John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Songs of Leonard Cohen

You want it darker? He always delivered, right up to his death.

By - Nov 11th, 2016 03:52 pm
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Leonard Cohen. Photo from Facebook.

Leonard Cohen. Photo from Facebook.

What a week. Donald Trump, lifted on the shoulders of fear, has been put in charge, nuclear codes and all. And Leonard Cohen is now officially the ghost he always sounded like. His sardonic basso profundo and desert dry humor, perfect for this brand new Dark Age, will be missed. I’d like to think that Trump’s ultimate coup didn’t signal him it was time to leave, but the timing is too close to be a coincidence. It’s possible that Cohen, who had a take on everything, just couldn’t make sense of this latest absurd twist, so off he shuffled.

His work was done here and done well enough to endure way beyond his frail flesh. David Remnick wrote recently in the New Yorker of Cohen’s days of declining health. It’s a beautiful, elegiac article and only adds to the air of sadness that hangs in the air this week. Like Bowie, Cohen worked up to the end and dropped a new collection at the last moment before he made his courtly exit. I haven’t heard all of it, but the title song “You Want It Darker,” is chilling, obtuse and funny. It is the perfect soundtrack for this week of deep disappointment.

The double whammy of being older in a kid’s game and avoiding the easy paycheck of the oldies circuit conspire to make artists who flourish to the end rare. Cohen was one of the rare exceptions. If he was breathing, he was writing — I imagine he had no choice. His voice came from the sepulchre when he was younger and burrowed deeper into the earth with every release. His last work ends on a low note that is almost off the audible spectrum… it’s beautiful.

It’s also the perfect sound for the song you sing when the grim reaper is tapping on your door. I’m not sure I want it darker than it already is, but someone must have ordered this reality. Cohen, like Randy Newman, Robert Altman and other artists with some kind of third eye, saw it coming:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

There’s a lover in the story
But the story’s still the same
There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame
But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game
If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Hineni, hineni

© Leonard Cohen

I think this was written as a hedge against an unlikely Trump victory. Can’t rule it out, he’s been running for a year and a half. Like every song Cohen ever wrote, it’s all tucked in. He’s always had dour wit and pessimism in equal measure. The rigid discipline of a man said to have written 80 verses for his most famous song, “Hallelujah” is unmistakable throughout his career. He took his time, often years, finishing songs. There’s evidence in the Remnick article, In it, Bob Dylan, a friend and admirer, recalls asking him how long it took to write a that song. Cohen tells him, “Five years,” when he asks Dylan how long it took to write “Like A Rolling Stone,” Dylan tells him, “Fifteen minutes.” Two very brilliant cat skinners, one with a sign in his window “Service While You Wait.”

Later in the article, in what is either a compliment or a joke, Dylan awards Cohen first place in the songwriting derby, but there’s a catch; he tells him, “You’re number one…. But I’m number zero.” I really wish someone had snuck a recording device into the places they talked, it would be fun to listen to.

Those familiar with Cohen know that he withdrew occasionally — and once for a very long period — to a mountaintop Buddhist monastery. It was no spa. Emerging from his long absence, he found his manager had left him with close to nothing. The manager wound up in prison and Cohen was forced to go back out on tour in his last years. From what I saw, nobody had to bend his arm. He was an old fashioned gentleman who owned the space around him in a magnificent manner and managed to make dirge-like minor key ballads into an entertaining and transcendent evening.

The massive shock delivered on Tuesday has unsettled the country. Women cried — six that I know of — and men ground their teeth or got drunk. Or both. It’s a darkness I don’t remember asking for and my flashlight battery just died. We killed the flame.

11 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Songs of Leonard Cohen”

  1. Ted Chisholm says:

    Thanks for this piece. Beautiful, sorrowful song, and it couldn’t be timelier.

  2. Virginia Small says:

    Rest in peace, Leonard Cohen. You incomparably chronicled the depths of everything–revering paradox, love and beauty, and brimming with compassion and wryness…

    Cohen never released a single throw-away song since his first incredible album in 1968. I memorized those early lyrics and many others.

    Several songs are incredibly timely for this moment. The rousing “Closing Time,” reverent “Dance Me to the End of Love,” the one about there being “a crack in everything–that’s how the light gets in.”

    But for commentary about our challenging political climate–from the beloved Canadian who lived for decades in America–nothing tops “Democracy (is Coming to the USA)” including its “Sail on ship of state” nod to Longfellow.

    “Democracy” by Leonard Cohen

    It’s coming through 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 USA

    It’s coming through a crack in the wall
    On a visionary flood of alcohol
    From the staggering account
    Of the Sermon on the Mount
    Which I don’t pretend to understand at all
    It’s coming from the silence
    On the dock of the bay,
    From the brave, the bold, the battered
    Heart of Chevrolet
    Democracy is coming to the USA

    It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
    The holy places where the races meet
    From the homicidal bitchin’
    That goes down in every kitchen
    To determine who will serve and who will eat
    From the wells of disappointment
    Where the women kneel to pray
    For the grace of God in the desert here
    And the desert far away:
    Democracy is coming to the USA

    Sail on, sail on
    Oh mighty ship of State
    To the shores of need
    Past the reefs of greed
    Through the Squalls of hate
    Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

    It’s coming to America first
    The cradle of the best and of the worst
    It’s here they got the range
    And the machinery for change
    And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst
    It’s here the family’s broken
    And it’s here the lonely say
    That the heart has got to open
    In a fundamental way
    Democracy is coming to the USA

    It’s coming from the women and the men
    Oh baby, we’ll be making love again
    We’ll be going down so deep
    The river’s going to weep,
    And the mountain’s going to shout Amen
    It’s coming like the tidal flood
    Beneath the lunar sway
    Imperial, mysterious
    In amorous array
    Democracy is coming to the USA

    Sail on, sail on
    O mighty ship of State
    To the shores of need
    Past the reefs of greed
    Through the squalls of hate
    Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

    I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
    I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
    And I’m neither left or right
    I’m just staying home tonight
    Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
    But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
    As time cannot decay
    I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet
    Democracy is coming to the USA
    To the USA

    © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

  3. Ted Chisholm says:

    @Virginia: Also a wonderful and inspiring song, especially this week. I regret to say I haven’t listened to Cohen until today.

  4. Virginia Small says:

    John, thanks for so poetically profiling Cohen and his place in the music world.

    @Ted, Well, thanks to the Internet you can listen to much of his incredible legacy including some brilliant music videos.

    Check out “First We Take Manhattan,” “Take This Waltz” and “Everybody Knows” (featured in the fine film “Pump Up the Volume”), and “If It Be Your Will” (which Cohen considered one of his best).

    Interestingly, Leonard Cohen was never as popular in the U.S. as he was in Canada and Europe. Until other artists recorded Hallellujah (Tim Buckley, Rufus Wainwright) and made it a massive hit–it was eventually covered 300 times and featured in “Shrek” and “West Wing”) Cohen enjoyed only marginal fame in America. But other artists have always covered him and his fans were fiercely loyal.

    Just found this article about how JJ Cale’s recording of Hallelujah on an obscure Cohen tribute album called “I’m Your Fan” led to Buckley discovering it.

    It was nice when Hallelujah raised his profile–and maybe helped fill huge concert halls for his way-late-in-life tours. But the music will live on. Including “Tower of Song,” in which he honors songwriter Hank Williams and jokes, “I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice…

    And there’s a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong
    You see, you hear these funny voices in the Tower of Song…

    Now I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back
    They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
    But 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”

  5. Virginia Small says:

    “Until other artists recorded Hallellujah (Tim Buckley, Rufus Wainwright) and made it a massive hit…”

    Oops! Make that Jeff Buckley.

  6. Blaine says:

    … John Cale (Velvets)

  7. Thomas says:

    Grieving over two losses in one week, the loss of Leonard Cohen and the results of a presidential election which feels like a nail in the coffin of democracy as we have known it in the U.S.A., I was comforted by John’s elegant elegy for Cohen – with connections to the disbelief that many of us feel in the wake of the election on Trump.

    Thanks, Virginia, for enhancing what John wrote with your insights on the work of Leonard Cohen – especially his “Democracy.”

    I have been delighted by Cohen’s songs since I heard his “Suzanne” in the late 60’s. Along with millions of others, I have been awe-struck by many of the 300 cover versions of his “Hallelujah.”

    Several years ago, the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre staged a play about the aftermath of 9/11 in New York City. That play was set mostly in a bar. When the lights went out in the bar and in the theatre, a version of “Hallelujah” played. Everyone in the theatre remained seated until that song finished. I cannot remember the name of that play. Does anyone on this site remember the name of that play?

  8. Patricia Jursik says:

    SNL did a brilliant piece with the juxtaposition of Hillary singing the Alleluia song the week of Cohen’s death, it captured the bitter sweetness of this loss. In my opinion, Cohen was more deserving of the Nobel Prize than Dylan, wouldn’t be surprised at all if Dylan agreed with this.

  9. Mary Holden says:

    Thanks, John. A beautiful piece written by an old friend.

  10. Virginia Small says:

    Patricia, I suspect neither Dylan or Cohen ever imagined a Nobel honor, but you may be right in that Dylan completely respected Cohen (and vice versa) and they sometimes collaborated. But I’m happy for Dylan to be recognized that way. Both he and Cohen have also gotten other well-deserved honors.

    Just came across this great documentary on Cohen’s early years until 1977.

    To your point, they talk about how Cohen came into songwriting after having published two novels and at least one book of poems. Cohen was described as as always “putting poems to music” rather than writing songs, as Dylan (and most songwriters do). Cohen’s muses were Lorca (for whom he named his daughter), Yeats and other poets.

    Agree about SNL. It was a perfect dual tribute.

  11. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    I met Leonard Cohen the first time he came to Milwaukee. We had been corresponding (since he and I had published in many of the same literary magazines), and when I met him I didn’t realize that he was over 20 years older than I was! (Poetic and young at heart.) In those days there wasn’t much security, and the girls in front of me (twins) had painted (together) an abstract rendition of the Sisters of Mercy, and the guard just waved them in. I didn’t get the deep literary conversation that I had expected, since there were so many demands made on him when he was touring, but I did get into the after-party for free (where people had paid $100 to get in and spent a lot more buying expensive wine). Cohen should have received an award similar to the recognition that Dylan received, since he too changed the language of American songs forever. Google his The Prince of Asturias Award speech (that he received in Spain) – very poetic!

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