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Leonard Cohen Was the Light That Got In

Remembering the poet, rock star, and legend

Getty Images
Getty Images

This is gonna hurt, so let’s start with something inconsequential, frivolous, dumb, fun. Remember dumb fun? Maybe you don’t. He rarely partook himself, but he never forgot. Here is the opening credit sequence to True Detective, Season 2.

Leonard Cohen’s “Nevermind” was the best thing about the second season of True Detective by orders of magnitude. The magnificent and bottomless gravitas of that voice. Noir personified. A suave and charismatic and sardonic grim reaper, vaping just to get the laugh. Growling couplets brutal and perfect in their economy. “The war was lost / The treaty signed / I was not caught / I crossed the line.” Or, better yet: “I dug some graves / You’ll never find.” You believed it — the only thing onscreen you ever believed. You wanted to meet this guy, or marry this guy, or be murdered by this guy; you wanted a buddy-cop prestige drama where the two leads were Leonard Cohen and a randomly chosen person fortunate enough to be hearing Leonard Cohen’s voice.

This was not the highlight of his career. It doesn’t make the Top 50. We begin here as evidence that he made everything better and anything bearable. Let me give you another example. We are, all of us — now more than ever — deeply flawed vessels, badly cracked. He was the light that got in.

Leonard Cohen died this week, at 82. He was a poet, and a songwriter, and a rock star, and a spiritual seeker, and a ladies’ man before the internet turned that notion permanently toxic, and an invaluable muse, and an avatar of effortless cool from the ’60s forward. He was impeccable in all things, including his timing, even in death. There is no one left with sufficient gravity and weightlessness to sing him home, now that he himself is gone.

He’d have been revered for three decades and loudly mourned today even if his output had been limited to that opening album trilogy — Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967, Songs From a Room in ’69, Songs of Love and Hate in ’71. The symmetry, the unfathomable depth, the enrapturing minimalism. A nylon-stringed guitar and an erotically mournful Greek chorus to back him and a voice that redefined the term “basso profundo” for all time. “As far as I’m concerned, Leonard, you’re number one,” Bob Dylan apparently told him once on a road trip, on the topic of songwriters. “I’m number zero.” This anecdote was related in David Remnick’s solemn, thorough, essential Cohen profile in The New Yorker just last month, which recounts the full history in grave detail, and finds Cohen himself nodding unambiguously at the grave: “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”

He’d prove Dylan right in various guises, some of them unwise — please enjoy the deranged, Phil Spector–produced, porno-disco romp entitled “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On” — but none of them unwelcome. Set aside a long weekend to bathe in 1988’s synth-drenched, neon-doomsaying I’m Your Man, where he sounds like RoboCop wearing a turtleneck; Dick Wolf should create a whole new franchise-anchoring, no-prestige, buddy-cop drama named after and inspired by “Jazz Police.” Amazing. “Stick another turtle on the fire / Guys like me are mad for turtle meat.” The dude could sell any line, could make the profane sacred, the hilarious terrifying. And vice versa. Here we find him hitting on a lady enraptured by his voice and oblivious to his celebrity while he’s being interviewed by The New York Times.

He’d have been revered for three decades and loudly mourned today via 500,000 unsatisfying cover versions if the only song he’d ever put out was “Hallelujah,” off 1984’s Various Positions. (Nobody named albums like Leonard Cohen.) Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Shrek, American Idol, The O.C., and, yeah, the sex scene in the Watchmen movie. Everyone has taken a shot at “Hallelujah,” and bulletproof it remains. Critically, there’s a delightful music-conference paper and a reverential book on that song and its eternal afterlife alone. But only the guy who wrote it could ever truly do it justice.

He is one of a half-dozen humans that ever lived who could pull off the fedora. Starting in the late 2000s, his finances decimated by an unscrupulous manager, Cohen embarked on a series of fearsome mega-tours that — as befit a prolific disciple who immersed himself in everything from Zen Buddhism to Scientology — radiated a monastic, intergalactic ecstasy. These concerts could rage on for nearly four hours; the double-disc 2009 set Live in London or 2014’s triple-disc Live in Dublin will ease your pain if you never made it out to one. The debonaire stage banter alone: “It’s wonderful to be gathered here on just the other side of intimacy. I’m so pleased that you’re here — I know that some of you have undergone financial and geographical inconvenience.”

Most recently, he polished off another unofficial album trilogy: Old Ideas in 2012, Popular Problems in ’14, and last month’s You Want It Darker. (Seriously. A world-class album-titler.) I would read a book-length Leonard Cohen poem about the human who just updated You Want It Darker’s Wikipedia page to add the words “… and final” to the line indicating that it’s his 14th record. The devotion of that act, beautiful and heartbreaking and absurd and futile and worth it anyway. The album itself invites and rewards that level of worship — a solemn and gorgeous wave goodbye as plainspoken and obvious-in-retrospect as David Bowie’s Blackstar. “I’m leaving the table,” Cohen announces, a purring crack in the earth. “I”m out of the game.” The secret chord dies with him.