The thing about Leonard Cohen is that at the heart of his five-decade career the man’s vocals, especially after the 1960s, sounded just like how Lucifer might sound. At its peak, which often meant at its basest and weather-plummeting best, it raised the dead, only to put the scare of God in them. His music is exactly the sort of sound I imagine is played in purgatory, where all of us will have to go before we meet “the Man”. And that’s the biggest paradox about him: the man with such a spooky and affective voice is now, I swear to God, hanging out with the angels now that he’s checked out himself.
Last Thursday, at the age of 82, Cohen passed on into the forever world he was always teasingly taunting us about. Two months before he died, he told David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker: “I’ve got a job to do … man I am going, I am leaving and I just hope it doesn’t get uncomfortable when I do.”
It’s easy to assume that, at that age, he knew he had seen deep into the future and knew he was on his way. But it’s not as easy as that. No one likes to die. Some of the greatest music and art has evoked the idea of heading to an eternal home we all come from, but few of those artists has been ready for that journey.
Cohen spent his life telling little stories that grew to swallow big pains and bigger dreams, little stories that ate up suns and expanded lifespans, little stories that were so huge that, had he written them as epic tales, they’d probably have shrivelled into insignificant blips in our lives.
A few months before he died, the “Man in Black” Johnny Cash and his Zen devotee producer Rick Rubin released a 10-track album defiantly titled Ain’t No Grave.
The title track just about summed up the man’s entire life, from his drug-soaked past to his covenant with God, but also gave us insight into a person’s ultimate dilemma once that appointment with God has been confirmed:
There ain’t no grave/ there ain’t no grave/ there ain’t no grave/ can hold my body down.
When I hear that trumpet sound/ I’m gonna rise right out of the ground/ ain’t no grave can hold my body down.
The thing about Cash, Cohen and other artists who have seen and sung about death is that they all resist sprinting the final lap into the down-yonder, while preparing the listener of the inevitability of having to show up for that dreaded date with the maker.
Both in person and in the album that dropped three weeks before he checked out, Lenny appeared tough, resolute and ready to die, but also not so keen.
In the interview with Remnick, he continues about death: “The big change is the proximity to death. I am a tidy kind of guy. I like to tie up the strings if I can. If I can’t, that’s okay. But my natural thrust is to finish things that I’ve begun.”
He was talking about the “sweet little songs” he had not yet finished. “I don’t think I will finish those songs. I’ve got work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”
That double-dance again: I’m ready to die. But hey, I’ve still got work to do. Still, compared to my late friend, the Zulu psychedelic seer Busi Mhlongo, who once awoke at 1am pretty shook up and believing she was in heaven, and cried to us: “I saw the heaven and I am not ready to go,” Cohen seemed to have made peace with his last days.
Now to the music. What does a scrawny Canadian-Jewish serial believer and seeker – Zen Buddhism, Kaballah, Hinduism, Islam – a man forever buttoned down in three-piece suits and a side-tilted Stetson hat, have in common with an African village banana peel like me? Poetry. Blame poetry. The blues too.
He sing-raps in that weary old man’s blues way on the title track of his swan song, You Want It Darker – If you are a healer/ I’m broken and lame – before crescendoing with a stirring cry, part Gregorian chant but also a line ripped stark-cold from the Old Testament hymnody: Hineni! Hineni/ I’m ready, my Lord.
“Hineni” is Hebrew for “Here I am”, Abraham’s answer to God’s summons to sacrifice his son, Isaac. It is a cry-chant I am familiar with, having grown up practically inside the church as a relative of a bishop: “Hineni … Hineni!”
The likes of Cohen, Cash, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Crosby, Stills and Nash occupy an exalted space among a groundswell of Africans on the continent and in the Caribbean as “token blacks” of redneck music, who are symbolically wired to African hymnody and rites of prayer via the blues and gospel Holy Rollers, as it were.
In them I heard the biblical incantations and mysticism of my formative years as a young church-going buck.
Although Cash’s “don’t give a fuck” country-punk attitude – and what author Edward Said referred to as literary and musical artists’ “late-style” conversations with God as their death looms – won me hands down, it is Cohen’s gut-bucket devil’s voice that taught me that beautiful music has no obligation to be likeable.
All my music and life heroes are unlikable fuck-ups, vagabonds, thug-poets and magic black women who live by their own rules.
Cohen is known for his least dynamic song, Hallelujah, a song reprised by half the world and revitalised by Jeff Buckley, who died in his late 20s, thus enshrining it with the sort of mythos and pathos fans hold dear.
Artists who die relatively young are cast with a semi-permanent halo rarely afforded those who brave it into their twilight years. The young are often dismissed or undercritiqued and, when they die, they are enshrined. The old are ignored and, just before they die, are smothered with adoration, given a Nobel peace prize and bundled up to pose for photos when they are no longer a threat to anyone.
We cannot begrudge Hallelujah its jackpot status. Still, I pity you if you have not made time to listen to his wider repertoire, including songs such as Famous Blue Raincoat, Going Home, Show Me the Place, Suzanne and Dance Me to the End of Love.
Also, for those young poets just discovering the common man’s pope of pub poetry, Charles Bukowski, or the Latin macho magic of Pablo Neruda, you might want to lose yourself in Cohen’s collections of verse such as Book of Longing.
Cohen was once told by his record label executive: “Y’know, Lenny, the problem with you is that you are great but not very good.” His music is revered yet hardly bought. He was a weird but not quite a fashionable poet. Yet there’s no fucking around with the wondrous honesty of his range and tone. In his hands, verse mutated into music embedded with an edifying elegance.
Perhaps other than Gil Scott-Heron, Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack and the recently rediscovered Sixto Rodriguez, no contemporary musician has voodooed music and verse into a single creative ritual quite like the Thin Zen Jew.
A shape-shifting Rimbaudian heir, Cohen’s poetry was perhaps the wind beneath the wings his music soared out of. Forget it. Seers of his ilk will never again walk this Earth again. Their world’s gone with them. Ours we are still searching for.
You will be sorely missed, Lenny. Namaste, you vagabond, you.