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As a writer-musician, Leonard Cohen was a one-off


Leonard Cohen was a masterful and mesmeric writer and performer whose apparently simple words revealed a profound sense of playfulness and enigma, writes Professor of Writing and Literature David McCooey.

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Just weeks after Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, that other great literary songwriter, Leonard Cohen, has died at the age of 82.

When Dylan’s Nobel was announced, a number of commentators claimed Cohen would have been a more appropriate choice. One can see why.

Cohen’s long career has shown him to be a master songwriter, producing wry, literate and melancholy lyrics for 50 years. He also began in the literary field, producing four collections of poems and two novels before his debut album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967.

In fact, Cohen’s literary career made him an unlikely success in the music scene of the late 1960s, as did other factors. He had an haute-bourgeois background (being the son of a well-off, well-connected Jewish business family in Montreal); he had wanted as a child to attend a military school; and he had a BA from McGill, and had begun a higher degree at Columbia (the university, not the record label).

Most of all, he was not young. When Songs of Leonard Cohen was released, Cohen was 33, having spent the previous decade building, with mixed success, his literary reputation.

While Cohen continued sporadically to produce books after 1967, his musical career is what he is best known for. But there is a notable continuity between his poems and song lyrics.

The themes, tone and style of Cohen’s songs were already largely in place in his early poetry. His poems, like his songs, eschew complexity when it comes to form and word choice, and they focus – like the songs – on eroticism, death and loss, and redemption.

Cohen’s early albums, Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room (1969), and Songs of Love and Hate (1970) – the latter arguably his most realised album – are no doubt the basis for the idea that he wrote depressing songs. However, while a melancholy tone can be found throughout his career, he is surprisingly mercurial.

In a number of his songs, there is self-mockery and a dark, dry sense of humour. This sense of humour is also seen in his surprisingly funny live persona, observable in two important documentaries: Ladies and Gentleman … Leonard Cohen (1965), and Tony Palmer’s more emotional Bird on a Wire (1972).

At a lyrical level, the note of self-mockery comes out in songs such as “Dress Rehearsal Rag” (from Songs of Love and Hate), in which the poet views himself in the following terms:

Just take a look at your body now,
There’s nothing much to save.
And a bitter voice in the mirror cries,
‘Hey, Prince, you need a shave.’

Outwardly, Cohen’s lyrics were more straightforward than Dylan’s (certainly the Dylan of the mid ’60s). Yet within his apparently simple words lies a profound sense of playfulness and enigma, apparent in the song that arguably became his most famous, “Hallelujah”.

A religious language was never far from the surface in Cohen’s songs, and one of the more unlikely developments in his long career was his becoming a Buddhist monk. So it is appropriate, then, that the abiding sense that comes from his songs and his style of singing is that of a cloistered voice coming out of the dark, offering words that bring together the spiritual and material worlds.

As detailed in the recent biography by Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man (2012), Cohen had a youthful interest in hypnotism. In his early teens he bought a book called 25 Lessons in Hypnotism: How to Become an Expert Operator. After success with animals, he hypnotised the family’s maid and told her to undress.

Unable to wake the naked woman from her trance, the young Cohen began to panic, fearing his mother’s imminent return. As Simmons notes, the mix of eroticism, impending doom, and loss is “exquisitely Leonard Cohenesque”. And as Simmons also suggests, his powers as a singer and performer have always been notably mesmeric.

This mesmeric sense is key to his musical and literary success. Famously, when he appeared at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, Cohen transfixed and calmed his unruly audience of more than 600,000 with his down-beat songs and between-song patter.

To be mesmeric, one has to be consistent, and consistency was a key feature of Cohen’s career. Unlike Dylan, he didn’t try to reinvent himself, and while his musical accompaniment changed a little in terms of the technology used, it remained the same in spirit: simple, repetitive, and basically traditional accompaniment to his mesmerising baritone.

Thematically, too, Cohen was remarkably consistent, concerned repeatedly with love, mortality, loss, and redemption. And his skill for the memorable phrase was also a consistent feature, as seen in a line like “the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor”, from “Tower of Song” (I’m Your Man, 1988).

As a writer-musician, Cohen was a one-off. And in songs such as “Chelsea Hotel # 2”, “The Stranger Song”, “First We Take Manhattan” and countless others, he has left a remarkable legacy.

It is one that shows, perhaps more clearly than Dylan, that songwriting can indeed be a literary art.

David McCooey is a prize-winning poet, critic and editor. He is also Professor of Writing and Literature at Deakin University. This article was first published on The Conversation.

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