Leonard Cohen: A personal response from JR's arts editor Judi Herman

leonard_cohen_wiki_c_roland-godefroy This is not where you will read erudite analysis or an account of a life, or even of the work. I am simply asking myself and others like me why we have been so profoundly affected by Leonard Cohen's words, music and life.

For a time now, aware that the man who told us all "I'm your man" was an octogenarian, I have been confiding that I hoped he would live to a great age because the world would be a poorer place without him. It was a better place with him in it. I think I feel this way because of the arc of his life, with its many pathways, both sacred and profane, as shared through his music, confided to me and so many others through his gorgeous, elegant poetry and lyrics.

The devout Jew engaged in an honest "I-Thou", one-to-one relationship with the God with whom he wrestles and may, like me, doubt, is also the apparently cheerful, though silent Buddhist. He was also the sublime lover, the dirty lover and the unfaithful lover; but a lover who was always as honest with his earthly lovers as with his God. I never met him but I'm convinced that he would have been the best of companions – despite the fug of tobacco smoke.

Returning to his Judaism, famously self-evident in Hallelujah and If It Be Thy Will, look closer and you will see how often he quotes not just from the scriptures (Old and New Testament) but also from prayers and writings central to the faith into which he was born. Who by Fire picks up powerfully, almost playfully – even blasphemously some might say – on “U-n’ tanneh tokef”, “Let us proclaim the holiness of this day”, an ancient liturgical poem describing the Day of Judgement, an important part of the High Holy Days Liturgy recited at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when God decides “who shall live and who shall die … who shall perish by water and who by fire…”.

And quoting the opening words of the Kaddish (prayer of mourning) in the title track of You Want it Darker, the album released shortly before his death, “Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name”, is as much a part of his message that he is ready for imminent death as the words he repeats as a refrain, “Hineini, hineini I’m ready, my lord”. These words, which echo through the Torah from Genesis to Isaiah, are picked up by the cantor at his Montreal synagogue to end the song with a heart-stopping echo. How like Cohen not to go without leaving one last great legacy.

I hope to go into this in more detail in the next issue of Jewish Renaissance, comparing Cohen's lyrics with Nobel Laureate Dylan. But for now, rest in peace Leonard Cohen; z”l (zichrono livrakha – may his memory be a blessing)". You may have reached the age of 82, but for me, as for so many more, your death was untimely, though I'm sure you met it with your usual great grace, ready for this last new experience that you have written about with such beauty.

Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has died, age 82

leonard-cohen On Monday 7 November, one of music’s most eloquent and able songwriters passed away. Leonard Cohen was 82 when he died peacefully at his home in southern California earlier this week. His son Adam said touchingly in an interview with Rolling Stone, “My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records. He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humour."

The record Adam is speaking about is You Want it Darker, which was recently released (21 Oct) and effused the sincere, gravelly tones and orchestral movements he was so well known for. 

Born in Westmount, Quebec on 21 September 1934, Cohen grew up in a middle-class Jewish family. Marsha Klonitsky, his mother, was the daughter of a rabbi, while his father, Nathan Cohen, had Polish heritage – his father Lyon Cohen having emigrated from Poland in 1871 and later founding the Canadian Jewish Congress.

While at high school Cohen picked up an appreciation of poetry and by age 20 had published his first poems in a magazine called CIV/n. It wasn’t until the 60s, however, that Cohen began life as a musician. In 1967 he moved to New York, befriended Andy Warhol and penned the song Suzanne, which was to be his first successful foray into the world of music.

Despite a prolific, 60-year career, Cohen never charted highly in the mainstream. His highest ranking song in Canada, Closing Time, reached Number Five, while in the UK it was only the reissue of Hallelujah that ever charted at position 36.

Originally released in 1984, Hallelujah has become the song Cohen is most renowned for. The singer never had much success with it himself, but it was remarkably covered over 300 times, most notably by the late US singer Jeff Buckley, who scored a Number One hit with it.

As well as music, Cohen was also known as an accomplished author. Over the years he published two novels – The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966) – and 13 anthologies of poetry. 

Eleven albums down the line, in 2005, Cohen was in the public eye for something other than his art after his close friend and manager Kelly Lynch was exposed for misappropriating over $5m from Cohen’s accounts. This hefty loss formed a big part of Cohen’s reasons for writing new music and touring again.

Earlier this year Cohen’s former lover Marianne Ihlen died. She was the Marianne of the song So Long, Marianne, which Cohen wrote about her when the pair dated and lived in Hydra, Greece for much of the 60s. Shortly before Marianne passed Cohen penned her a heartfelt letter saying: “Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

The world has lost a truly talented spirit that will live on in Leonard Cohen’s songs, poetry and legacy.

By Danielle Goldstein