I didn’t need to be asked to write this piece. Before this was a pitch, much less a story, I had already started getting my thoughts down on Leonard Cohen’s death. It was something I did for myself. Not long after the news filtered through the internet last night, there I was, sitting before the glow of a computer screen, trying to make sense of his passing.
That in and of itself speaks to the significance of Cohen’s music. I didn’t take the news of his death passively, but rather as a call to action. I was inspired to write while many others no doubt dropped the needle on Songs from a Room, Songs of Love and Hate, I’m Your Man, or any of the numerous hallmark records he’s gifted us over the years. For Cohen fans, this was our quiet tribute. Given the intimacy of his songs, I think he would have appreciated that.
2016 has been unbearably cruel to our musical heroes. David Bowie and Prince were larger-than-life cultural icons, and their deaths were celebrated accordingly. There was scarcely a person who didn’t have strong, vocal, and well-reasoned thoughts about what their music meant to them.
The same could be said about Cohen, even if reaction to his passing has coursed its way through a more personal, contemplative vein. In the hours since his death was announced, people have extended their condolences, ruminated on their favorite albums, and let us all in on the ways his bruised but heartfelt songs have touched them personally. For a short while, social media broke away from the fear and paranoia that has run rampant since the close of Tuesday’s election, replacing it with quiet grace and dignity. It felt like an intimate gathering of friends, all brought together through a common feeling of loss.
It takes a songwriter with a special human touch to connect with people in that kind of way. Cohen, with his incisive ability to cut into the heart of his listeners, had that. His earliest songs found beauty in pain, and in doing so they made that pain feel not only bearable, but comforting. Most people don’t wholly identify with being downtrodden and miserable, but we all have our moments when life’s many pieces don’t seem to fit together. It was in those moments that Cohen’s music truly shined, right up through the release of last month’s excellent You Want It Darker. He gave voice to the confused and brought solace to the lonely.
“There is a crack in everything,” he sang on “Anthem”, a standout track from 1992’s The Future. “That’s how the light gets in.” When things got heavy, there was always Leonard Cohen to lift the weight from heavy minds and tired shoulders.
Before Cohen died on Thursday evening at the age of 82, we were left with an excellent profile of the man courtesy of The New Yorker’s David Remnick. In it, Remnick delves deep into Cohen’s life, revealing a man of immeasurable heart, fragile insecurities, and boundless artistry and determination. He writes of Cohen’s many loves, his distaste for performing live, the years he spent training to be a monk, and how all of those pieces came together to make a man.
Remnick’s piece unlocks the secret to what makes Cohen’s music so powerful, especially to the legions of followers who have leaned on him more for comfort than mere entertainment. His image as a passionate, literate bohemian was not a front. He was, in fact, the same wise sage he appeared to be on record. He was thoughtful and powerful, but just as susceptible to breaking as anyone else. To those closest to his music, he was more than a performer. It was easy to see a little bit of yourself in him.
Cohen always felt like a friend, even from afar. His records drew us in and talked to us, and we lent him our ears in return. That, I suspect, will be his legacy. It won’t be one defined by chart-topping singles or platinum success, but rather by what he meant to those who treasured him most. If the goal of all great art is to connect with an audience, then by that measure Leonard Cohen was truly triumphant. He might be gone, but he left us with everything he had.