When the New Yorker profiled Leonard Cohen in October, writer David Remnick was able to nab quite an impressive secondary source to talk about the artist's genius: Bob Dylan. The notoriously elusive musician— who had long admired and been friendly with Cohen — had some perceptive things to say about Cohen's music. “When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius,” Dylan said. “Even the counterpoint lines — they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music."
Dylan later added that Cohen, who passed away yesterday, November 10, 2016, at the age of 82, is "very much a descendant of Irving Berlin," in that both are "incredibly crafty. Leonard particularly uses chord progressions that seem classical in shape. He is a much more savvy musician than you’d think." The many, many covers of Cohen songs, by artists both expected and unorthodox, prove his latter observations to be true. But like Dylan's body of work, Cohen's compositions have been transformed in the hands of other people, and functioned as malleable source material ripe for interpretation and illumination.
Others saw this quality in Cohen's work even before he did. In 1966, folk artist Judy Collins did a version of "Suzanne" a year before his debut album, 1967's Songs of Leonard Cohen, hit stores. Her clarion voice zeroed in on the song's complex mix of beauty and tragedy, and conveyed with great empathy that no person is fully good or bad.
The latter was a theme Cohen would explore throughout his career, especially when it came to songs based on self-reflection: Nobody was as imperfect as Cohen himself. For example, "Going Home," which appears on his 2012 album Old Ideas, is a song from the perspective of his own muse, who reveals that he's calling the creative shots for the "lazy bastard/Living in a suit." He was equally hard on himself when it came to songs considered classics. Speaking of "Famous Blue Raincoat" in 1993, he said, "I never felt I really sealed that song; I never felt the carpentry was finished. That song and 'Bird on the Wire' were two songs I never successfully finished, but they were good enough to be used."
It's hard to see how the epistolary classic could be improved, but both Tori Amos and Jennifer Warnes — the latter a onetime Cohen backup singer — had different takes on the love triangle (and religious overtones) depicted in the piece. Amos's sparse, solo piano reading amplified the song's resigned tone, albeit with reservations: Her cathartic shriek on the bridge gave way to deep sadness as she softly sings, "Thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes/I thought it was there for good so I never tried." Warnes, meanwhile, interprets the song as a powerful farewell, leveraging mournful, cinematic orchestras and a dusky, expressive voice to make it clear that she, the protagonist, has the upper hand.
Yet Cohen embraced being so flawed (relished it, in fact) and used it for inspiration. "Chelsea Hotel #2," a song reportedly about a dalliance with Janis Joplin, contains straight-faced self-deprecation ("You told me again you preferred handsome men/But for me you would make an exception") and one of the most devastating silver linings ever committed to wax: "You fixed yourself, you said, 'Well never mind, We are ugly but we have the music.'" Both Lloyd Cole and Lana Del Rey tackled this song, with the former emphasizing the tune's defiant notes, and the latter preferring to play up the ephemeral, ill-fated nature of the union.
Cohen was both an outsider and insider, a status he came by honestly. He never played by the music or publishing industry's rules; in fact, he retreated from the spotlight several times, including a memorable period in the '90s when he spent years in a monastery. One of these public hiatuses led to 1984's Various Positions, an album that Columbia Records, Cohen's U.S. label, didn't even release at the time. (Famously, president Walter Yetnikoff told him, "Look, Leonard; we know you're great, but we don't know if you're any good.") In hindsight, this was enormously misguided: Not only did that LP feature the smoldering, New Orleans swamp-jazz "Dance Me to the End Of Love" — covered with yearning, macabre-folk desperation by the Civil Wars — but it also contained "Hallelujah."
Much has been written about "Hallelujah," for good reason: Artists such as Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright have elevated the song into a modern classic, a standard or hymn for the secular world. "I wanted to get into this tradition of the composers who said 'Hallelujah,' but with no precisely religious point of view," Cohen said in a 1985 interview. "And then I realize there is a 'Hallelujah' more general that we speak to the world, to life…. It's a rather joyous song."
It would be a stretch to say that Buckley's and Wainwright's versions are joyous, though they each provide emotional comfort and resolve in their own unique ways. But what they excel at is building on the song's emotional foundations and adding shading and depth. That, most of all, explains Cohen's genius as an artist: His eloquent source material was always inspiring and exciting, and provided sparks of inspiration and imagination to other artists.
It's no wonder he's been the subject of multiple tribute albums, including 1991's alternative-leaning I'm Your Fan; 1995's mainstream foray Tower of Song; 2006's soundtrack to Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man; and 2012's Old Ideas With New Friends. These records contain an embarrassment of riches. Nick Cave tackled "I'm Your Man" like a rakish lounge singer backed by a leering big band, while R.E.M. added grim electric guitars and menacing drone to "First We Take Manhattan" and Greg Dulli applied an aching falsetto and morose piano to a violin-creased "Paper Thin Hotel."
“His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres,” Dylan told the New Yorker back in October. “In the song ‘Sisters of Mercy,’ for instance, the verses are four elemental lines which change and move at predictable intervals...but the tune is anything but predictable. The song just comes in and states a fact. And after that, anything can happen and it does, and Leonard allows it to happen. His tone is far from condescending or mocking. He is a tough-minded lover who doesn’t recognize the brush-off. Leonard’s always above it all."
That's certainly true — but Cohen fully inhabited his music and respected its power, which is why it will continue to endure and thrive decades beyond his earthly presence.
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