Art & Culture

So long, Leonard Cohen

Jairaj Singh
Jairaj SinghNov 11, 2016 | 10:40

So long, Leonard Cohen

I was in school, the very school my father had been, when he introduced me to Leonard Cohen. In the late 1960s, he told me, a visiting professor landed in Mayo College, Ajmer, with a record tucked under his arm, insisting to the headmaster that the children must listen to this "poet who was just being discovered by America" during assembly.

It was unprecedented.

My father was very young when he first heard "Suzanne", perhaps among the first to hear in the subcontinent. I can only imagine what he must have felt that morning; he never stopped listening to him.

I remember a few years after first listening to Cohen and writing down almost everything he sang into notebooks as though it were prayer, a few school friends and I were in Pushkar, which was off-limits for us, sitting on the terrace of the infamous Pink Floyd Café, a fine establishment for backpackers, hippies and low lifes.

It was a cold night. We had a quarter bottle of rum doing the rounds among four friends to see us till dawn. A young Canadian man in the corner was talking about his father's friend, a singer called Leonard Cohen.

My ears pricked.

"The last time I met Leonard Cohen, I couldn't believe my eyes," he said. "My friends and I were in a really bad part of town. It was 3am. I was scared until I saw Leonard with two tall women in furs, who looked like models, smoking cigarettes in the alley. I asked him what he was doing here, and he said with a twinkle in his eyes, he had come to find the best burgers in town."

Leonard Cohen, the proverbial ladies man, "the grocer of despair", the man who was born with a "golden voice", to me, was one of the most literary and profound singer-songwriters there have ever been.

So long, Leonard. (Photo credit: Reuters) 

Even the poets don't deny his sublime prowess. Writer Pico Iyer, a friend of his, just a few months ago in Bhutan, spoke about when he visited Cohen in a monastery in North California (the singer gave up everything for five years, from 1994 to 1999, to become a Buddhist monk. He was bestowed the name Jikan, referred to the silence between two thoughts).

"Here was a man who had tasted all the pleasures of the world." Iyer was almost surprised to find Cohen sequestered in a small room, drinking tea, talking about life, wearing wire-rimmed spectacles and a wool cap.

Leonard Cohen would take years to write each song of his. You could almost imagine each line of his songs having been lived or dreamt. The songs, mostly dealing with war, love, death, muse, music, sex, sighs and the vagaries of existence, were dark, gloomy and dripping with despair.

They were not for everyone.

In an interview he recently gave for his new album, You Want it Darker, that came out last month, "I have often said, if I knew where the good songs came from, I would go there more often," he said with a broken smile. "Everyone has a magical system that they employ [as writer] in the hopes that this will open up the channels. My mind was always very cluttered. So I took great pains to simplify my environment. If my environment were even half as cluttered as my mind I would find it difficult from making to one room to another… The system worked for me, even though I had to sweat over every single word. The fact that my songs take a long to write, however, is no guarantee of their excellence. It's just the way it is. It comes by ripples and drops."

Leonard Cohen became a musical sensation late in his career after he gave up looking for a career as a poet and a novelist (he was almost 32 and he had published three poetry books and two novels). He came to New York to find the folk music scene, and was picked up by Jack Hammond of Columbia Records, the same person who found Bob Dylan.

This morning, as I read about the death of Leonard Cohen, a line from "Take This Waltz", a song loosely translated from one of his favourite poems by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, came to me. "There's a piece that was torn from the morning and it hangs in the gallery of frost."

I couldn't help but imagine Cohen singing: "Now I bid you farewell, I don't know when I'll be back / They're moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track / But you'll be hearing from me baby, long after I'm gone / I'll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song."

Last updated: August 16, 2018 | 13:35
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