Memento mori. Remember you must die.
This adage has, since antiquity, informed and inspired the work of countless artists. Leonard Cohen is no exception, as evinced not only in his personal life but also in his professional artistry.
There’s something nearly banal about the Poet’s archetypical intimacy with death. Mortality-as-muse can be considered the bread and butter of much of the lyrical canon. However, for Cohen, the ubiquitous theme was less a relentless reminder and more an impending reality. You Want It Darker, his final album, released just two and a half weeks before his death, was a case in point.
Nevertheless, there was nothing morbid in Cohen’s treatment of death. In fact, even in his old age, he confronted the subject with as much genuine acceptance and earnestness as he did in his youth. Although Cohen said that he had little interest in analyzing his artistic process and influences, one might venture to say that his personal, profound encounters with death contributed to his head-on approach to the matter, which is channeled through his poetry and songs.
From a young age, Cohen understood that the death of key figures in his life was something he would have to accept. When he was only nine years old, his father passed away. Later, the mysterious Spaniard who appeared in his Westmount neighbourhood and introduced him to the guitar committed suicide. And this past July, life ended for Marianne Ihlen, Cohen’s former girlfriend whom he had met on the island of Hydra in Greece, and is the namesake for his celebrated tune, “So Long, Marianne.” There were surely many others.
Cohen’s heartfelt final note to Marianne was penned with the same candour and sensibility as his hit song. His goodbye was neither wrought with clichés, nor overtly nostalgic: “Well 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.”
Cohen didn’t attempt to challenge the inevitable. Eventually, all things end, and the artist appears to embrace rather than deny this fundamental aspect of human existence. While Cohen and Ihlen’s physical relationship terminated years before Marianne’s death, the singer-poet maintained his ongoing adoration well after their separation.
While some view love as a transient state with a definite beginning and end, Cohen’s was immortalized, often by means of his music. In a 1992 interview, he reflected: “People change and their bodies change and their hair grows gray and falls out and their bodies decay and die… but there is something that doesn’t change about love and about the feelings we have for people… I feel that love never dies, and that when there is an emotion strong enough to gather a song around it, that there is something about that emotion that is indestructible.”
By encapsulating sacred memories of people, locales, and experiences in verse, Cohen evades the mortal confines of time and space. Though it’s impossible to escape fate and the persistence of time, his evocative melodies come pretty close to eternalizing moments past.
As much as he is a musician, Cohen is equally a magician. Through musical alchemy, he transforms fleeting moments and bygone figures into personal myths that persist through his writing and music. Cohen said he wasn’t interested in posterity: “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” In this way, one might consider his repertoire as an emotional catalogue of archived mementos. Indeed, Cohen had amassed a lifetime’s worth of sacred memorabilia which he carried with him in the form of proverbial “baggage.” As such, nothing of value could be lost to the past.
Cohen could reincarnate former loves like Marianne in “Bird on a Wire,” revisit the streets of his native Montreal as a young man by way of a song such as “Suzanne,” or evoke hi Jewish heritage and upbringing via the strains of “Who by the Fire.”
He was as much a philosopher as he was a poet. The socalled “spiritual seeker” often alluded to Biblical imagery, Asian ideology and Greek mythology, all of which referred to a specific time (visiting the neighbourhood synagogue with his family, reading the I Ching for guidance as a lost young soul living in London and relocating to Hydra) in the poet’s life.
Ironically, Cohen never set out to become a musician and never felt at home on stage. The troubadour considered poetry as innate self-expression. “Poetry is not an occupation,” he stated in the National Film Board of Canada’s 1965 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen. Song became his means of making a living, and adding music to his poetry gave him a worldwide audience who responded to his deeply personal reflections.
At the time of his death at 82, on Nov.7, 2016, was Cohen finally satisfied with his collection of mementos? Though the opportunity to review the highlights of one’s existence is said, anecdotally, to be reserved for the moment of death, perhaps the artist had the privilege to see his life flash before his eyes each time he played or heard a refrain from Songs of Leonard Cohen to You Want It Darker.
Cohen’s artistic vision will undoubtedly endure through the voices of a new generation of poets and musicians. After all, music is mythology. Die-hard fans can contemplate how the lyrics of perennial favourites like “Everybody Knows” are eerily relevant today, and new inductees to the “cult of Cohen” can discover a lifetime’s legacy buried in his discography.
And so the legacy lives on. ■
See details about a Montreal tribute to Leonard Cohen (Dec. 15) here.