Press photo from Leonard Cohen.com

Old Ideas and New Generations: What Leonard Cohen Means to Us

Leonard Cohen endures and conquers. But does he mean something different to Millenial audiences than he did to their parents? Can the legend of Cohen escape its own clichés?

This article was originally published on February 2, 2013.

“You plagued me like the moon. I knew you were bound by old laws of suffering and obscurity. I am fearful of the cripple’s wisdom. A pair of crutches, a grotesque limp can ruin a stroll which I begin in a new suit, clean-shaven, whistling. I envied you the certainty that you would amount to nothing. I coveted the magic of torn clothes. I was jealous of the terrors I constructed for you but could not tremble before myself. I was never drunk enough, never poor enough, never rich enough. All this hurts, perhaps it hurts enough.”

— Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers

“Darling,” says Leonard, “I was born in a suit.”

– Leonard Cohen, as quoted in I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

Once, a teacher of creative writing told the class in which I sat that we were not in the business of poetry. Nevertheless, he cheerfully wished any aspiring poets among us the best of luck… on the unemployment line. It was not exactly the most inspiring moment in my educational experience.

I can only speculate on the source of such an attitude; I imagine the teacher in question must have received ungodly amounts of ill-thought-out purple drivel from students who would attempt to justify their efforts as ‘poetic’, until eventually, reaction to the very idea becomes Pavlovian. Still, I can never quite do what I’m told; I dug out all the novels I could find which were written by poets, to see if there was anything to be learnt that I was obviously not going to be taught in class. It never does any harm to be reminded that some people have different priorities.

This is how I came to read Beautiful Losers, Leonard Cohen’s second (and, to date, last) novel, written before his musical career had even begun. A yellowed paperback edition sat for years on my father’s shelf before I finally picked it up, though I was often tempted to read it; it bore one of those wonderful, infuriating back-splashes that raves about what a incandescent, revolutionary religio-erotic masterpiece it is, without giving the prospective reader the slightest idea of what the book is actually about. In a letter to the editor of the novel’s Chinese edition, Cohen tactfully wrote that it was a book to be dipped into, on and off, and only “if you are sufficiently bored or unemployed, you may want to read it from cover to cover.” As it happened, I was both, so I did.

Superficially, it details the tangled interconnections between a hapless scholar obsessed with the Mohawk saint Catherine Tekakwitha, his doomed wife Edith, and their politically active, sexually depraved friend and nemesis, F. But space does not permit a full and proper description; to say that Beautiful Losers considers romance, friendship, sexuality, sainthood, magic, insanity, Canadian politics, 17th century Jesuits and the history of the Iroquois would still undersell its scope.

Some time before I read Beautiful Losers, I came to the conclusion that Cohen was our greatest living poet. It’s not a glib statement. And this book is, without a doubt, a poet’s novel. The only lines that do not sing are the ones busy being wilfully obscene. In some respects, it fails as a conventional novel — the meandering plot is hardly gripping — but like the best verse, it seems to shimmer with half-imagined meaning, encoded in layer upon layer. One thinks of the writer expelling a lifetime’s worth of style into the book, firing everything simultaneously, leaving his reserves spent. Yet Cohen, as we have since come to appreciate, was only getting warmed up.

I mention all this not just because Beautiful Losers is an underrated little sapphire of a book, but because it’s an apt illustration of how some versions of Cohen have endured, while others have been stuck away in the attic (or, for lack of a better metaphor, Canada) until the culture at large decides it needs them again. On the other hand, the culture always needs Cohen, whose voice belongs to eternity.

The old man’s visibility has been high for the past few years. In March of this year, he will embark on the second leg of his ‘Old Ideas World Tour’, while debate over his work has again been renewed by the dual publication of Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Life and Work of Leonard Cohen and Alan Light’s The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”. Simmons’ biography, elegantly written and praised by many critics as near-definitive, is is particularly admirable in its recognition of how understanding Cohen the singer requires an understanding of Cohen the poet, Cohen the novelist, and so on. Whether one can get to the bottom of Cohen the human being depends on how much faith you have in the idea of biography.

As excellent as Simmons’ book is, I wonder if studies like these represent an old way of looking at the old man. Today, it is conceivable that those sitting down to listen to Cohen’s music or read his books for the first time are doing what their parents and even grandparents once did a few decades before. Nevertheless, I suspect Cohen means something different to young audiences in 2013 than he did to those in 1989, or 1979, or 1969. What that is, I’m not so sure.

“I’m not interested in posterity, which is a paltry form of eternity. I want to see the headlines… I’m not interested in an insurance plan for my work.”

– Leonard Cohen, CBC interview, ‘Leonard Cohen Considers the Poetic Mind’, 1966

Interest in the story of Cohen has been energised ever since it became apparent the story was not yet over. In 2004, Cohen returned to global headlines when he emerged from his self-imposed exile at the Mt Baldly Zen Centre in California, where he had been living as Zen Buddhist monk for five years, and discovered Kelley Lynch, his erstwhile business manager, had emptied almost his entire savings. Most people expect singers to be ripped off via byzantine contracts and industry legalities, but the act of bald criminality perpetrated against Cohen shocked even the most jaded of us. No one needed it to be explained. A man nearing his dotage, who had lived hard and worked harder for longer than most of us have been alive, had been robbed of almost everything he had.

While Lynch was eventually convicted, Cohen’s money — over $10 million, by most estimates — could not be recovered. With no other options, Cohen went on tour again, something he had given up when he was in his 60s, “just a kid with a crazy dream”, as he put it. A few of us felt a little queasy about revelling in the spoils of an all-singing, all-touring Cohen who had been forced back on the road by thoroughly indecent circumstances; it took a little while to be convinced Cohen was enjoying the experience once again. But these were not tired old recitals. Cohen retained all his powers, and still had things to say. The subsequent adulation came from astonishment, not pity.

For fans of Cohen, it was a triumphant and unexpected return, but for others, it would have been the first time they had seen him, his charm and dignity and talent. For them, this was not a greying, modified version of the Canadian troubadour who had wandered into Greenwich Village like he owned the place and casually informed all the ’60s folks that a new standard had been set. This was, and it bears repeating, something new for some people, and they should be envied for that. When Cohen is away, nobody does the job for him, and when he returns, we are reminded why. As Jeff Schwager wrote in his article, “Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas” “There is no precedent in popular music for Leonard Cohen.” (PopMatters, 31 January 12)

Still, those experiencing Cohen for the first time do not come to his work innocent. They are lumbered with the preconceptions and outdated stereotypes of the generations before them (which, paradoxically, are the same generations who probably thrust his records into their offspring’s hands).

Prominent and unique in pop music, Cohen becomes part of the furniture in its history, despite the fact he never quit fit within its grand narratives. Music criticism and pop culture at large too often regarded him with a lazy shorthand written in reductive labels. You probably know the kind of thing: the Poet of Melancholy, the Dark Romantic, the Lothario of Despair… blah, blah and blah. The clichés then become jokes, usually bad ones about slitting your wrists in a bedsit. “I get put into the computer tagged with melancholy and despair,” Cohen once said. “And every time a journalist taps in my name, that description comes up on the screen.”

True, Cohen has spent a lifetime battling depression, and for a man who has tried almost every means available to escape psychological desolation — drugs, alcohol, sex, psychiatry and religion — it is both inspiring and reassuring that his most effective solution is, and always has been, his art. He once joked that he had mentioned his drinking problem to one of his backing singers. She responded: “That sounds serious. We better set it to music.” But the idiotic assumptions, bad jokes and tired clichés it attached him to are exactly the sort of thing a new generation of Cohen fans could well do without. (Victims of depression generally don’t listen to music to make themselves feel more depressed. They listen to music to make them feel better. For an uncounted many, Cohen appears to have done that.)

We should bear in mind that Cohen, now in his late ’70s, may not be around first-hand for yet another generation to discover; we’re probably the last who will have that honour (though I do have a fond vision of a 100-year-old Cohen, still besuited and still charming the ladies with a smile and bow). That’s as morbid as I’m prepared to get on that subject, but it should put a few things in perspective.

When confronting music that is not their own, the choice of each new generation usually comes down to this; do they want to repeat the experiences of the past, i.e., “My parents got Beatlemania, why the hell shouldn’t I?”, or to take something old and find a new way of appreciating it? Trying on the formative experiences of another era like fancy dress costumes is something almost everyone will enjoy at some point, but after a decade-plus of considering myself a Cohen devotee, I decided that he deserved more than to be another hand-me-down icon, another poster on the wall. He was bigger than that.

You could argue it’s a moot point: that Cohen is Cohen is Cohen, and that there could be nothing more tawdry and artificial than attempting to retrofit him and his work towards the purposes of each new kindergarten class that stumbles across him. When he called his last album ‘Old Ideas’, the symbolism was none too subtle. What old ideas? Love. Hate. Art. Sex. God. You know, all that kind of stuff. Stuff that doesn’t really go out of date. But the songs and poems of Cohen are something more than precious artifacts to be hand down ritualistically from father to son, mother to daughter, friend to lover; however much they remain the same, they will be used for different purposes. It’s up to us to figure out what those are.

“I don’t consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin.”

— Leonard Cohen

So, how is Cohen perceived today? Can such a generalisation be drawn? If new audiences know him from his return to worldwide touring and records like ‘Old Ideas’, their next frame of reference is just as likely to be the blistering ’80s comeback heralded by I’m Your Man (the album that justified the synthesizer) as it is the sepia-toned image of tea, oranges and ’60s bohemianism that made him a star in the first place. And, inescapably, there is ‘Hallelujah’.

It’s difficult to define exactly how the song somehow took off in popular culture the way it has over the past decade (I refuse, categorically, to say it was because of Shrek). The Holy and the Broken, Alan Light’s new book on the song, reportedly does an insightful job of probing that question. Undoubtedly, it has defined Cohen, at least initially, in the minds of many. But like all songs that rise to that perilous height, it has become somewhat disconnected from it’s author, which is unfortunate.

Weirdly, it is almost unfashionable to say that no version of ‘Hallelujah’, and the message behind it, have been as complex and interesting as Cohen’s. Jeff Buckley’s version is lovely of course, but set the type for almost every cover to follow: one lonely, almost broken voice, articulating its own pain, standing against the darkness. Only Cohen’s version, with its vast, defiant chorus and orchestration, recognised that these themes of prayer, loss and struggle are shared by all of humanity, not just the singer. Plus, to be candid, with his rusted, honeyed voice full of wisdom and regret, Leonard just fucking sounds better.

If people look beyond his best-known composition, it depends on what they stumble across next. No matter where on the discography they approach next though, the appeal may lie in something they cannot quite recognise. Cohen, in manners and appearance if not attitude, is often described as ‘old world’. It’s a telling phrase, as the ‘old world’ referred to never really existed, except in the imagination of those who felt they were not part of it. Cohen’s work summons such a world (or worlds) – somewhere between Hydra in the sun, Paris in twilight and New York at midnight was always my best guess. A place of oceans, islands, towers and ruins. Others will imagine it differently.

Legends, inevitably, will colour perception. A drunken Phil Spector once pressed a gun into Cohen’s neck during a recording session and said that he loved him (Cohen’s response: “I hope you do, Phil”). He quelled a riot at the Isle of Wight Festival with a few softly-spoken, messianic words, and responded to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War by travelling to Israel, intending to join the army. There were two infamous affairs, captured in songs devoted to the women involved — ‘Suzanne’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’ — and enough half-reported others to match Casanova’s memoirs. For some, this image is what they fall in love with. For others, it’s the window dressing.

No matter how we choose to see him, Cohen will not be what we want him to be. The reason the clichés don’t stick to him as easily as they stick to others (for example, I suspect Bono’s reputation as a tosspot of the first order won’t be going anywhere in the decades to come) is because he constantly refutes them. His voice does not belong to an age, but to the ages; each era will make use of Cohen, but will also find it impossible to shape him into something easy and convenient.

Arguably, if we’re considering Cohen’s merits in our glittering World of Tomorrow, the question should be who comes next; who picks up the reins? But countless artists were almost ruined by tag of being the ‘next Dylan’, so however flattering the comparison might be, no one should be manacled with the task of emulating in the future what Cohen has done for our past and present. Learning from him, on the other hand, is a different matter.

I will draw no firm conclusions. There’s no way of teaching a course in Applied Cohen. My hope is that when the millenial generation finally decides that Cohen’s songs belong to them as much as their parents, they find the old man more funny than depressing. Sometimes, it seems like Cohen’s apparent seriousness is used to justify how seriously his old school admirers take themselves. But it should not be a secret — Cohen is a very funny guy, and his humour reaches places that others generally cannot. If we let him, he can often be the one voice that shares a chuckle when we are trapped in the dark places.

I hope we take him as an example that artists can express themselves in all the ways that feel true to them. Popular culture may be more forgiving of multidisciplinary artists than it once was, but in an age where celebrity is conferred for a single viral Youtube sensation, the inclination to try anything and everything, and to keep doing so, has been overshadowed.

It may be a vain hope, but it would be nice if the mistakes of the past were not repeated, and his poetry was even half as well-known and celebrated as his music. This is mainly because I worry that ages without poetry don’t do well, and that this might be one of them. Cohen made significant steps to figuring out how to be a poet in the 20th century, a problem that naturally informs the question of how to be one in the 21st. Today, lot of young people — most of whom have been told that poetry is a ticket to the unemployment line — will be considering that problem, too. But then, must art be tied to commerce, to make the act of making art attractive?

Asking what Cohen ‘means’ to the youth of today is a question that really doesn’t have any single one. The experience of discovering your own belongs to you. To me, Cohen is the man with the spirituality that can move an atheist. He is a gentleman bearing the kind of dignity we should all hope for. He has, time and time again, performed the role of the poet, which is to articulate that which cannot be articulated any other way. And believe it or not, his music can be rather good for dancing, if you’re in the right mood, in the right place, and with the right person. Try it.

My last hope is that we take note of what Cohen has proven countless times: style is something you write for yourself. That is a lesson every generation can benefit from.

“I’ve taken a certain territory, and I’ve tried to maintain it and administrate it with the very best of my capacities. And I will continue to administrate this tiny territory until I’m too weak to do it. But I understand where this territory is.”

– Leonard Cohen, Who held a gun to Leonard Cohen’s head?”, by Tim de Lisle, The Guardian, 17 September 2004