You Want It Darker?
Readers have made me feel guilty after my Bob Dylan hagiograph. It is true that I have purchased every Leonard Cohen album, not since 1963, but since 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen. At 33, he then seemed so much older than me, Dylan, or indeed anyone on the music scene. Now he’s 82, and doesn’t seem so old. It is one thing writing great songs into the twilight years, but it is something else altogether to produce one of your very greatest songs on your 82nd birthday, or thereabouts. I have not yet heard the whole album, but I have heard the title track, You Want it Darker? One of his fine lapidary constellations of balefully evocative and irreducibly concise poetic images precedes the chorus:
You want it darker?
We kill the flame…
If possible, the rumbling thunder of his hypnotic voice seems to drop an octave, as a series of arresting word-pictures streams out to catch this moment in time in its fascinated web. The song begins with heavenly choirs, and concludes with the ululating cantor’s soulful cry, and the heartfelt phrase, “I’m ready, Lord…’ I heard it for the first time moments ago, and the hairs on my neck are still standing up. This is one of the classic songs – and Cohen has so many – yet it is hard to imagine anyone else venturing to sing such personal lyrics – “Lord, I’m ready…”
I worked with Leonard years ago on the 30-minute video of I Am A Hotel, which we shot in Toronto’s King Edward Hotel at a time when his career had reached an apparent nadir. Recent albums had been lacklustre, with musicians who sounded like Sunday afternoon in Greece. Leonard seemed preoccupied, more concerned with his practice of what he termed “Zen-Judaism” than with his future as a singer-songwriter. A new album even contained the hauntingly exquisite refrain:
If it be your will
That my voice be still…
He was very concerned that songs like Suzanne – the goose that laid golden eggs – be presented in the video correctly. He tried his hand at editing the tape himself, only to find the task required skills he did not have. I felt certain he was about to retreat to his monastery forever. Yet he came back with a vengeance, and an updated sound at the lip of a leading edge, and lyrics capturing the zeitgeist, be it universal or deeply personal. He has never really left the crest of that wave, although people have been speculating about his retirement for nearly twenty years.
Indeed, he may have been looking forward to it himself, but, some ten years ago, something happened to dash any hopes of a mellow old age. His manager of many years – one of those career women who sees her role as surrogate wife as well as business associate – ripped off all of his money. Possibly, she imagined she’d been jilted? Whatever the cause, the money was gone, and Leonard found himself in his seventies back on the road.
Like Dylan, and many other mediocre instrumentalists, he had always shied away from skilled musicians, feeling it would be embarrassing to display his musical ignorance in front of such people. But now, as Dylan would also do, he started recording and touring with exceptional talents, soon realizing he did not even have to play guitar poorly himself. Someone else could play it well. He could concentrate on singing. He once told me he was so nervous about performing live that he needed a handful of quayludes just to go on stage. Those performances were notorious for the maudlin depths of weeping grief shared by both audience and star. But with a band able to carry his wonderful voice – rather than depend on it to carry them – the last decade or so has been extraordinary, with concerts on DVD as exceptional as any in the history of popular music.
What is most remarkable, though, is the calibre of lyrics. As it was with Yeats, and very few others – in fact, none spring to mind – the later poetry exceeds in richness and depth the earlier work. And this – presumably – very late song is up there with the very best, which, in Cohen’s case, is saying a lot.
Many of his songs seem to speak from two places at once – the universal, a kind of Overlord, and the particular, usually a lover. My Secret Life goes from the ex-lover’s reminisces to:
And the dealer wants you thinking
It’s either black or white –
My God, it’s not that simple
In my secret life…
Just as You Want it Darker? goes from the kind of observations it is very tempting to see as excruciatingly current, to “I’m ready, Lord,” a poignant call to the very terminal event, one which it is difficult not to hear as the singer’s quietus. Just as First We Take Manhattan goes from apocalyptic instructions from a Dark Force to the memory of “I don’t like what happened to my sister…”
I could rummage through Leonard Cohen’s superlative material for hundreds of pages, but that is not my job. On his glorious 82nd birthday, I just want to say, “Happy birthday, Lenny, and thanks for a lifetime of heart and soul-stirring songs, and their bittersweet soundtrack to my life. “I’m ready, Lord”? I do hope you’re not too ready, sir…
Paul William Roberts