By mid-November, no one needs to be told that 2016 has not been a very good year. Taking my cue from the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who posited the idea of the short twentieth century (starting 1914 with WWI and ending in 1991 with the fall of Communism in Russia), I hoped desperately and publicly for a short 2016. It would start on 10 January, when we learned about the death of David Bowie, and end on 9 November when Hillary Clinton was elected president of the United States. We know how that prediction worked out.
In the midst of our (okay, my) rage and incomprehension, word of the death of Leonard Cohen hit – not like a bomb, but like a cone of silence that allowed me to leave aside internal wranglings about politics over which I had no control. It forced a kind of stillness and attentiveness on me, and I was the better for it. Many sobbed and sighed and thought, “Why are we losing Leonard Cohen precisely when we need him?”
I had a different reaction. Grimly, cynically, I felt he got out in time. But more reflectively, I think he has given us everything we need already. He has so adequately prepared us for our own mortality by musing on and confronting his own. He’s left us a body of literature and song that deal so squarely with death and grief, with life and beauty. He has told us what we need to know.
I went down to the place where I knew she lay waiting
Under the marble and the snow
I said, Mother I’m frightened, the thunder and the lightning
I’ll never come through this alone
She said, I’ll be with you, my shawl wrapped around you
My hand on your head when you go
And the night came on, it was very calm
I wanted the night to go on and on
But she said, go back, go back to the world
Think about “Night Comes On”, from his beautiful album Various Positions. It starts with a graveside conversation, full of anxiety and worry at a bleak and frightening moment. From across the passage of death, the speaker receives comfort and strength to continue. This sustains him through betrayal, through love that cannot be made permanent and fixed, through children that rely on their father and then, as quick as a childhood game, “hide in the world” while he covers his eyes and are reliant no more. Through it all, he waffles and doubts his resolve, but whenever he is tempted to stop and rest, he is urged to carry on. Cohen’s struggles may not be our struggles, but that he struggles and that we do too gives this lyric its universal power. And this amazing verse finishes the song:
Now the crickets are singing, the vesper bells ringing
The cat’s curled asleep in his chair
I’ll go down to Bill’s Bar, I can make it that far
And I’ll see if my friends are still there
Yes, and here’s to the few, who forgive what you do
And the fewer who don’t even care
And the night comes on, it’s very calm
I want to cross over, I want to go home
But she says, Go back, go back to the world
In 1984, when he released the album, he did not cross over and go home. We’re so lucky he didn’t. He kept on asking, listening, and sharing both his questions and the answers he thought he heard. He spent a long spell in retreat in California, and maybe we thought he would content himself with the asking and the listening. But the financial impropriety of his manager forced him back to the studio, back to the Casio keyboard, and back to the pen and the notepad. There are worse reasons to get back to art than to keep the wolf from the door, but regardless, I think we were all readier to listen than we had ever been. He was able to provide high-quality snacks to visiting journalists, and we got to see him sing “So Long, Marianne” in the sub-basement of his voice.
More albums, a tour, another album, another tour. Concert DVDs. Interviews and profiles. His latest was for the New Yorker, an excellent profile from David Remnick where he notes his physical limitations and thinks maybe the touring is complete. “I am ready to die,” he said. “I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”
The sound of a man prepared for death – not clamouring to cross over, but ready when he is called. And he shared that – that insight and that example of him relishing being on stage playing songs, not giving in, perhaps slightly overdoing it. Drinking life to the lees, as Tennyson had it.
The short – or, as it turns out, amply sized – 2016 began with the death of David Bowie from cancer. He was short of his threescore and ten, and the relationship with death in his art took a different, less instructive form from Cohen’s. Nonetheless, people looked back on his final release, Blackstar, and saw that he was telling us something in it. Not all messages make sense right away. Cohen egged us on at the end – You Want It Darker, he said, and maybe we didn’t. But “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord,” he said.
There’s another story to my relationship with Leonard Cohen – not merely a fan, but in a very minor way a business partner, too. I’ll share that in another blog, but the preview is here: I set an old poem of his, “On Hearing a Name Long Unspoken”, to music many years ago. Peformed it periodically on stage and, more often, in my living room, but finally got the courage to seek his blessing and record it. Still, I was reluctant to share it too widely, but when I learned of his death, a couple of friends were asking how they could hear the song. So, I spent time I didn’t exactly have cobbling photos, trawling flickr for Creative Commons Cohen shots, and smushed it into a video on YouTube. Here it is, hot off the press and many years late.