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Leonard Cohen Taught Us How to Die

No tattered papers, no clawing around for narrative, no absence of poetry. It was some way to say goodbye.

by Alex Robert Ross
Nov 15 2016, 4:30pm

After hearing Thursday night that Leonard Cohen had died, I found myself hunched over a desk in my apartment, going through the last of my father's possessions. They comprise a green leather box full of discarded ephemera, once a case for a Spanish brandy, and a plastic bag stuffed with tattered papers.
My father was an alcoholic and he died, jaundiced, at 58; I was seven. I don't remember much of him beyond his pallid green skin in his last few days. The stories I've heard about him since have been airbrushed: he was charming, gifted, well-read. But the booze seeps into most of the anecdotes they short circuit before they have a chance to function.
I was only ever half-interested in steadying this legacy in my mind. If he was happy to bail, if he was content to fade out as a broken man, then that was his choice. But this year, with its constant death, had forced me to reconsider. Prince's death, in particular. A man that I saw as immortal was human. He, too, had an addiction and, eventually, gave way to it.
There was symmetry to Prince's death; he died in April in an ascending elevator. It seemed as though he'd written ballads about it all decades before it hit. After that sank in, I wanted to do with my father's mess what I'd done with Prince. I wanted to tease some poetry out of it.
So I brought all these dog-eared papers and half-torn cards back from London to New York over the summer. Eventually, I thought, I'd do more than just flick through the green box like I had over the last decade; I'd find a more robust timeline than the one I found by lining up his three expired passports and watching him age like that; I'd get some meaning out of it.
But I didn't actually look at any of it until Cohen died. More than any other artist that I'd turned to when trying to fill in my father's blanks, Cohen seemed to have been preparing for death from the very start. "Bird on a Wire"—"I have tried, in my way, to be free"—was a eulogy written by a young man for himself. On "Dance Me to the End of Love," he asked his lover to "Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn / Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn." Often, even his romance yearned for mortality.


Still, his conversations with David Remnick of The New Yorker, interviews that'll now go down as his last, were a shock. "I am ready to die," he said. "I hope it's not too uncomfortable. That's about it for me." Remnick went back to the recent letter Cohen had sent to Marianne Ihlen, the lover he'd sung goodbye to almost fifty years before: "It's come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine."
What stood out from those interviews wasn't just Cohen's acceptance of death at the age of 82. It was his preparation for death. He told Remnick about the "analgesic" qualities to "putting your house in order" before dying. "If you can do it, he said "[it] is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable." And he was writing what he and Remnick and everybody else knew would be his last album. You could say that with You Want It Darker, Cohen stared Death in the face and tried to comprehend its features and that would be true to an extent. But really he was beginning a conversation with Death that he'd been preparing for since Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967. He tied his tie, fixed his hat, lit a cigarette, and started to talk to the other side. His final album opened with a title track that made peace with It: ""Hineni, Hineni," he sang with the choir. "I'm ready my Lord."
So I sat down with my father's papers, scraps and worn memories that flicked back and forth over five decades, and tried to do the same work that Cohen had done. You Want It Darker is everything that this transitory jumble and the green box is not; it's a reckoning with death, a final statement. It's graceful where these papers are thoughtless and beautiful where all this is ugly.


The few things worth keeping that my father did leave me in the middle of all this mess were left inadvertently. Folded into that green leather case are ten pieces of browning, faded paper held together by a paperclip. The top page is printed on British Broadcasting Corporation letterhead, dated February 20th, 1964; the rest comprise the script that he submitted to BBC Radio earlier that year.
In "Spanish Adventure," a non-fiction account of a journey through Andalucia with his first wife, my father was seeking the rich poetry that Cohen embodied, paying off a debt to Federico Garcia Lorca, hoping that a lifestyle would bring out a lyricism. The difference is that my father's piece was rejected from the BBC for being pedantic. "The criticism is that it is a chain of events and not a shaped talk and I have to agree with that," reads the note.
The BBC didn't make a mistake with this. The piece finishes with the infuriating line, "Our experiences, many of which I have had to leave out, were quite unforgettable." His characters barely exist: a "tall pleasant man," and an "independent looking peasant woman." He was scratching around for some sort of artistry. At one point, though, he found it, when talking about a rain-soaked Day of the Dead in a village near Seville: "Everywhere we went this miserable day," he wrote, "men stood around in the bars and in doorways and all was quiet save for the tolling of church bells."
Whatever flickers of success were contained within the script though, it never went further. Unlike Cohen, he didn't persist. Cohen wrote prose and poetry until his late 20s, desperate to organize himself on the page, before realizing that those urges might be better channeled into songs. Most people simply give up.
It's not that he and Cohen lacked common ground. My father's Lorca-Hemingway drive in that piece was drenched in booze, the "penny wine" and beer at lunch, washing every meal down with a few stiff drinks. He liked the fact that men were men in Spain back then; mostly that meant that the women couldn't stop him from drinking.
And Cohen didn't shy away from the drink; he had the same drive. He's as good as hammered on "Is This What You Wanted" rambling that "I was the very reverend Freud / You were the manual orgasm / I was the dirty little boy." The Future's "Democracy"—a track that's worth listening to again this week of all weeks—he sees the promise of America coming through on "a visionary flood of alcohol." As far back as 1966 he was talking about alcohol as an epiphany for artists: "You can cooperate with the vision that alcohol gives you," he said. "Alcohol is a high… some people get beautiful with alcohol."


But Cohen didn't succumb to it. The years he spent up at Mount Baldy becoming a Zen Buddhist monk, transformative as they were, weren't sober. He and his guide Sasaki Roshi would sit up and drink whiskey and cognac together. He wanted to overhaul his underlying failures, not simply "clean up." On "That Don't Make It Junk," released after he came down from the mountain, he put it simply: "I fought against the bottle / But I had to do it drunk."
In his art and poetry, Cohen figured out how to work the chemicals onto the page and into the melodies; eventually he'd mastered a network of pleasures that resisted addiction. Cohen even took up smoking again at the age of 80 after a 30 year break."When should we set aside a life lived for the future and, instead, embrace the pleasures of the present?," he asked. My father, most people honestly, couldn't do it. But it's a rare and liberating thing to see in another human.


It's an odd thing, sharing a song on Facebook after a musician's death. Quickly, there's a uniformity to it—everyone posts one song, something that we think might speak to the loss in some concise but grand poetic manner. With Prince, it was "Sometimes It Snows in April;" with Bowie, it was "Starman."
After Cohen's death, people chose not to go with the dark mortality of "Who By Fire" or the sweetness of "Bird on a Wire." Instead we seemed to collectively go with one of Cohen's most charming and straightforward love songs. Everyone shared "Hey, That's no Way to Say Goodbye." We wanted the title to speak for the loss; we all thought he'd gone too soon without warning.
Which is deeply strange. Few people say goodbye with the grace and power that Leonard Cohen said it. He wrote out his farewell and whispered it to us with all the clarity he could in his broken bass; he compiled You Want It Darker and told us what it was like to stare over at the other side. His son, Adam, says that he wrote right up until the end. He left us with a transcendent body of work and, where so many others struggle, he crafted a final masterpiece.
Leonard Cohen wanted to get his "house in order" before he died and nobody can say that he failed. No tattered papers, no clawing around for narrative in browning old scripts, no absence of poetry.
At 3 AM Friday, what biographer Ira B Nadel called Cohen's "favorite morning hour," I started picking through the paper in that second plastic bag. I found my father's divorce papers from his first marriage, stacks of bank statements, a few photographs of short vacations in the '70s, a postcard from my eldest half-sister in '96, and the commendation he received for resisting and then beating a man who was attempting to choke our neighbor to death.
At the back, there are two pieces of unruled paper with his own letterhead up top. He'd written out Rudyard Kipling's "If" line-for-line. All that stiff upper lip: "keep your head when all those around you are losing theirs;" "meet with Triumph & Disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same;" "force your heart and nerve and sinew / To serve your turn long after they are gone."
All those ifs, all that noble guidance, falling down to the outro: "You'll be a Man, my son!"
I doubt he wrote it for me; maybe he wrote it for himself. I know that, unlike Cohen, the best he could do was copy someone else's lines and that, right now, that's enough.

Photo Credit: Carlos R. Alvarez / Getty Images

​Alex Robert Ross is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.

Leonard Cohen
You Want It Darker