Since the numbing election I’ve been imbibing in the music and poetry of Leonard Cohen. I didn’t start out on this road as some sort of masochistic exercise. I just wanted to reacquaint myself with the work of this troubled genius who juggled so many contradictions within himself and his art.
Cohen was God-haunted while denying any traditional understanding of God. He followed Buddhism “religiously” while he still never stopped being deeply informed by his Jewish identity. Much of his poetry and song verse bristles with Biblical imagery and apocalyptic vision.
One of his best-loved songs, Hallelujah, was overlooked for years and came from an album his record company rejected. King David and Bathsheba make a cameo. It’s a dark cry of exultation. It always feels to me liturgical, which perhaps explains its appeal to secular folks who don’t have many opportunities to participate in liturgies. I was at a wedding reception a few years ago when the band started playing it, and a clutch of millennials gravitated to the mic and, arm in arm, sang it as if it were “Amazing Grace.”
Cohen’s art was often, sometimes in the same verse, both erotically life-affirming and ascetic. He was earthy and ethereal.
He was above all an artist, and throughout his complicated, often troubled, life he kept at it. He made a fortune and lost it, and had to go back on the road. Some of his very best art came from this last period.
He leaves behind him a legacy of verse and song (and some very dark novels) that will always be worth visiting. He danced us to the end of love.
His death at the moment of America’s worst election seems to me a passionate invitation to all artists, poets, novelists, playwrights, songwriters, journalists, and preachers to pick their words carefully and artfully, to try mightily to tell the truth as best they know it. He always did.