When he was a teenager, Leonard Cohen picked up a guitar in school for the same reason so many young men do. “Guitars impress girls,” he said. He managed to impress more than just the ladies in a career that spanned mediums and genres before he died on Thursday at 82. Cohen began his artistic career as a writer and his poetry and novels were well-received. And a man of words he remained, but set to music through five decades, through 2,000 recordings of his songs.
Cohen managed to straddle the fine line between profundity and platitude, never straying into the latter. In Everybody Knows he told us, long before Bernie Sanders, that “the game is fixed/the poor stay poor, the rich get rich”. His best work, though, was on love, despair and longing. The mysterious Suzanne will haunt those who listen to it, and there are few works in either music or poetry as sad as Famous Blue Raincoat, Cohen’s letter to the man who is having an affair with his partner. As the world grew more cynical, and romance became a marketing gimmick, Cohen’s honesty on monogamy, desire and all the realities of falling in love began to be appreciated by a wide audience. But for much of his career this was not the case. Some of his best work has been made famous by more popular artists. Johnny Cash did Bird on a wire and Hallelujah has been sung by everyone from Bob Dylan to K.D. Lang and even Justin Timberlake.
Leonard Cohen didn’t mind. By the middle of his life, he had become a Buddhist monk, travelled and found a perspective that few with his position and talent have. He took the lack of recognition, as he did the lack of attention he received from women when he visited Bombay in 1999, with humour and a bit of self-deprecation. “I have never seen so many beautiful women who aren’t interested in me,” he wrote.