designed to shake up the student and promote headier thoughts, from “Anthem”—“Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
The concept of light penetrating the façade of things is deeply Kabalistic, and evokes the concept of klipot. A klipa is a shell, a rind protecting the fruit within it. We wear these shells to shield ourselves—our deepest fears and desires, our essence, must remain intact and hidden. But once we can evolve to realize that everyone has these klipot, we see that beneath any perceived levels of disconnect or confusion, hatred or impurity, there is the same electricity.
As a student of psychoactive substances, Cohen merged such spiritualities with chemical mind expansion early on. Remnick’s New Yorker profile recalls Cohen dosing himself with acid during a show in Israel that’s going particularly bad, only to see a vision of Marianne manifest before him like a saint. Cohen told Remnick he would trip on porch of their old Hydra home, often till dawn, waiting to see God.
If the word kōan sounds an awful lot like Cohen, recorded history tells us this may not be a coincidence. Kohen is the Hebrew word for priest, and High Kohens in the temple were not beyond anointing their whole bodies in hash oil to bring themselves before their creator. In Deuteronomy, the High Kohen Aaron burns marijuana incense to heal the worshipers from turmoil. God said to Noah, “take for yourself herbs b’samim.”
So we take some comfort to learn that Leonard’s son, Adam Cohen, enjoyed medical marijuana together with his father while they were recording his final album.
Cohen may have been walking in the desert his entire life, but he had a sense of humor about it. For every illuminated turn of phrase or heartbreaking analysis of the invisible strings that bind the mind to the body and the soul to the flesh, he would deconstruct his own profundities. Even his most profound connections to the processes of enlightenment and ascension were fair game. As he said in “The Old Revolution”, even damnation is poisoned with rainbows.
Another Cohen poem:“You are right, Sahara. There are no mists, or veils, or distances. But the mist is surrounded by a mist; and the veil is hidden behind a veil; and the distance continually draws away from the distance. That is why there are no mists, or veils, or distances. That is why it is called The Great Distance of Mist and Veils. It is here that The Traveler becomes The Wanderer, and The Wanderer becomes The One Who Is Lost, and The One Who Is Lost becomes The Seeker, and The Seeker becomes The Passionate Lover, and The Passionate Lover becomes The Beggar, and The Beggar becomes The Wretch, and The Wretch becomes The One Who Must Be Sacrificed, and The One Who Must Be Sacrificed becomes The Resurrected One and The Resurrected One becomes The One Who has Transcended The Great Distance of Mist and Veils. Then for a thousand years, or the rest of the afternoon, such a One spins in the Blazing Fire of Changes, embodying all the transformations, one after the other, and then beginning again, and then ending again, 86,000 times a second. Then such a one, if he is a man, is ready to love the woman Sahara; and such a one, if she is a woman, is ready to love the man who can put into song The Great Distance of Mist and Veils. Is it you who are waiting, Sahara, or is it I?”
Finally, at 82, Cohen has foretold the end of his desert walk. The war has ended, at least for now. The tallest and the blondest girl knows his name, and she’s followed him past the plastic altar and the ancient ruins.
Though we can all feel that existential dread of ‘otherness’ in the world these days, Cohen teaches us that these feelings of loneliness and self-imposed exile are not ours alone to romanticize. We compare mythologies to discover that, at their core, they’re all the same. And there’s a primacy in these connections that bind us, even when the common thread is the evaporation of feeling, the dread of love. There ain’t no cure for it.
“A decade ago, a teacher who called himself Shree Bhagwan Rajneesh came up with the name ‘Zorba the Buddha’ to describe the ideal modern man: A contemplative man who maintains a strict devotional bond with cosmic energies, yet is completely at home in the physical realm,” wrote my favorite author, Tom Robbins.
“Such a man knows the value of the dharma and the value of the deutschmark, knows how much to tip a waiter in a Paris nightclub and how many times to bow in a Kyoto shrine, a man who can do business when business is necessary, allow his mind to enter a pine cone, or dance in wild abandon if moved by the tune. Refusing to shun beauty, this Zorba the Buddha finds in ripe pleasures not a contradiction but an affirmation of the spiritual self. Doesn’t he sound a lot like Leonard Cohen?”
Sitting with this, I return to Beautiful Losers, as Cohen meditates on the nature of lost legacy to the dead Algonquian saint, Kateri Tekakwitha—“I don’t want to be a star, merely dying.”
But scriptures will soon tell us there’s nothing mere about Cohen’s passing. The student has become the teacher, and a new generation of lovers will rise up as the mountains touch the ground.