Leonard Cohen deserves to be remembered for more than 'Hallelujah'
"Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering," Leonard Cohen sings in "Anthem," a song that took him a decade to write. "There is a crack in everything — that's how the light gets in."
Cohen's death, at age 82, was announced on Thursday night, and "Anthem" isn't the song he will be most remembered by — though its lyrics are certainly a salve. No, Leonard Cohen is now eternally joined to "Hallelujah," his 1984 pop hymn dusted off in 1991 by John Cale, immortalized by Jeff Buckley in 1994, then recorded by almost literally everybody else — Newsweek's Zach Schonfeld ranked the Top 60 versions of the song, and that was almost two years ago. There are hundreds more. "Hallelujah" was reprised so often that Cohen once half-jokingly called for a moratorium on new recordings of it. No one person can claim the song anymore.
Still, this song is, more than any of his other work, Cohen's gift to the world. Bob Dylan saw the beauty in "Hallelujah" even before Cohen recorded it, David Remnick recounts in his New Yorker profile of Cohen published last month, and Dylan toured with the song in the late '80s before Cale reforged it into its current shape.
It really is a great song, but there are better ones to play as you remember and mourn this giant of poetry married to music, the sacred commingled with the profane.
This was Cohen's first success after he turned from struggling poet and author to singer-songwriter in his 30s, and it was initially a 1966 hit for Judy Collins, one of Cohen's friends in bohemian 1960s New York. Cohen recorded his version a year later, for his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), after being pulled to Columbia Records by John Hammond, the same music scout who helped launch the careers of Dylan, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Count Basie. The song was inspired by Cohen's platonic friendship with Suzanne Verdal, at the time the girlfriend of Canadian sculptor Armand Vaillancourt — you'll note that he touches "her perfect body with his mind." He also accidentally signed away the rights to the song, he explains at the beginning of this live BBC performance.
"So Long, Marianne"
Cohen's relationship with Marianne Ihlen, a Norwegian woman he met while living on the Greek island Hydra, was the basis for not just "So Long, Marianne," but also "Bird on the Wire" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye." Cohen was informed this July that Marianne was on the verge of death, and he wrote her an email, starting out: "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." He concluded, "Endless love, see you down the road." Two days later, he got word that she was dead, but that she'd heard his letter, smiled, and "she lifted her hand, when you said you were right behind, close enough to reach her." When Cohen's son, Adam Cohen, performed at South by Southwest a few years ago, he said this song, also from Songs of Leonard Cohen, was one of his father's favorites.
"Dance Me to the End of Love"
This song from 1984's Various Positions — the album that also included "Hallelujah" — has apparently kicked off every Cohen concert since 1988. Like the rest of the album, it almost didn't see the light of day. The 1980s were a period of little commercial success for artists like Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Cohen — all of whom would see their fortunes revived in the 1990s and beyond — and CBS Records decided against releasing the album in the U.S. "Look, Leonard," Walter Yetnikoff, the head of CBS Records, reportedly told him at the time, "we know you're great, but we don't know if you're any good." History had judged otherwise, and this is a prime example of why.
Cohen's next album, I'm Your Man (1988), included this song, a reminder that believing the "dice are loaded" and the system rigged for the rich and powerful wasn't invented in 2016. Two years later, the song was featured prominently in the Christian Slater movie Pump Up the Volume, gaining a new audience. "That's how it goes. Everybody knows."
"Famous Blue Raincoat"
The blue raincoat in this song, from 1971's Songs of Love and Hate, actually belonged to Cohen, when he lived in London writing novels and poetry before escaping to the sunnier climes of Greece. It was stolen from Marianne Ihlen's Manhattan apartment years later. The line about "did you ever go clear?" is a reference to his brief period studying Scientology in the late 1960s — an ordained Buddhist monk and observant Jew, Cohen was a thoughtful, voracious spiritual polyglot and seeker. "Anything, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, LSD, I'm for anything that works," he once said.
"You Want it Darker"
Cohen's final album, released just last month on Oct. 21, starts off with this song, and the title track begins with a chant and includes as the chorus, "Hineni Hineni, I'm ready my Lord." Hineni, Remnick explains in The New Yorker, "is Hebrew for 'Here I am,' Abraham's answer to the summons of God to sacrifice his son Isaac; the song is clearly an announcement of readiness, a man at the end preparing for his service and devotion." When Remnick visited with Cohen in his Los Angeles apartment, he said, the singer "was anything but haunted or defeated." But the lyrics aren't terribly optimistic: "If you want it darker, we kill the flame."
The source of this article's opening quote, "Anthem" is from 1992's The Future, and professing that light enters through the cracks of life would seem to be the counterpoint to the bleakness of killing the flame in "You Want it Darker." Paradoxically, Cohen recorded the song soon before heading up to a mountaintop Zen Buddhist monastery in California for six years after burning out from recording and performing music. "Don't dwell on what has passed away," he sings early in the song, "or what is yet to be."
This is just scratching the surface of the great songs Leonard Cohen left the world — yes, including "Hallelujah" but also "I'm Your Man," "Tower of Song" (both 1988), and "Sisters of Mercy" (1967) — and there are some he never quite finished, he told Remnick. "I've got some work to do," he said. "Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it's not too uncomfortable. That's about it for me."
But if Cohen's final album is typically dark and haunting, he ended his marathon 2008-2013 world tour with a dance number. The last song of Cohen's 387th show, in Auckland, New Zealand, was "Save the Last Dance for Me" — a cover, which seems kind of fitting from a man who cared more about his craft than its rewards. It was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and made famous by The Drifters, and nearly three years ago, Cohen made it his own. His songs are now ours. Cherish them.