On November 6, the day before the US elections, I was on a bus ride listening to a podcast to pass the time. Just as the majestic and stark volcano Chimborazo rose beside me, the narrator began to review Leonard Cohen’s new album You Want It Darker. Apparently Cohen had decided that this would be his last album and at the age of 82 he was ready to die. As a lifelong Cohen fan I immediately downloaded his new tracks, took in the overbearing view and allowed his voice to transport me through time.
For as long as I can remember, Cohen (or “Leonard” as my mother refers to him) has been a part of my life. In one of my earliest childhood memories, I am sitting in our cottage in Wales watching my mother make cauliflower cheese (my favorite meal of the time) while “Who by Fire” danced through the kitchen. Skip forward a few years and there is my mother again, this time in California, cradling a glass of wine and cooking salmon while “Suzanne” lent a bohemian aspect to the awaiting candlelit table. As a child his music painted my imagination with images of gypsies, star-crossed lovers and faraway lands.
The first time I fell into teenage despair I stayed at home and played “Chelsea Hotel” on repeat through the headphones of my discman while feeling the pangs of unrequited love. Several years later after one of the hardest periods of my life, Cohen once again made me feel less alone as he guided me through my struggle with religion, sexuality, isolation and desire to travel. I found comfort in lyrics such as “myself I long for love and light, but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?” Fast forward again and I am visiting home. This time sharing a bottle of wine while helping my mother cook as we laugh, cry, and share stories from our time apart. Cohen’s voice providing the perfect soundtrack as we “rust, rust, rust in the engines of love and time.”
On the day of the election, Leonard Cohen passed away rounding off a year full of earthquakes, failed peace treaties, Brexit and a multitude of violent events. As he understood the emotions that many of us grapple with, he also understood that it was his time to leave this earth. His final album truly is an anthem to death, and an acceptance of the somewhat torturous yet interesting aspects of life. Cohen was able to connect with people of all ages, races and creeds on such a raw level. My grandfather introduced my mother to his music and she introduced it to me. How is he able to transcend the barriers of time? While his voice is far from beautiful, he has a way of effortlessly expressing some of the most intricate human emotions. His poetry is laced with metaphors about love, religious allegories and rich sensual imagery, yet his tone is always dark, pure and melancholy. Cohen’s life was riddled with heart break, travel, religious quests and financial woes and perhaps that’s why we can all relate to him. In a way, Cohen’s art is completely vulnerable and human, and once you read his prose or listen to his lyrics it is impossible not to connect.
Over the last few days I have been brought to tears by his lyrics which seem so applicable to what is going on in the world today. One particular lyric rings true:
“I heard the snake was baffled by his sin
He shed his scales to find the snake within
But born again is born without skin
The poison enters into everything”
In his final act Cohen warns us that often in our quest to move forward, we unintentionally move several steps back.
It seems that beauty and pain will always live side by side. Cheers Leonard… tonight I will raise a glass of wine in your honor my friend.
“You want it darker…We kill the flame.”