‘Leonard, I would say that you are number one, and I’m number zero’ — Bob Dylan
When people say they find the music of Leonard Cohen ‘depressing’, I reach for my shotgun, metaphorically speaking. Another friend of mine called his music ‘dark’ — which annoys me even more. Bono once said that Cohen’s music is ‘brightly colored’, which is more apt. Those who find Leonard Cohen dark and depressing, just haven’t heard the ‘smile’ in his music, or noticed just how deep that smile goes (a thousand kisses deep, perhaps?).
Cohen didn’t make music until he was over 30, so it’s normal that his music appeals to adults, not those people stuck in permanent adolescence. He was always considered more European than American, because in Europe older artists are beloved and the cult of youth is not so pronounced. American pop culture sacrifices it’s young to drugs and fame, while some, more intelligent souls rise above. But Leonard was Canadian and already quite mature when he was first noticed — he had already lived so much — and so he avoided many deadly traps that fame provides a young and unformed person.
Cohen’s great songs are sweet and bitter in equal measures, they have a supreme balance of taste, like a good vintage. The music is always subordinate to what is being said, unlike pop music which privileges sensation over meaning. Folk music can be sickly sweet, or overly message oriented, or nihilistic, and singer/songwriters are often narcissistic — but Cohen is something else. He is detached enough to make you laugh, but engaged enough to cut you to pieces. He knows that he is putting on a show, but he knows how to ‘make it real’ at the same time. That is why there is no better vocal music to put on after making love, in that state of infinite weariness and receptivity.
Sometimes it’s better to listen to artists than critics when talking about other artists. Bob Dylan, who was the first to notice that Halleluja was a great song, got it right: he noted that while people talk about Cohen’s words all the time, they miss the brilliance of his ‘melody’; they understated his quality as a musician. The melodies are deep and subtle, which explains their lasting power. And unlike most singers his voice became richer and fuller over time, as those unnecessary high notes fell away. Some people say he has no voice, but don’t notice how deep in the belly it really is. It’s a purely intimate voice, whispering in your ear, like the kind of talking that goes on in lovemaking — again. It’s no surprise that when Leonard Cohen was a young man he was a master at hypnosis. The music is a hypnotic balm, but is also highly wakeful, connected to the heart. It contains that three-in-the-morning wakefulness, for those moments of of void and atonement.
I may be uniquely qualified to say something about Leonard Cohen’s music for a couple of reasons. First, I know something of the landscape of his younger days: I lived for ten years in his old neighbourhood in Montreal where he found his muses. On top of that, he was my slum landlord in Montreal and I briefly lived in his old house, by the Portuguese park off Marie-Anne, which was converted to a Zen center at the time, and for a few years I practiced Rinzai zen in the same lineage: a lineage both austere and severe, but also with an unsurpassed sense of humour. I even received the same degree in Literature as him at McGill University. The life parallels are striking, including my choice of hobbies: Zen, writing, and song. It’s as if I have been unconsciously following him all my life! Or at least in some sense we both after the same thing.
I have a feel for ragged and desperate poetic nights of Montreal he lived, as a young twentysomething. I played at the same type of open-mics cabarets that Montreal is famous for, opening for such singers as Rufus Wainwright and Godspeed You Black Emperor, who are now well known, and at often at the bagel shop where he used to perform. In the late 1990’s, before the internet took hold, there was an lively scene there. Cohen has said that Montreal was always in some ways more vibrant than the bigger cosmopolitan places like New York: perhaps because of the severe cold there was a lot of warmth generated there. Montreal was the perfect bohemian world to be free and irresponsible, and to make art — to get out of the rat race. But as Leonard Cohen once wrote: ‘Beware of Montreal, especially in winter. It will bring everything down’. The pull of that brightly colored world, the women and the poetry, the dissolution that engenders, are bound to lead someone to religion or ruin!
I crossed paths Leonard Cohen once, at the Zen Centre. Being an ambitious young songwriter, I had recorded a demo cassette tape which I passed on to him. Leonard — always the perfect gentleman — graciously accepted my demo entitled ‘Soon, Soon.’ and said ‘A good title.’ He declined my invitation to a show I was playing that night and told me he had ‘previous engagements’, but the next day he asked me how it was. ‘A tough gig’, I replied. I had played to a half empty room with a bad sound system, where the espresso machine drowned out my unmiked acoustic guitar. ‘I’ve had my share of those’, he said, making us feel on the same level — though he was an established world superstar, and I was washing dishes to pay the rent and playing music in a pizza parlour. In any case, our meeting was full of warmth — it contained the same warm as his music, for the man and the music were the same combination of warmth, intelligence, and wit. Those songs are not depressing in the least: they are an antidote to depression.
During the Zen retreat Leonard was just another face, in a sea of faces, meditating in his dark robe, looking like a very exhausted old man. I could hear his voice chanting ‘gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha’ which means ‘gone, gone gone to the other shore’ — a voice that was somehow more pronounced even in that setting. Few people know how that Japanese chanting affected his vocal styling, and also just how much hard work he did in Zen temples — that this was ‘the secret life’ he sang about. Like me he washed dishes, but voluntarily — not because he needed to to survive. Perhaps he submitted to all that arduous hard work as a counterbalance the life of luxury that a star is given, because he knew how detrimental ‘being special’ could be to the soul. In Zen practice, nobody was a star, nobody was special. The practice was both communal, but also purely solitary.
After the retreat and the celebratory feast, I brought home his leftover lamb chops, which couldn’t be kept in the temple. After a vegetarian Zen life, apparently when Leonard was in Montreal he always went to a famous Jewish Deli to get his meat and liquor. When I brought the sacrificial meat home I told my roommates proudly: ‘These are Leonard Cohen’s leftover lamb chops’. We ate them in silence as if we were a blessed substance, in awe and admiration.
That year I wrote Leonard a letter later, by post: I addressed it to Mount Baldy Zen Centre, where he was apparently living an austere and devoted life, at least intermittently. In the letter I wrote, among other things: ‘I am your son’. I was told that it caused a bit of a stir in the monastery, but I never knew why. It was pretty arrogant to say that, but there was something true there too. We are all the sons and daughters of those artists we love the best. We are doomed to imitate them, until we can ‘make it real’ ourselves.