Update November 12, 2016: the web page where the interview podcast of Leonard Cohen about his new album, You Want It Darker, appeared has now been updated to be a wonderful homage to Cohen with links to many videos, podcasts, audio files, biography information etc. I learned on this page that he had suffered from cancer for some time, and that he actually recorded this entire last album sitting in a medical chair in his apartment’s living room, And it is clear now that this album actually was Leonard Cohen saying his final words, and putting his house in order. Click here for the link.
Update November 10, 2016: I started this post on November 6. I have another painting finished for Part 2 and had planned to post the second half of this essay a couple of days from now. But, this evening word came that Leonard Cohen passed away. We thought he passed on the 10th, since that is when the news was published, but it turned out he passed on November 7, the day after I listened to the interview with him and began posting my essay. I am very sad about his passing. And I felt perhaps I should re-write this post’s part one, because at the end of it I talk about his future; I have decided to leave it as is, as it came from my heart, having no idea that by the following day Leonard would no longer be on this planet. — Terry
November 6 , 2016: The first Leonard Cohen song I sang was Suzanne. I was a teen-ager. I changed an A chord in it to an A major 7, embarking on a musical career of “interpreting” songwriters’ songs for myself. It was kind of a big deal at the time. Before that, I studied songs by listening to the albums and learning to play and sing them exactly as originally performed. If it was a folk song, I sang the melody precisely and learned the same fingerstyle guitar technique used on the record – I even memorized the exact little guitar riffs the original players played in the songs’ introductions and breaks. If it was a jazz song sung by Carmen McCrae or Anita O’Day, I practiced their phrasing by singing along with the records a hundred times so I could imitate their arrangements and singing styles precisely.
When I started practicing Suzanne, something pushed me, inspired me, to break out of the “as-written” mold and to throw in an alternate chord. A major seven just seemed more appropriate, more ethereal, more spiritual, more awe-inspiring, more question-mark to me. And that also seemed more Leonard Cohen to me. Suzanne and so many of his songs have such a spiritual, religion-of-some sort sense to them. I was not religious. But his poetry always spoke to me in that realm of human spiritual need. I don’t even like to say “spiritual” because that implies “spirit” and takes us back to religion, doesn’t it? We need new vocabulary for that need, for that aspect of human reality that speaks to our place, our values, our connections, our essence beyond the molecules that compose the matter that makes our human physical being.
I listened to an interview of Leonard Cohen on the radio last week and learned that he is not religious. That his choice of religious, biblical, spiritual vocabulary has to do with the fact that it is the vocabulary he grew up with, not because he has a religious leaning. That’s important. Really important. I think the fact will resonate with lots of Leonard Cohen fans – who for decades have felt a deep human need fulfilled by his words, but were confused as to the why and the how of the religious bent to his songs.
I am going to put it down to poetry. Leonard Cohen’s poetry speaks to the essence of what it is to be human, what it is to be surrounded by other humans, what it is to be mired or lifted by the human condition on any given day. What it is to wonder. Successful poetry is the most essential form of communication. It reduces its subject matter to the core, the essence, the critical. It throws away those superfluous words and meanings to get at the heart of whatever it is.
As a journalist, I learned to start an essay with a mind flush – anywhere from 2000 to 5000 words on my subject. Then I would edit to remove my digressions. I would edit again to establish a logical form. Both those edits reduced my essay to 1500 to 3000 words. At that point in the process I would despair for a time: there was no way I could cut any further and still say what I needed to say! A day or two later I would re-read and laugh at myself for thinking so many of my thoughts were so precious, and scratch out another thousand words by removing whole phrases. Eventually I would get to the level of eliminating unnecessary sentences, then words. Finally my column would be the requisite 750 to 1000 words, and I would submit it.
A few years later I studied poetry as part of my MFA college writing program, and began to learn what essence communicating was really about. The path I had learned as a journalist was a good start, but I still had writing roads to travel. Although my major was creative nonfiction and interactive media writing, the greatest ah-ha moments for me as a student of writing at Antioch were in the poetry lectures, readings and courses I took as part of my program.
Poetry, I found, is the pinnacle of pure communication. Great poetry not only reduces an idea to its absolute irreducible essence, it does so while drawing from, and appealing to, all our human senses, not just our intellectual perception. It also does so while appealing to our senses of place and time and history and humanity and aesthetics and wonder and . . .
Leonard Cohen is a master of poetry. You Want it Darker is a tour de force of a poetry collection that sends to the darkness the media pushed message that any artist over 40 is past her/his prime. Leonard Cohen said recently that at 82, he is ready to die. In the radio interview, he took back that statement. I am glad, for You Want It Darker is a necessary reflection on the human condition for our age. And with it Leonard Cohen has just hit his stride. He must continue.
(next, my review of the album coming soon)