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Leonard Cohen: A Reflection

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Leonard Cohen: A Reflection – By Killian Laher

Leonard Cohen unfortunately left us earlier this week at the age of 82. Growing up, he had been referred to in music magazines as ‘Laughing Len’ (it wasn’t a compliment). Andrew Eldritch of the Sisters of Mercy pointed me in the right direction, not only did he name his band after one of Cohen’s songs, he also covered the relatively obscure Teachers.

 

So, one day, looking for something to listen to on my parents’ stereo I discovered a tape of Cohen’s debut album, 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen. Listening to many of his formative songs contained within: Suzanne, So Long Marianne and Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, the last of these unflinching in its description of romantic detail: “your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm”.

 

But it was his third album, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate that copper fastened my interest in Leonard Cohen. Opening with the plucked guitars and ominous strings of Avalanche. Cohen sounded like the grim reaper, singing “I stepped into an avalanche, it covered up my soul… Do not dress in those rags for me, I know you are not poor”.

 

Such words, married to great music on this album. Song after song pour forth, including the almost grimly ridiculous Dress Rehearsal Rag which probably sealed the fate of his reputation: “now if you can get your trembling fingers to behave why don’t you try unwrapping a stainless steel razor blade, that’s right, it’s come to this”. One of Cohen’s most celebrated songs, Famous Blue Raincoat is also here, which is possibly one of the most romantic songs of the 20th century, one would need to quote the entire lyrics to do it justice.

The rest of Cohen’s seventies was spotty in parts, 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony contains some of his more quotable lyrics, on Chelsea Hotel No 2 “you told me again you preferred handsome men but for me you would make an exception…We are ugly but we have the music” and A Singer Must Die: “I’m sorry for smudging the air with my song”.

On the other hand 1977 saw Death of a Ladies’ Man. Produced by Phil Spector, it is a decidedly odd sounding album, with a kitchen sink style production and some of Cohen’s dodgier songs, epitomised by Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On.

 

After a number of quiet years, the 1980s saw a kind of second chapter to Leonard Cohen’s career. I’m Your Man came out in 1988 with cheesy synths and a production VERY much of its time. Despite this, some great songs live within, bookended by First We Take Manhattan (“they sentenced me to 20 years of boredom… remember me, I used to live for music”), and Tower of Song (“I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get, Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet”) showing that Cohen hadn’t lost his flair for words and melody in the intervening years.

Attempting to cover his material has seen many an artist perish under the strain, but The Pixies did a fine cover of I Can’t Forget rocking the song up and doing Cohen’s artistic credibility no harm at all.

 

A bleak picture was painted on 1992’s The Future, as the title track, possibly his most danceable song, saw Cohen sing “I’ve seen the future brother, it is murder”, along with the brooding Waiting for A Miracle and the slightly more hopeful Anthem.

 

After this, he had a stint in a Buddhist monastery and subsequently saw his fortune embezzled by a former manager, which inadvertently ushered in a third and final act. I saw him live in 2008 in Kilmainham, something I never thought I would do. A highly enjoyable performance, though it lacked the intimacy of his early work somewhat. He also released three albums in the last five years, culminating in his most recent, You Want It Darker where the title track admitted “I’m ready my lord”.

 

He always sounded like ” the voice of experience”, but the music is exquisite, and his singing influenced countless deep-voiced singers. Grace and dignity are words often used but seldom appropriately – they apply here. Leonard “came upon” things rather than simply finding them. Let’s hope people continue to “come upon” Cohen’s work for years to come.

 

 

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