On the Beat

So long, Leonard Cohen: A remembrance

Leonard Cohen onstage. File photo.
Leonard Cohen onstage. File photo.

This year’s long unraveling continues with word that Leonard Cohen is gone.

News broke Thursday night that the Canadian-born Cohen had passed at age 82, the latest exit in 2016’s sad rock-generation procession alongside Prince and David Bowie. No cause of death was given for Cohen, a singer, songwriter, poet, bon vivant and author of classics including “Hallelujah,” “Suzanne” and “Everybody Knows.”

Still, the news was not a surprise. Intimations of mortality have always been a cornerstone of Cohen’s songs, which convey an everyman sense of the passing of things -- love, life, seasons of time, even grief -- addressed in shell-shocked tones, from a great distance.

While he does not appear to have crafted as elaborately artistic an exit as David Bowie did with his “Blackstar” album and videos, Cohen left behind a few markers on his just-released new album, “You Want It Darker.” The album opens with the liturgically styled title track, the chorus of which features the declaration, “I’m ready, my Lord.”

Cohen seemed resigned to his end coming soon in an amazing New Yorker profile published last month, in which he talked about his “proximity to death.” And back in July, around the time Marianne Ihlen (muse and subject of “So Long, Marianne,” “Bird on a Wire” and other songs) was dying of leukemia, Cohen sent her a letter of farewell that is impossible to read without welling up:

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.

And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.

That’s even more bittersweet to read now, in the wake of Cohen’s own passing. About the only comfort to be had is the thought that, in whatever afterworld you believe exists, Cohen will no doubt be the coolest and most stylish guy in the room.

That was definitely the case the last time I saw Cohen onstage, seven years ago in Durham. It was a night I’ll always remember; the review is below.

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Spry Cohen gives his all

By David Menconi, News & Observer

Nov. 5, 2009

As instruments of doom go, Leonard Cohen’s voice is sort of like anesthesia. You’ll be coasting along, basking in his mellow croon and letting its warm glow wash over you. Then a trance takes over about the time he drops one of his wicked kill-shot lines on you -- “You told me again you preferred handsome men/But for me you’d make an exception,” say -- and the next thing you know, you’re waking up wondering what just happened. And if you think that sounds at all unpleasant, then you weren’t at Cohen’s Tuesday night show at Durham Performing Arts Center.

Cohen’s voice is an admittedly acquired taste, of course, and it’s not one that has gotten much airplay in America over the years. And yet his songs have been in the air so much that you probably know more of them than you realize. Tuesday’s show featured 27 of them, including most of the Cohen canon high points that the crowd had come to hear. The standing ovations began before he’d even sung a note. Then again, he rocks a dark suit and fedora so well, he deserved the cheers just for walking onstage.

Cohen is 75 years old and he collapsed during a show in Spain back in September. But you’d never have known that from Tuesday’s performance. He was spry from start to finish, sometimes singing from a knee for dramatic emphasis. By the end of the night, he was literally dancing his way off the stage.

“I don’t know when we’ll pass this way again,” he announced early on. “But it is our intent to give you everything we got.”

For this tour, Cohen has assembled a crack nine-piece band littered with virtuosos. They supplied sleek, exceedingly well-played jazz-flavored rock that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Steely Dan record. During each player’s star turn, Cohen would stand off to the side, hat in hand, attentively watching and listening.

Javier Mas was particularly impressive on bandurria, laud, archilaud and 12-string guitar, providing exotic counterpoint to Cohen’s lyricism. But the entire ensemble was terrific, and there was even a little choreography. When Cohen sang the line, “Like girls dancin’” on “The Future,” backup singers Charley and Hattie Webb did quick cartwheels in unison.

But, of course, there was no upstaging The Voice. When Cohen reached down to the lower reaches of his register to intone “the wisdom of oooooold” during “In My Secret Life,” he sounded like a true force of nature -- a foghorn warning the unwary away from the rocks of romantic desolation.

By now, Cohen is well-established as poet laureate of doomed romantics everywhere. His typical song persona is a man singing from the depths of emotional wreckage, picking through the rubble and assigning blame where it belongs, to singer as well as subject. Just about every Cohen song has a cutting line that feels like an ice pick to both hearts, his and yours.

Tuesday’s set list pretty closely followed the track list on Cohen’s current “Live in London” double-album, starting with “Dance Me to the End of Love,” which set a tone of old-world classiness that he maintained throughout the evening. High points included the ultra-cold “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” a steady rolling “Suzanne,” “Hallelujah” with lyrics tweaked for the occasion (“I told the truth, I did not come here to Durham to fool you”) and “Famous Blue Raincoat.” He did two sets and multiple encores, and seemingly could have played all night.

“Good night, my darlin’,” he sang on the show-closing “I Tried To Leave You” -- “I hope you’re satisfied.” The crowd gave a massive whoop in response.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi