Our Man, the Sophisticate: Robert Christgau Remembers Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen—poet, novelist, and musician—represented something, regardless of age, we all wanted to become.
Before we contemplate Leonard Cohen's mortal soul, let's run some numbers.
Born September 21, 1934, Leonard Cohen was the oldest major musician to emerge in the high 60s. A modestly renowned Canadian poet and novelist when Songs of Leonard Cohen materialized at the end of 1967, he began productive if not quite prolific—four studio albums in seven years. But over the next 34 years, up till 2008, he added just seven more. And then in 2009 he exploded. In the final eight years of his life, Cohen generated three studio albums and four live ones without slackening his lifelong perfectionism. The studio work measures up, not quite Songs of Love and Hate or I'm Your Man but sharper than Death of a Ladies' Man or Dear Heather. And where most artists' concert albums are filler, these are summations.
True, on 2010's Songs from the Road many titles are a touch less than prime, and on 2014's Live in Dublin performances fine-tuned in hundreds of venues seem rather redundant even so. But what renders them so is the album that proved how alive Cohen was at 76: 2009's Live in London, which blows away not just his three earlier live placeholders but his various best-ofs, culminating his lifework as it portends the new songs that would amplify it. And having shrewdly reclaimed shiny shards of catalogue, 2013's overlooked Can't Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour ends by topping off a monologue about the six stages of male sex appeal—irresistible, resistible, transparent, invisible, repulsive, and cute—with his single greatest quatrain: "I said to Hank Williams how lonely does it get/Hank Williams he hasn't answered me yet/But I hear him coughing all night long/A hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song."
Inflected by multiple religious fascinations and quests, song and sex are the bulwarks of Cohen's legend and achievement. Emerging at an ancient 33 in a sober haircut and dark suit, he played the worldly-wise yet spiritual ladies man to a poetry-curious audience of hirsute hippies whose idea of free love was let's-spend-the-night-together—where Stephen Stills was a blond demigod who fucked lots of chicks, Cohen was a jaded roué who bedded lots of women. Many women felt his musical magnetism, too. But with males the attraction was trickier—his sophistication was a fantasy so far beyond these guys that it narrowed the appeal of his dry wit, drier melodic gift, and calm verbal command.
Me, I admired Cohen's sacramentally sexed-up novel Beautiful Losers in 1966, dug his supposedly overproduced debut album, and raved early about Robert Altman's Cohen-suffused McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Clearly, only some kind of genius could have burst upon us intoning "Suzanne," "So Long, Marianne," and "Bird on a Wire." But that genius was inconsistent—his underproduced second album, Songs from a Room, is one of several decided sub-classics. Nor did his fallback pessimism or the women and faiths he engaged so readily and discarded so inevitably betoken true enlightenment. He was always a bigger star in Europe than the USA, and due to some amalgam of perfectionism and chronic depression was never fully comfortable on the road, which along with copyrights provided the bulk of his income. So having toured successfully enough behind 1988's confident I'm Your Man and 1992's ominous The Future, he climbed Mount Baldy to initiate the oft-told tale: five years as a Zen monk, publishing rights sold with the windfall hidden in a tax shelter, long sojourns in Mumbai studying Advaita Hinduism, fine post-9/11 album, and the 2004 discovery that his windfall had been embezzled away, leaving the author of "Hallelujah" broke at 72.
The dream had been to quit music, write what he pleased when he pleased, and, as Yeats advised 40-year-olds around the time Cohen was born, begin the preparation for his death. But he wanted to leave his four children something, and although abstemious by roué standards had no appetite for poetic penury. So he did the only thing he could do and by combatting economic duress became a better man—ironically for someone who had always been old, a more mature man. After meticulous rehearsals with a road band so intelligently curated it could hit every note every night while evoking the responsive flexibility of a crack jazz combo, he embarked on his grand tour.
There Cohen accepted himself for what he was: a superb songwriter and canny, gracious performer who after four decades was loved worldwide by an audience that would never match his sophistication but had achieved enough wisdom to enjoy la différence. Where before his doomed retirement he had downed multiple bottles of Château Latour to warm up for shows, now it was half a stout or nothing at all. Where before he was a compulsive perfectionist, now he was a working man who always hit the nail on the head. Where before he sometimes felt discomfited by his fans' adoration, now he was enlarged by it. I was 70 when I saw him at Madison Square Garden in 2012, so it would be inconsistent not to quote myself verbatim: "This was not a nostalgia trip, a comforting or at best invigorating lookback at pleasures and potencies past. It posited a clear-eyed future in which the fruits of a well-spent life remain at your disposal. Leonard Cohen is the 78-year-old 68-year-olds hope to become."
Yet simultaneously he prepared for his death by finishing 28 of many available song fragments. These he spread over three albums that taken together posited a future in which his soul would leave this coil. The exact date remained obscure—when a recent New Yorker profile surmised that it was imminent, Cohen riposted that he intended to live forever. But just as 2010's Old Ideas packed a sardonic punch worthy of a 78-year-old road dog, on 2016's You Want It Darker his voice was a husk. It wasn't the first time. But in retrospect it seems a clear-eyed signal that Leonard Cohen knew exactly what he was doing.