Speaker by Various Artists


A Singer Must Die - Leonard Cohen, In Tribute

by Grant McDougall

Leonard Cohen passed away yesterday at 82. One of the great singer-songwriters of the ages has gone. Yet it is the very rich, deep music that he leaves that so wisely and beautifully articulates the frailty of life and the sorrow his own passing brings. 

Such incredible music. Music and songs of such splendid insight that were presented in a sober, direct manner, in his stark, melancholic voice, backed by, especially on  his classic early albums, sparse instrumentation that simply reflected the lyrics and voice, rather than distract from them. Songs of lust, death, sex, jealousy, friendship, loneliness and, yes, as the title of his third album put it, Songs Of Love And Hate

He wasn’t everyone’s cup of absinthe, of course. I get why some see him as a depressing windbag, a moaner, a sad sack. But to those that did like him, well, so few others put into song so well the perils, mysteries and challenges of love and life. 

He was 82 and obviously had a lot of time behind him and far less in front. But his passing is so unexpected, thus making it even sadder. He hadn’t been long ill like Bowie, or punished his body like Lemmy. He was a Zen Buddhist monk, for  - no pun intended - god’s sake. 

So it came as a complete shock when I got home yesterday just before 4pm, turned on the radio to hear the RNZ news and, rather than Katrina Batten after the pips, heard the opening bars of ‘Chelsea Hotel No.2’. The penny dropped and a few seconds later, she delivered the news. I’m not going to pretend otherwise: I stood there and cried, before putting New Skin For The Old Ceremony on. I then went and took off the shirt I was wearing and put on the souvenir t-shirt I bought at his Christchurch concert in December 2013. 

I first discovered Leonard Cohen in the mid 80s, as did many others of my generation, through Nick Cave’s cover of ‘Avalanche’ on From Her To Eternity and Straitjacket Fits’ cover of ‘So Long, Marianne’ on Hail. In basic terms, it was like a one-man Joy Division and, at that age, that was no bad thing. 

What a vastly rewarding discovery it was. Leonard Norman Cohen was already 30 when his debut album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, was released in very late 1967.  

He was already an established poet and novelist in his native Canada and would have been known there at least, regardless of his subsequent musical fame. I know sod-all about poetry, but by all accounts collections like Book Of Longing and Beautiful Losers are exemplary. I know a little about literature, so will venture to say that The Beautiful Game is a solid, if not great novel. I am, however, somewhat more confident discussing his music…

The music. Music of that rather rare thing: immense quality and, especially in recent years, quantity. What exactly his best songs and albums are will undoubtedly be picked over by fans and critics over the next few weeks; here’s my call: 

Early / classic albums, 1967 - 1979: Songs Of Leonard Cohen, Songs From A Room, Songs Of Love And Hate, New Skin For The Old Ceremony, Death Of A Ladies’ Man, Recent Songs. What a goldmine. Even if he’d never recorded anything else his reputation would be assured. The only caveat here is that Death Of A Ladies Man, infamously produced by one Phil Spector, is the only true lemon in his catalogue, the songs are weak and stilted. 

Middle period, 1984 - 1992: Various Positions, I’m Your Man, The Future. The instrumentation is somewhat more fuller on these, but overall the songs are no less fulfilling.  

Latter period, 2004 - 2016: Dear Heather, Ten New Songs, Old Ideas, Popular Problems, You Want It Dark. A late, somewhat unexpected, creative flurry. Again, fuller instrumentation; the songs are less angst-ridden, instead he is more reflective. A good place to start if you’re don’t want to risk jumping into the dark depths of his early works. My only complaint is the completely superfluous, badly advised, programmed drum beats that hinder Popular Problems.

Since the news broke I’ve heard from a couple of friends and fellow fans. The Wellington journalist Simon Vita saw him in London in 1988 and recalls his introduction of ‘Chelsea Hotel No.2’: “Janis Joplin came up to me in the Chelsea Hotel and said she was looking for Kris Kristofferson. I said to her ‘Little Lady, today is your lucky day – for I am Kris Kristofferson ...’”

Simon continues:

I guess there must've been a few of us, fans who were introduced to Leonard Cohen by Nick Cave. Cave covered Cohen's 'Avalanche' on the first Bad Seeds album. I dug it so I dug deeper into the Cohen catalogue. I knew I wasn't the only one on this quest as when I went searching for laughing Len albums in second hand record shops I got comments like, used to be you couldn't give these away now they're getting snapped up. I used to ride my bike to work with my Songs Of Love And Hate/Death Of A Ladies’ Man cassette going back and forth in my Walkman til the batteries went flat.

Cohen seemingly acknowledged us Cave converts by putting ‘Avalanche’ into the set when I saw him at the Albert Hall in 1988.

They say you never forget your first one and ‘Avalanche’ remains one of my favourites from a Cohen's catalogue of gems, it suited me fine as a far too serious 20-something and even now the melodrama excites.

Speaking of melodrama, try the Phil Spector produced Ladies’ Man through your headphones. In fact you can't really find a dud Leonard Cohen album, there's at least one classic on all of them.

I caught Cohen twice more as he came through Wellington on what seemed to be an endless world tour to replenish his embezzled retirement fund.

He never failed to deliver the goods on stage. At an age where many of us would rather be shuffling off to shuffleboard, Cohen commanded the stage with humility and humour.

Another friend, Hamilton radio station manager Phil Grey, discovered him in 1986 or so via a second-hand copy of 1973’s Live Songs. His favourite studio album is Songs Of Love And Hate and also appreciates his bawdy side, e.g ‘Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On’. He was also at the December 2013 Auckland concert, Cohen’s last concert  – ever !

Phil and his wife, Debbie, also took Phil’s mum, Judi and "she still raves about it – loves him and through him is quite a Nick Cave fan."

At the start of 2013 I saw a Canadian music legend deliver a quite stunning three-hour-long concert. But I’ll tell you about Neil Young and Crazy Horse another time. At the end of 2013 I saw a Canadian music legend deliver a quite stunning three-hour-long concert – Leonard Cohen at CSB Arena in Christchurch. I’ve since joked that I’ll need see Joni Mitchell should she come through again, then I’ll have the Canadian legends trifecta.

The evening before I’d briefly bumped into Terminals vocalist Stephen Cogle, a man who knows a fair bit about captivating singing and songs on dark insights on human nature himself, and was looking forward to seeing him a second time.

Cohen was unexpectedly touring after being defrauded of $US10m by a former manager. Given his age, and, to a lesser extent, the circumstances, I’d have let him off if he’d merely gone on stage for an hour and half-heartedly trundled through 10 – 12 greatest hits. But he didn’t. Instead, he passionately and intensely wrung himself dry physically and emotionally for three hours. He did, at a pinch, 35 songs or so, at least one song from every album bar Death Of A Ladies’ Man and close to all of New Skin For The Old Ceremony. The highlight for me was a spell-binding version of ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’ that put the recorded version to shame. And yes, he wore a very smart brimmed hat – as did the entire band and crew. 

In her review in The Press Vicki Anderson used phrases like: 

“Magical is a word that was used  a lot by those who saw Montreal poet and gifted member of the tower of song on Saturday night” and “He has an unwavering power to unfurl like no other, through song, tales of the human condition from love to despair and every emotion in between”.

I concur. It’s hard to say if it’s the best concert I’ve ever seen, but it was easily one of the best.

Just two days ago I was in a local record shop and noticed another customer buying You Want It Darker. It turned out she’d been at the same Christchurch show and we briefly chatted about how brilliant it was.

In mid-2014, I saw Kris Kristofferson live. He played ‘Bird On The Wire’. I’ve also seen Johnny Cash play it and Cohen himself played it at Christchurch. Two of them are now in the ground and given he’s recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Kristofferson may well be on shaky ground, too.

Bowie knew he was dying and used it to create Blackstar. Cohen, it appears at this juncture, was in as good health as can be expected, for a man of his age. You Want It Dark is, as far as I can tell, not a rumination on his pending demise. But doubtless it’ll be pored over for signs of such. 

A few weeks ago, in an interview with the New Yorker, he discussed his looming death. But it seemed as if he was merely being reflective and philosophical, rather than Making A Big Statement. Unlike Bowie, the public didn’t know he was ill; if he was, he managed to keep it private.

While writing this up I’ve listened to New Skin For The Old Ceremony, Old Ideas and Songs Of Leonard Cohen. It’s reiterated to me how compelling and rewarding his music is. 

Apart from the music, I also highly recommend Sylvie Simmons’ magisterial 2012 biography I’m Your Man for an excellent overview of the man and his music.

I haven’t taken the music charts seriously since I was about 14. However, You Want It Darker is currently the #1 album, which I suspect many of his fans will take some satisfaction from, for he has gone out on top.

So, thank you for so much phenomenal music then, Leonard Cohen. Over the next few days I’ll listen to more of your music and also strum ‘Suzanne’ a few times on my guitar.

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