In 1988, still in his 50s, Leonard Cohen sang that “I ache in the places where I used to play” and suggested that he was just getting by. He was “paying my rent every day in the tower of song,” like any old tunesmith for hire.
It’s a humbling image that recalls the Cohen of his recent concerts. The nattily dressed singer, who died Monday at 82, would doff his fedora and kneel in front of his audience as if delivering a sacrament or receiving one, a song-and-dance man even as he pondered mortality, betrayal and obsessive need.
In interviews, Cohen would gently note that he felt his role on this planet was to serve. He had only his songs to offer, and they proved to be extraordinary, from “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Suzanne” to “Bird on the Wire” and “Hallelujah.” A large number were covered by dozens of famous singers, and “Hallelujah” seemed like it was interpreted by hundreds.
Cohen’s songs over six decades blended seemingly conflicting impulses: spirituality verging on the divine, a ribald sense of humor, a withering lack of sentimentality and an almost desperate passion for the deepest type of human connection — no matter how elusive it might prove to be. He was called a “master of erotic despair,” and the label fit like one of the tailored suits he often wore in concert.
Although he wasn’t blessed with a conventionally attractive singing voice — a low-octave rumble that became progressively more subterranean with the passing years — it was distinctive and unforgettable. It evoked the sound of monks chanting in a cathedral, or the feel of well-aged whiskey sliding down the throat. His response was to joke about it: “I was born like this, I had no choice,” he sang in “Tower of Song.” “I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
Covers and movies
Born Sept. 21, 1934, in Quebec, Cohen learned guitar in his teens and played in a folk group but was smitten by poetry. He published a collection of his poems, “Flowers for Hitler” (1964), and two novels while working in Montreal.
Frustrated by poor sales, he visited New York in 1966 to investigate the folk scene and met singer Judy Collins. She included two of his songs on an album later that year, and Cohen was invited into the inner circle of the city’s musical and literary cutting edge.
His 1967 debut, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” connected deeply with a generation of listeners who heard its sparse meditations as an autumnal respite from Summer of Love psychedelia. Cohen was in his 30s when the album was released, and he sounded like a weary traveler amid the callow infidels.
Artists ranging from James Taylor to Willie Nelson covered his songs, and in 1971 filmmaker Robert Altman used three Cohen originals from the debut album — “The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy” and “Winter Lady” — to underline key scenes amid the gray skies and endless snowfall in his classic western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” The wounded mutterings of McCabe, played by Warren Beatty, about his relationship with his business partner, Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), sound like they could’ve come from one of Cohen’s characters: “If just one time you could be sweet without money to it.”
Cohen turned limitations into strengths and wrote words and melodies so sturdy that they could withstand even his own misguided efforts to present them. His albums brimmed with puzzling production choices.
One of his best songs, “Hallelujah,” sounds adrift amid the synth accents and female vocals on the 1984 “Various Positions” album. But its genius was quickly recognized by his peer, Bob Dylan, who began performing it in concert, and then artists such as Jeff Buckley and constant exposure on TV programs (“American Idol”) and movies (“Shrek”) turned it into a cottage industry. Buckley’s gorgeous interpretation gets the most accolades, and well it should.
Buddhism and betrayal
But for some discerning listeners, the sparse 1992 interpretation by John Cale is some of the best Cohen ever recorded: a piano-led meditation that strips the song down to its essence. It is a hymn, but though it is about a kind of worship, it’s dipped in the blood of its biblical imagery: love as conquest and betrayal, with lovers as trophies that can be discarded. Yet the hope that somehow things will turn out differently just this one time lingers. Life will break you, and yet we crave it with all of our being, “Hallelujah” suggests.
Cohen’s songwriting remained at a high level for decades, and then he stopped. In 1995 he entered a monastery and became an ordained Buddhist monk. He returned in 2001 with a new album, and a renewed outlook — he credited Buddhism with helping him tame his depression.
A few years later it was discovered that Cohen had been robbed of more than $5 million by his longtime manager, a setback that ignited a flurry of work that would close Cohen’s career. From 2008 to 2013 he played nearly 400 concerts, and in the final five years of his life he released three of his finest albums.
Cohen was quoted last month in the New Yorker as declaring his readiness to slip away. “I am ready to die,” he said. “I hope it’s not too uncomfortable.” He reportedly was so crippled by back pain that he had to record the vocals for his final album, “You Want It Darker,” while seated at his dining room table.
But Cohen refused to wallow in late-career, dying-of-the-light cliches. Instead he sounds like an undertaker or disgraced preacher who slides quips between the fissures in his bottomless voice: “As he died to make men holy/Let us die to make things cheap.” Even in contemplating an unredeemed life, the narrator can’t resist a sly chuckle.
In the album’s title track, Cohen sings “Hineni, hineni; I’m ready, my Lord,” quoting the biblical story of Abraham as he’s called upon by God to kill his son. As Cohen recently explained, “hineni, hineni” is also an invocation sung at Rosh Hashana, which means “a willingness to serve.” Cohen served well.