BY ONE of those eerie coincidences, a few days after the death of Leonard Cohen, one of his songs came up in something I was watching in the theatre. The play was Things I Know To Be True by Andrew Bovell, and although it was written some time before the Canadian songwriter’s death, it highlighted why the departure of such a figure on the cultural landscape can feel like a personal rather than a public loss.
The play, at one point, takes Cohen’s song “Famous Blue Raincoat”, and uses it as a device by which a young woman can tell her mother that she has always understood something that her mother thought was hidden. The daughter had noticed that her mother would cry when she heard it. I won’t spoil the plot, as this fine play — a tender and moving study of family life — is currently on a national tour. But various lines from the song became an unnerving threnody throughout the woman’s life.
Popular song is the soundtrack to the lives of a generation who live, love, and age along with the songs’ singers. It is why musicians of longevity, such as David Bowie or Prince, leave such a bewailed gap in the lives of the fans they leave behind. Cohen did that most distinctively because of the elegance and depth of his poetic sensibility.
To a pop star’s romantic charisma he added an eroticised intelligence. He was more than a womanising poet singing songs of melancholy. He delved deep into love, suffering, depression, and despair — and then offered a fragmented redemption with his holy but broken “Hallelujah”. Pleasure and pain to him were inseparable parts of what it is to be human: “There is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.”
Cohen could gaze up to the heavens and down to hell, and yet his feet were planted firmly here on earth. He had “this direct line to the galaxy”, the musician Rufus Wainwright said, “whilst at the same time knowing exactly when to take out the trash”. “A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh,” Cohen said.
He showed that “being spiritual but not religious” can be more than a shallow secular slogan. Brought up an Orthodox Jew, he flirted with Scientology before spending six years in a Zen Buddhist monastery in California — an experience that eased his lifelong depression.
Latterly he revealed: “Occasionally I’ve felt the grace of another presence in my life.” On his final album, last month, he borrowed a Jewish prayer of preparation and humility, singing Abraham’s response when God called on him to sacrifice Isaac: “Hineni, hineni; I’m ready, my Lord.”
The response to his death shows that his work and his words reached beyond his peers to resonate across generations. As he wrote to his former lover, Marianne Ihlen, on her deathbed a few months ago: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” His steps will always rhyme.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester. www.paulvallely.com