When I first became enamored of Leonard Cohen’s music as a teenager in the late 1990s, I pictured him as a wizened old sage, haunting a remote mountain cabin somewhere above my hometown. In my particular case, this was literally true. I was living in Claremont, Calif., and Cohen had recently taken his monastic vows at the overlooking Mount Baldy Zen Center, 5,500 feet above me. Among the more mystically and musically inclined of my high school classmates, the idea of making a pilgrimage to see Cohen would come up from time to time in conversation. Two of us made one ill-fated attempt, which ended with us wandering around lost in the snow, like two 16-year-old John McCabes with Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” playing on our internal soundtracks.
That initial image of an elusive guru — physically within grasp, yet fundamentally unreachable — will always be my defining concept of Cohen, but he lived many lives prior to his death on Nov. 10 at the age of 82. He was a twentysomething Canadian poet; one of the signature 1960s songwriter-seers; the thinking-woman’s ladies man; and an unexpected convert to synth-driven pop music. After he descended from the mountain in the current millennium, he watched as one of his least characteristic songs — 1984’s “Hallelujah” — belatedly became a pop music staple, and he later embarked on a massively successful world tour, a septuagenarian performing three-hour sets in an immaculate suit and fedora.
During his time as a Southern California monk, Cohen was given the dharma name Jikan, meaning “silent one.” And compared to the other songwriting geniuses who served as his generational peers, Cohen’s voice always spoke the softest. His music never equaled the ragged glory of countryman Neil Young, nor the cross-stitched compositional complexity of countrywoman (and onetime paramour) Joni Mitchell. Cohen never could have hoped to match Bob Dylan’s historical heft, and his own innate modesty would never have allowed for the sort of mythmaking that elevated Dylan into timelessness.
But in Cohen’s wry whisper there was a different sort of power, and he may have been the single greatest lyricist of his estimable era. As the grandson of a Talmudic scholar, Cohen’s lyrics always struck a balance between rabbinical authority and shamanistic abstraction. His songs were both gnomic and sensual, earthy and metaphysical. Cohen never embraced opacity for its own sake, but his songs remain forever uninterpretable; like koans, they sink beneath your wisdom like a stone.
Look, for example, to one of his best loved songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat.” In three simply-drawn verses, he lets us hear the music on Clinton Street, feel the cold of the late-December pre-dawn, see the tear on a raincoat’s shoulder, read the abbreviated signature at the bottom of a letter – but the love triangle that these tangible details circumscribe remains shadowy. His ode to Janis Joplin, “Chelsea Hotel #2,” masks its grief in kiss-offs and startling sexual frankness, and its closing lines, “I remember you well, at the Chelsea Hotel/That’s all, I don’t think of you that often” can be read with however much irony the listener chooses to bring to them.
Cohen’s gifts were never dulled by age, and his final album, this year’s “You Want It Darker,” was as unflinching in its examination of encroaching mortality as David Bowie’s swan song, “Blackstar.” The opening line of the title track calls all the way back to “The Stranger Song” from Cohen’s 1967 debut — “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game” — moving swiftly to a Hebrew-English chorus whose heavy implications are brightened by the defiant serenity of the singer’s growled delivery: “Hineni, hineni/I’m ready, my Lord.”
Cohen’s music has long provided comfort in times of trouble. In the 2014 documentary “Life Itself,” Roger Ebert’s widow Chaz recalls him listening to “I’m Your Man” from his hospital bed. The key lines from his 1992 song “Anthem” (“There’s a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in”) are routinely trotted out during periods of national mourning. So it felt doubly devastating for Cohen’s death to coincide with one of the most uncertain, fearful periods in modern American history.
For my part, I was stuck in traffic, dwelling somewhere in the middle of the Kubler-Ross grief stages over the state of my homeland, when I heard of Cohen’s death last week. My car stereo was soon blaring out a succession of Cohen favorites, and none struck me more profoundly than “The Partisan,” the Zen-Hemingway ballad of loss and resilience that Cohen so gorgeously made his own on 1969’s “Songs From a Room.” “There were three of us this morning/I’m the only one this evening/But I must go on,” he sings.
As 2016 draws to a close, we will pause to reflect on how much this year has taken from us – people, ideals, certainties, comforting illusions. Leonard Cohen, the figurative and literal mountain sage of my adolescence, is among them. But we must go on.