The acclaimed singer-songwriter’s final album, ‘You Want It Darker,’ was a fitting swan song for an impressive body of work brimming with longing, despair and wonder.
“Hineni, Hineni; I’m ready, my Lord.”
Those are the lyrics — Abraham’s response to God’s command to sacrifice his son, Isaac — that Leonard Cohen recites in “You Want It Darker,” a song from his final album of the same name released little more than a month ago.
The Quebec-born poet and singer-songwriter of the standard “Hallelujah,” who came from a middle-class Jewish family, passed away Nov. 10 at the age of 82.
It’s a fitting elegy for someone whose lyrics and life have always danced around the prophetic and touched the hearts and minds of his legions of fans.
The highly-influential Cohen made headlines recently when he penned a poignant love letter to his former muse, Marianne Ihlen, who died last July, writing, “Our bodies are falling apart and I think I will join you very soon.”
In his 1992 classic song “The Future,” Cohen the High Priest recalls the “lighter” aspects of a “Brave New World” that has since “crossed the threshold and overturned the order of the soul.”
“Give me crack and anal sex/Take the only tree that’s left/And stuff it up the hole/In your culture/Give me back the Berlin Wall/ Give me Stalin and St. Paul/I’ve seen the future, brother/It is murder.”
And in 1988’s “Tower of Song,” Cohen could see America’s economic inequality and injustices swelling.
“The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor/And there’s a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong.”
His later career may have revealed a more political side to Cohen, but the politics of love and sex were always his most pervasive concern.
Cohen’s ability to hew lust and liturgy, the sacred and profane, was unmatched among his contemporaries. He seemed almost in awe of women, and drew much of his creative inspirations from the well of his desire, as evidenced in his song “I’m Your Man.”
“I’d crawl to you baby, and I’d fall at your feet/And I’d howl at your beauty like a dog in heat/And I’d claw at your heart, And I’d tear at your sheet/I’d say, “Please, I’m your man.”
‘A Burning Violin’
Like for many introspective and authentic artists, the hounds of despair were never far from Leonard Cohen’s back, and he suffered from psychological depression for much of his life. That was a condition that he said only began to subside when he joined a Zen monastery in 1994.
I was lucky enough to see Cohen perform in 2009 at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia during a stop on his three-year world tour.
The casual listener might have expected a dour character to appear, but decked out in his trademark suit, the lithe, 75-year-old Cohen skipped onto the stage and took a knee as he crooned the opening lyrics to “Dance Me To The End of Love,” a song inspired by the horrors of the Holocaust.
“Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin/Dance me through the panic ‘til I’m gathered safely in./Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove/Dance me to the end of love.”
Leonard Cohen found joy in suffering and for that, I am eternally grateful.
Stacy Smith is a Towson-based freelance writer.
Leonard Cohen performs in Florence, at the piazza Santa Croce in 2010. Photo courtesy of Route 66
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