As it turned out, I was listening to Leonard Cohen non-stop in the days before his death. Maybe I would have been anyway; his new album was so compelling and so obviously a farewell. But early on Wednesday morning – as Trump’s victory became inevitable – I put on Steer Your Way. Then put it on again. And again. And again. “Steer your way past the truth you believed in yesterday / Such as fundamental goodness / And the wisdom of the way,” Cohen intoned as world leaders gritted their teeth and welcomed the new president. “Steer your heart past the pain that is far more real than you / That smashed the cosmic model /That blinded every view.”
His lyrics were, as always, disconcertingly pertinent; his voice the kind of beautiful that makes you ache for things you never knew existed. Repeated over and over, the song took on a hypnotic quality that soothed the soul. Eventually, it blotted out all the white noise: the post-election blame-laying and the too-late, too-trite analysis; the memes, the jokes and the hot new takes.
I wasn’t unduly surprised when I’d heard Cohen had gone. He’d dropped us enough hints after all, in his letter to his muse, Marianne, who died earlier this year, in his last great interview with David Remnick in The New Yorker and in poignant tracks such as You Want It Darker and Leaving The Table. That his light should have been extinguished right then – as the world appeared to be collapsing in on itself – was brutal, but also strangely fitting. Not just because, let’s face it, who’d blame the tired old troubadour for wanting to get out before the storm hit? But also because it meant suddenly his music was everywhere. Savage songs such as Everybody Knows (“the war is over / everybody knows the good guys lost”), were being given plenty of airtime, but so too was the wearily hopeful Halleujah: a song of such brilliance all the crappy cover versions in existence couldn’t rob it of its potency.
Twitter timelines that had been wracked with anger, filled up with poetry. Even in death, especially in death, Cohen was there: to dance us through the panic till we were gathered safely in; to remind us that, as “nations rise and fall… love’s the only engine of survival”.
Leonard Cohen belongs to us all. But everyone who has ever loved him believes their relationship to be intimate and exclusive . Everyone has their own bittersweet tale to tell. For me, he once meant a gothic, scarf-draped room in a flat off Argyle Street, the smell of incense or something headier, and a bunch of teenage girls on stripped wooden floorboards inhaling Songs Of Love And Hate. He meant freedom, friendship and the tantalising promise of bohemian seductions to come.
Where other early flirtations – with Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath and Stevie Smith – fell by the wayside, my affair with Cohen endured, deepening over time. By middle age, he had come to signify hard-won wisdoms and resilience; a gratitude for what had been and a coming-to-terms with dreams that would never now be fulfilled.
Dismissively dubbed the “bard of the bedsit”, Cohen was so much more. The key to his greatness lay in his ability not only to articulate the human condition in all its fractured glory, but to do so with unfailing grace and understanding. His masterpiece, Famous Blue Raincoat – a story of a friend’s infidelity with the narrator’s partner, written in the form of a letter – is the most exquisite blend of hurt, anger, self-reproach and reluctant forgiveness. “And thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes / I thought it was there for good / So I never tried,” Cohen sings – lines of such tenderness, you forget they’re describing an act of betrayal.
All this before one even mentions the music. I am not qualified to analyse Cohen’s composition or his harmonies, his minor falls or his major lifts. But I know that the contrast between his drawl and the sweet lilt of the female backing singers makes my hair stand on end; and that the plaintive violins on his last two albums can reduce me to tears. The joke about Cohen was always that he made music to slit your wrists to. Laughing Len, he was nicknamed, or the Poet Laureate of Pessimism. But I never found him anything but uplifting. Even at his darkest, he could be mordantly witty. “There’s torture and there’s killing and there’s all my bad reviews,” he spits out on Almost Like The Blues. Then there’s the famous Chelsea Hotel #2, a slyly funny vignette about a brief and woefully unromantic sexual encounter.
Cohen, who endured periods of severe depression, was certainly no stranger to chaos and despair; to the wounds inflicted by time. But for all his perceived cynicism, he was a man of deep convictions. Having experimented with all faiths and none, he was nevertheless steeped in a spirituality that transcended individual gods. His music is replete with religious images and language; with doves, and holy ghosts and references to the crucifixion. Though he found it difficult to commit to anyone, he never stopped believing in the redemptive power of love. And sex. Oh my, the sex. Is there any other songwriter who has more perfectly, more acutely captured physical desire? He could make the erotic sacred; the sleazy mystical. “Take this longing from my tongue / Whatever useless things these hands have done / Let me see your beauty broken down / Like you would do for one you loved.” No wonder women fell at his feet.
If there is one consistent theme that runs through Cohen’s work, though, it is the triumph of the human spirit. Closing Time, Anthem, Dance Me To The End Of Love and many more are not merely hymns to survival, but celebrations of our capacity to go on sifting endlessly through the wreckage of our imperfect lives in the hopes of finding a fragment of meaning, love or joy.
However greatly foreshadowed – and You Want It Darker is little more than a surrender to his own mortality – Cohen’s death was always going to leave his fans bereft. Coming at the end of a miserable week, his passing hit all the harder.
But there is some comfort to be drawn from his own readiness, and from his abiding wisdom. His words will not erase the shock of the election result nor assuage our fears over what will happen next. But they may yet remind us that the world – however broken – is a thing of flawed and fragile beauty, still worthy of our Hallelujahs.