Sighing Eternally in a Leonard Cohen Afterworld

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By Allen Callaci

What you are about to read started out as review of Leonard Cohen’s new album, You Want It Darker. The first lines of that review were to have gone roughly like this:

On his latest release, You Want It Darker, Leonard Cohen coolly engages in an unblinking musical stare down with death itself as only Leonard Cohen can – with spiritual sophistication, gallows humor and a refined cynicism. It is album that completes a trilogy of efforts by major musical artists released in 2016 that were meditations on mortality that began with David Bowie’s Blackstar in January, followed by the September release of Nick Cave’s Skeleton Key, a stark reflection on the passing of Cave’s teenage son, and now concludes with the addition of Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker.

That’s as far into the review of Cohen’s latest that I got. And that’s as far as I am ever going to get. Leonard Cohen, the so-called Lord Byron of Rock ‘n’ Roll, High Priest of Hopelessness, and Poet of the Apocalypse, is gone. He left at a moment when we need his compassionate growl most. You want to know what the post-election future holds? You want the truth regarding what lurks around that next corner? You want a peek behind the curtain? Tune out the news. Tune in Leonard Cohen.

Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

His signature track, “Hallelujah”, is one of a handful of songs that feel as if it has always been with us and always will be. It resides in the pop culture ether. Featured in the original Shrek and providing mating music for two caped crusaders in the 2009 cinematic adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, 300+ artists covered the song—ranging from the sublime (John Cale and Jeff Buckley) to the ridiculous and profane (Adam Sandler and Jon Bon Jovi). Cohen himself joked that a moratorium on artists covering “Hallelujah” should be enacted.

“Hallelujah” is filled with the major themes that he grazed on throughout his career: sex, death and God. It aches in all the right places. It reaches high. It goes low. And it contains the power to heal like a secret soothing tonic.

There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken hallelujah

I saw Leonard Cohen twice. The first time, he stood in front of a coffee shop in the city where I reside. I did a cartoon spit-take as I walked past and realized it was him. He looked as suave and as calm in the flesh as he did on staring out from his album sleeves. I decided not to gawk too long at him and kept walking. It would have been an honor to talk to him but what can one say to one of the great poet laureates of the last century as he loiters in front of a downtown coffee shop window? “I’m here picking up my dry cleaning Mr. Cohen. Some crazy weather we’ve been having, don’t you think?”

I wanted to know why Leonard Cohen magically appeared one day outside that coffee shop. It was a quick investigation. Friends told me that I was only person in the town who didn’t know that Leonard Cohen walked amongst us. Everyone told me stories about running into him. I even heard that he stacked his groceries in his cart “poetically.”

What was the existential post of despair doing in a sleepy little college town twenty minutes east of Los Angeles bagging his own groceries? The answer turned out to be as lovely, mystical, and poetic as one of Cohen’s songs. He was studying Zen Buddhism with Buddhist monks at a monastery located 45 minutes north of the downtown area.

In November of 2012, I saw Leonard Cohen perform in Los Angeles. He prowled the stage, one open-palmed hand outstretched and grasping to the heavens for salvation and the other coiled in a clenched fist as he crooned his testaments to the loves, losses, desires and temptations that ran a thousand kisses deep. Dressed to the nines in a tailor-made gray and a perfectly tilted fedora, he exuded an indescribable Zen-like calm and grace emanated from him for the duration of his three-hour performance. Even with the megawatt spotlights beaming down on him like perfectly adjusted sunbeams from above, he appeared to be singing from the shadows. ‘Neath every world-weary cynic lie the shards of a disillusioned optimist. In those shadows where Cohen dwelled, he always sought the light.

He opened his show that night with “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Two-and-a-half hours later he graciously announced that he would be performing it again for the large portion of the crowd who missed it due to the ungodly traffic that night approaching the arena.

He was that gracious.

This place could use a little more grace just about now.

I’d like to be excused now so I can go pull out my copy of Leonard Cohen – Various Positions and drop the needle lightly down on Side One/Track One. It’s all I can think to do.

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love