I want to touch people like a magician, to change them or hurt them, leave my brand, make them beautiful.
– Leonard Cohen, A Favorite Game
WHILE WORKING ON his final album, You Want it Darker, Cohen told an interviewer, “I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” A poet, a novelist, a waylayer, a vagabond, an itinerant singer, a songwriter, a lover, a father, an icon. Most of all Leonard Cohen was a spiritualist. Bob Dylan once said of Cohen, “His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres.” His spirituality always interceded. Cohen was raised Jewish, and remained so through his life. “I have a deep tribal sense,” he told the New Yorker last month. “I grew up in a synagogue that my ancestors built. I sat in the third row.”
Later in life, he was a saddlebag Buddhist in the Los Angeles hills. At one point, he was no longer Leonard Cohen but Jikan (the Dharma name, “Silence”) and he lived in a monastery, his music career at a halt. After he left, in his collection of poems, “Book of Longing”, he wrote, “I finally understood / I had no gift / for Spiritual Matters.” He spent the next year studying the Hindu discipline Advaita Vedanta in Mumbai, with daily satsangs – spiritual discussions. Towards the end of his life, Cohen began to study Kabbalism. “I even danced and sang with the Hare Krishnas — no robe, I didn’t join them, but I was trying everything.” Even Scientology took his interest for a spell.
Whether it was with psychedelic pantomimes, careening on his porch on the Greek island of Hydra waiting for God, in his profound and enduring romantic escapades, in his religious explorations, or in his art, he was always a tireless wanderer. “Anything, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, LSD, I’m for anything that works,” he once said. It showed. Nearly everything he wrote is imbued with the texture of liturgy. Cohen published two novels, 13 collections of poetry, recorded 14 studio albums and never left anything finished. His work is an omnibus of palimpsests. He spent 10 years writing, rewriting, and agonizing over one of his more recent collections of poems, “Book of Longing.” He spent five years writing what may well be his lyrical masterpiece, “Hallelujah” and 10 years writing the song “Anthem.” In the twilight of his life, while he labored over his final album, Cohen divulged in an interview, “I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs. Maybe, who knows?” The album was released earlier this year, but the questions yet bears inquiry: did he finish? In 1992 Cohen said, “I never had the sense that there was an end — That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.” For Cohen, music was just a limitless exploration of the divine and mystic.
All his works, whether lyric, verse or prose, function more as an individual study of faith than as performative material. In the genesis of his career, his records went nowhere. As with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen needed to be dragged into the glare of publicity garnered by the sweeter voice of Judy Collins. And really dragged. Collins recalls the fear and anxiety Cohen experienced in his first performances; he was absolutely terrified. Often, early in his career, Cohen needed drugs or alcohol to attain any degree of comfort on stage. He was never a showman.
And his music reflects this sensibility. His incantatory, half-spoken songs resemble prayers or spells more than a conventional lyric. With his haunting bass voice, his nylon-stringed, deceptively vacillating guitar patterns and Greek-chorus backing vocals, his lyrics which weave through religious references, sexuality and personal confession, Cohen’s songs never seemed oriented for the cult of rock and roll. He once thought of his audience as “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists” folks trekking the same tumultuous path to spiritual meaning that he spent his life rambling down. For those who seek, Leonard Cohen’s music does not provide answers – perhaps allusions. It will, however, decorate the road as a sonic offering.