Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016

Obituary | Influential singer-songwriter captured decades of desperate longing
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 11/11/16, 10:13 am

While anti-Trump demonstrators roared through major cities Wednesday and Thursday and the witty Babylon Bee joked “Police calm millennial protesters by handing out participation trophies,” news came that 82-year-old singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen had died Monday.

Cohen’s son Adam Cohen told Rolling Stone yesterday, “My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles.” If so, that was one of the rare times in his life that Cohen was at peace after writing memorable but angst-filled songs for half a century. He was never satisfied with a participation trophy, but came out with 14 albums, tried merging Judaism and Buddhism in an idiosyncratic worldview, and from ages 74 through 79 went on extensive, worldwide concert tours.

The Canadian-born Cohen, never married, had numerous affairs. The longest-lasting, with artist Suzanne Elrod during the 1970s, led to the co-authorship of two children, Adam and Lorca, but Cohen said cowardice and fear kept him from marrying Suzanne. (One of Cohen’s most famous songs begins, “Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river,” but that’s a different Suzanne.) In the early 1990s, he was briefly engaged to actress Rebecca De Mornay. Then, from 1994 through 1999, Cohen lived in a Buddhist monastery and took the name Jikan, meaning “silence.”

Cohen was not silent for long, and songs he wrote and performed could well be anthems for cultural leftists and their followers who have taken to the streets since election night: “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.” But Cohen added after the last line, “Which I don’t pretend to understand at all.”

Many of Cohen’s songs have Bible-haunted twists: “Everybody knows that the Plague is coming / Everybody knows that it’s moving fast / Everybody knows that the naked man and woman / Are just a shining artifact of the past. … Everybody knows that you’re in trouble / Everybody knows what you’ve been through / From the bloody cross on top of Calvary / To the beach of Malibu / Everybody knows it’s coming apart / Take one last look at this Sacred Heart / Before it blows / And everybody knows.”

Performers from Judy Collins and James Taylor to U2 and Trisha Yearwood have made more than 2,000 recordings of his songs. Music critic Bruce Eder said Cohen’s influence is “second only to Bob Dylan (and perhaps Paul Simon). He commands the attention of critics and younger musicians more firmly than any other musical figure from the 1960s.” I first heard him at the end of that decade, and I listened again recently as Cohen released his final album, You Want it Darker, with its title song’s sad lines: “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 / We kill the flame.”

Who wants it darker? Whose flame must die? For a long time, Cohen’s religion was sex—as in his most famous Bible-referencing song, “Hallelujah”—and his record company in the 1970s called him “the master of erotic despair.” But that grew out of his sense that “we are irresistibly lonely for each other,” with sex an attempt at uniting. He moved on from that to a sense that “each one of us understands his solitude in the cosmos and longs for some affirmation by the maker of the cosmos.”

“I never had the sense that there was an end,” he said in 1992, “that there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.” He was frequently depressed and later claimed Buddhism cured him, yet he didn’t seem to outgrow some of his labels: “the poet laureate of pessimism … the grocer of despair … the godfather of gloom.” A recent New Yorker piece on Cohen quoted him as saying, “I am ready to die. … I hope it’s not too uncomfortable.” But last month, he said he was “exaggerating. … I’ve always been into self-dramatization. … I intend to live forever.”

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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