I was rather disappointed with The Daily Telegraph, which normally does a good line in obituaries.
Leonard Cohen, who has died aged 82, is a man who deserves a bit of depth, but there in the first paragraph was the tired old cliché about “music to slit your wrists to”, which is as superficial as it is wildly inaccurate.
Cohen’s songs, to those who have ears to hear and admit to possessing at least a modicum of spirituality within, are inspiring, uplifting and life-changing. “I know there’s a spiritual aspect to everybody’s life,” Cohen said, “whether they want to cop to it or not. It’s there, you can feel it in people – there’s some recognition that there is a reality that they cannot penetrate but which influences their mood and activity.”
Bob Dylan, a big admirer of Cohen’s songs, described his work as “great, deep and truthful, multidimensional and surprisingly melodic”. He added: “I see no disenchantment in Leonard’s lyrics at all.”
Suzanne Vega described his work as “a combination of very real details and a sense of mystery, like prayers or spells”. Rabbai Mordecai Finley called him “a great liturgical writer”.
It has always been surprising to Cohen admirers like me that his quality is not immediately obvious to everyone. Everything he writes is deep and at the same time playful, mixing such apparent opposites as sex and spirituality with gentle panache.
The Daily Telegraph seems not to be totally convinced. It mentions accurately that his record company CBS decided not to release the album Various Positions in the USA, but fails to point out that this album, far from being a dud, was one of his best, including the stunning “Hallelujah”, plus brilliant songs like “Coming back to you” and the moving “If it be your will”.
Maybe some Americans are not much into self-deprecation, ambiguity and indefinable spirituality.
It cannot be denied that Cohen – a Canadian Jew from an upper middle-class Montreal background – had a huge impact on many people’s lives through his songs, poetry and his two novels. But in person he was charming, generous and self-deprecating. The two concerts of his that I went to (one at the Albert Hall in the 1980s and one in 2013 at O2) were outstanding.
After O2 I wrote that his “magnetic presence shrinks the arena into an intimate setting, with the audience as friends who have dropped by, and who the singer is surprised and delighted to see. His injection of spiritual awareness into everything he writes gives a depth that is lacking in so many modern lyrics, and the musical arrangements come with matching profundity, but with lightness too.”
Perhaps Cohen was a little too concerned about God for some tastes. The lead song from his last album, released only last month, contains the refrain “Hineni” – a biblical Hebrew word meaning “Here I am” and carrying the implication “I am at your disposal” or “Send me”. It is another example of his endearing lack of pride – among other things.
It is tempting to quote at length from his songs and poems, but they are easy to find online, and pointless repetition is not his style. I will end with a quote from one of his songs, however, not because it’s his best, but because it’s true and makes us realise how lucky we are sometimes to live in an age of quality recordings:
“You’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly
From a window in the Tower of Song.”
Don’t forget to listen.