Leonard Cohen, 1934 - 2016
The poet, songwriter, and novelist was 82. Updated through 11/20.
Cohen never directed a film, of course, and appeared in only a few (perhaps most famously, he took on a small role in an episode of Miami Vice in 1986), but his music has had a profound impact on the soundscape of the movies from the 70s onward. The IMDb lists over 240 soundtrack credits, and yes, as Kevin B. Lee has so deftly demonstrated here in Keyframe, one of Cohen's most moving songs, "Hallelujah," has been run into the ground. "But it’ll only be a matter of time before it crosses the threshold of cultural exhaustion, at which point we can shout out its title with a genuine collective sense of relief," adds Kevin.
In 2014, Michael Smith put together an annotated list of the "Best of Leonard Cohen in the Movies," writing about Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)—Fassbinder used Cohen a lot—Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (1994), Steve James’s Life Itself (2014) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Letter in Motion to Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux (2014).
The piece we'll all be turning to today is New Yorker editor David Remnick's magnificent profile that ran in the magazine just last month. Today, the New Yorker has posted a recording from Remnick's interview (26'48"), the last Cohen would give. There's a powerful moment in Remnick's profile many are currently citing, a letter Cohen wrote in July to Marianne Ihlen, the inspiration behind such songs as “Bird on the Wire,” “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” and “So Long, Marianne.” He had just learned that cancer was about to take her, and wrote immediately:
Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.
"Cohen was the dark eminence among a small pantheon of extremely influential singer-songwriters to emerge in the 60s and early 70s," writes Richard Gehr for Rolling Stone. "Only Bob Dylan exerted a more profound influence upon his generation, and perhaps only Paul Simon and fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell equaled him as a song poet. Cohen's haunting bass voice, nylon-stringed guitar patterns and Greek-chorus backing vocals shaped evocative songs that dealt with love and hate, sex and spirituality, war and peace, ecstasy and depression. He was also the rare artist of his generation to enjoy artistic success into his 80s, releasing his final album, You Want It Darker, earlier this year."
For more biographical overviews and appreciations, see the BBC, Alex Balk (Awl), Mark Beech (Artinfo), Spencer Kornhaber (Atlantic), Benjamin Markovits (London Review of Books), Larry Rohter (New York Times), Adam Sweeting (Guardian) and Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com). At Little White Lies, David Jenkins is collecting tributes from Twitter. And at the Literary Hub, Emily Temple's put together a collection of excerpts from Cohen's fiction and poetry.
Update: "There is no singer I would rather hear or read being interviewed, certainly not anyone else from his 1960s musical generation," writes Carl Wilson at Slate. "It’s hard to know exactly how to rate that quality in an artist. Cohen’s eloquence and dry wit stand out the way that Barack Obama’s does among politicians, and Cohen was a kind of politician of the soul, as strategic as he was frank. But his speech could be as nourishing as his songs. Now, as he sang in his hymn 'If It Be Your Will,' he will speak no more, and his voice is stilled, 'as it was before.' Those interviews, the film clips, the images—they are archives. What will remain is the writing and especially the music, with its cantorial phrasings, shtetl bounce, and old-world elegance, its sardonic knowingness and Nashville candor."
Updates, 11/12: "[L]ike many Cohen fans, I couldn’t help connecting his death to the election," writes Adam Shatz for the Paris Review. "Love was his deepest faith, but it was permeated by the messianic Judaism of his ancestors, which accounts for what Walter Benjamin might have called their 'profane illumination.' And though he was not an explicitly political artist, his songs are already nourishing a spirit of resistance to the new order."
"His songs source themselves to all manner of traditions, from the Zen Buddhism that spurred him to live in a monastery throughout the 1990s, the flamenco chords taught by Cohen’s first guitar teacher, to the liturgical music Cohen learned as that Westmount kid," writes Sarah Weinman for the New Republic, referring to the "affluent neighborhood" in Ottawa where Cohen grew up. "Never was the last more prominent than in Cohen’s final, brilliant album You Want It Darker, released just a month before his death and my daily listening staple since."
"And for the year and a half I spent committing slow, methodical suicide while deep in the grips of heroin addiction, I listened to Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate for nearly every single day of it." Sean O'Neal has a story to tell at the AV Club.
"Leonard Cohen approached songwriting with a poet’s patience and a fiction writer’s sense of drama," writes Craig Jenkins at Vulture. "There was often very little separating the listener’s ear and the purity of his characters’ gloom. 'I stepped into an avalanche,' he deadpanned over picked guitar and swelling strings on Songs of Love and Hate opener 'Avalanche.' 'It covered up my soul.' It’s an accurate portrayal of the experience of listening to Cohen, this sense of sudden, total envelopment. He scattered a few enticing words around you, and you were trapped before you knew it."
Criterion points us to Robert Christgau's essay on McCabe & Mrs. Miller: "Although Cohen has long been world-famous, he was strictly a cult figure when Altman tapped him… It’s hard not to suspect that something about his cultivated murmur seeped into Altman’s ideas about barely overheard dialogue, which come to fruition in this film and determine its aural gestalt more than Cohen does, rendering it as groundbreaking sonically as it is visually. But it’s worth remembering that definitive in some respects though Cohen’s songs are, they’re far from the only music in McCabe & Mrs. Miller—and that consciously heard or not, every bit of that music is both gorgeous and meaningful."
Chaz Ebert has posted a clip from Life Itself in which her husband recalls how Cohen's "I'm Your Man" "actually saved Roger's life."
Filmmaker Craig Zobel (Z for Zachariah) tells a few stories at the Talkhouse Film, including one about seeing Cohen in concert just a couple of years ago: "He was energetic. Electric. He was a showman. At least 10 times during songs, he dropped to his knees and sprang back up to a standing position (something he was doing gracefully at 79, that I couldn’t do now). I remember him reciting a poem at some point, and looking around to see every woman in the venue—from teenage to his age—just looking at him like they’d clearly wanted to go home with him that night. Magnetic."
Updates, 11/14: "After David Bowie died but before the passing of Prince, a friend and I were discussing the mercurial nature of pop music reputations," writes John Powers for Vogue. "In 1975, nobody would have dreamed of predicting that, by 2016, Bowie would be universally reckoned a bigger and more relevant figure than Mick Jagger. To my own surprise, I found myself saying, 'Doesn’t Leonard Cohen feel bigger these days than Bob Dylan?' Of course, time makes a monkey of us all, as Grace Paley wrote, and a few months later Dylan didn’t just win the Nobel Prize for literature but treated winning it with the cavalier disregard that underscored his eternal, incomparable Bob Dylan-ness. As Cohen wittily said, giving the Nobel to Dylan was like giving Mt. Everest an award for being the tallest mountain. Yet I still feel there was something true in my claim."
"There are endless anecdotes about his grace, elegance and compassion," writes Gustavo Turner for the LA Weekly. "Iggy Pop can tell you how one day they were looking at personal ads in the paper (yes, Leonard Cohen and Iggy Pop hung out) and they spotted one where a woman was looking for a man 'with Iggy Pop’s body and Leonard Cohen’s mind.' They replied to it together…. Everyone you like in music, whoever you are, liked him and respected him. From an influential goth band (whose song do you think the Sisters of Mercy named themselves after?), to Britpoppers (check out Jarvis Cocker’s definitive cover of 'I Can’t Forget') to Jeff Buckley."
"The mystique of a great Cohen soundtrack was tied to the fact that he was almost never a Top 40 artist," suggests Variety's Owen Gleiberman. "If, like me, you followed his career from a distance, when you encountered a song of his in a movie, that was usually the first time you’d ever heard it. The effect was startling: Leonard Cohen may not have known that he was writing soundtracks, but it’s as if he knew. It’s as if he’d written that song, and then sat back and waited for destiny to create the movie it would be perfect for."
"Leonard Cohen was the most beautiful man I have ever known," writes Leon Wieseltier in the New York Times. "His company was quickening in every way. The elegance and the seductiveness were the least of it. The example of his poise was overwhelming, more an achievement than a disposition, and much more than an affair of style. He lived in a weather of wisdom, which he created by seeking it rather than by finding it."
Updates, 11/20: "I grew up in a secular household, but my family had two saints: Freud and Leonard Cohen." Anahid Nersessian for the Los Angeles Review of Books: "Both my parents are psychoanalysts, so we believed in self-scrutiny, the diagnostic power of dreams, and that nothing is more universal than perversion…. This is how Leonard Cohen’s music sounds to me: like the rustle of earth falling away, shaken off from snarled and delicate roots. Cohen gets tagged as a beatnik troubadour, a poet of love and casual transcendent sex who bopped around Hydra in white linen pants. And that he was."
"Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, Allen Konigsberg became Woody Allen, but Leonard Cohen stayed Leonard Cohen," writes Jonathan Freedland for the Atlantic. "Coming of age at a time when showbusiness demanded Jews not make their background too obvious, Cohen was happy to be named less like a folk icon than a senior partner in an accountancy firm. It seems an obvious point, but it nods to a larger one that was either overlooked or underplayed in the extensive obituaries that followed Cohen's death last week. Put simply, Cohen was an intensely Jewish artist—along with Philip Roth, perhaps the most deeply Jewish artist of the last century."
Lucas Fagen, writing for Hyperallergic, argues that Cohen "was also a major political songwriter. 'Democracy' (1992), for example, a parodically upbeat mock-patriotic march, broadcast his inspirational message of hope to the American people, a message that will prove heartwarming time and time again as we come together as a strong, unified, incontrovertibly conflict-free nation. Check this out:
It’s coming from a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel that this ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real but it ain’t exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming
to the USAM
"If I hadn’t already bawled my eyes out last Tuesday night and Wednesday morning I’d cry."