“Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in the midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be free”- L. Cohen, 1969, “Bird on a Wire”
There won’t be any obit you read today, tomorrow, 50 years from now, that will summarize Leonard Norman Cohen better than he did in the opening salvo of Songs from a Room‘s best-known track. I think even the New Yorker‘s David Remnick, who recently wrote a profile of Cohen that is the best of 2016, would agree that Cohen cut to the quick of it faster and sharper than he ever could.
Such is just a small part of the brilliance of L. Cohen, constructing tight and economical lines that speak multitudes. “Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes
I thought it was there for good so I never tried,” a line from “Famous Blue Raincoat,” is a lyric you hear first and feel for a long while after. A line that documents the dissolution of a love triangle and what the remnants have to cling to. Cohen said “It was a song I’ve never been satisfied with,” but damn if it doesn’t elicit some profound emotions in listeners.
Again though, a firm command of the economical and the emotional is just a small part of Cohen’s brilliance. Cohen, who was a renowned poet in his native Canada long before he earned a living with a guitar, was also a masterful chronicler of the “abandoned and forsaked” as his friend Bob Dylan would say. So many of his characters stand at the cross-section of romance, religion, frailty and struggle. “Hallelujah,” which took him five years to write and will be shared a million times over in the wake of his death, stands firmly at this intersection. Jeff Buckley, who made his name off the song, saw it as a “hallelujah to the orgasm” whereas folky Rufus Wainwright views the song as “liturgical,” as a holy text aimed at describing what drove Samson and King David’s decision making. Neither interpretation is wrong or right, they’re both just corners of Cohen.
Later in life, as so often happens with musicians of a certain age, more and more interpretations of Cohen’s work began to occupy the “frailty” corner. And again, that’s not wrong. The 82-year-old’s final album You Want It Darker, released on October 21, begins with him saying “I’m ready my lord.” There’s no parsing or misconstruing that context. As a Jewish Canadian Buddhist who wrote often about the Bible and dabbled in Scientology and hypnotism, the L. Cohen of that album was a seeker who had reached the end of his vision quest and was peering down into the promised land. Now Cohen truly is a documentarian of the divine. He’s a surveyor of the spiritual realm. He’s singing loudly and lowly in that midnight choir. He’s free.