Just weeks after Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, that other great literary songwriter, Leonard Cohen, has died at the age of 82. When Dylan’s Nobel was announced, a number of commentators claimed that Cohen would have been a more appropriate choice. One can see why.
Cohen’s long career has shown him to be a master songwriter, producing wry, literate, and melancholy lyrics for 50 years. Cohen also began in the literary field, producing four collections of poems and two novels before his debut album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967.
In fact, Cohen’s literary career made him an unlikely success in the music scene of the late 1960s, as did other factors. He had an haute-bourgeois background (being the son of a well-off, well-connected Jewish business family in Montreal); he had wanted as a child to attend a military school; and he had a BA from McGill, and had begun a higher degree at Columbia (the university, not the record label).
Most of all, he was not young. When Songs of Leonard Cohen was released, Cohen was 33 years old, having spent the previous decade building, with mixed success, his literary reputation.
While Cohen continued sporadically to produce books after 1967, his musical career is what he is best known for. But there is a notable continuity between Cohen’s poems and his song lyrics.
The themes, tone, and style of Cohen’s songs were already largely in place in his early poetry. His poems, like his songs, eschew complexity when it comes to form and word choice, and they focus — like the songs — on eroticism, death and loss, and redemption.
Cohen’s early albums, Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room (1969), and Songs of Love and Hate (1970) — the latter arguably his most realised album — are no doubt the basis for the idea that Cohen wrote depressing songs. However, while a melancholy tone can be found throughout his career, Cohen is surprisingly mercurial.
In a number of his songs, there is self-mockery and a dark, dry sense of humour. This sense of humour is also seen in his surprisingly funny live persona, observable in two important documentaries: Ladies and Gentleman … Leonard Cohen (1965), and Tony Palmer’s more emotional Bird on a Wire (1972).
At a lyrical level, the note of self-mockery comes out in songs such as Dress Rehearsal Rag (from Songs of Love and Hate), in which the poet views himself in the following terms:
Just take a look at your body now,There’s nothing much to save.And a bitter voice in the mirror cries,‘Hey, Prince, you need a shave.’
Outwardly, Cohen’s lyrics were more straightforward than Dylan’s (certainly the Dylan of the mid 60s). Yet within his apparently simple words lies a profound sense of playfulness and enigma, apparent in the song that arguably became his most famous, Hallelujah.
A religious language was never far from the surface in Cohen’s songs, and one of the more unlikely developments in Cohen’s long career was his becoming a Buddhist monk. So it is appropriate, then, that the abiding sense that comes from his songs and his style of singing is that of a cloistered voice coming out of the dark, offering words that bring together the spiritual and material worlds.
Authors: David McCooey, Professor of Writing and Literature, Deakin University