The guest list for the Radio 2 programme about Leonard Cohen http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09cm8l7 , broadcast on the anniversary eve of his death, is pretty instructive. Singer songwriters like Suzanne Vega, Judy Collins and his grandson’s dad Rufus Wainwright are expected. So is Grumpy Old Men’s Arthur Smith who did two separate shows of his own renditions of Cohen songs. But it’s hosted by Jeremy Paxman, lifelong fan. Former Chancellor Alistair Darling features.
That’s the thing about Leonard Cohen.
Few other artists have the range of fans he does. Musicians are a given, even less than clubbable rock frontmen like Lou Reed (who welcomed LC into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame), Ian McCulloch (who covered various of his numbers and “nearly melted” when he met him aged 29), Nick Cave (he called him “the symbol of my musical independence” and “the greatest songwriter of them all”), and Bob Dylan (who talked at length about Cohen’s melodic prowess in the recent New Yorker profile – and Dylan talking for ten minutes would be a front cover for most of the weighty music tomes).
If you think the man who recorded Death of a Ladies’ Men is the exclusive preserve of male admiration, look at his sidekicks like Jennifer Warnes, Sharon Robinson, Anjani Thomas and the Webb sisters. Then there are the cover versions. Collins, Warnes with her wondrous Famous Blue Raincoat album, Roberta Flack, Nina Simone, Tori Amos, Kathryn Williams, Alexandra Burke, k.d. lang (the last three delivering very different readings from Hallelujah, the song that took three years and 80 draft verses to complete)….the list is endless.
A year ago, tributes poured in from Bette Midler and Carole King, the Justins (Trudea and Timberlake), Lin-Manuel Miranda, Peter Hook and Slash.
Drilling down what made him so adored can’t be done in a short blog, but part of it was his disarming light touch over global, sexual and office politics (“Everybody Knows”), the beauty in human frailty (“Anthem”) and death (most of his last album).
Even though Q magazine in the ‘80s sarcastically called him Laughing Len, on most of his records he’s chuckling on the inside. There’s Slow on Popular Problems (which he quipped should be followed by an album called Unpopular Solutions), following the chorus of I Can’t Forget with “but I don’t remember who” or First We Take Manhattan where he proves that no matter how bleak the subject, in this case the Holocaust, he engineers a crack where the light gets in. Starting a song on a subject matter so grim with the sentence “They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom…” takes bravery and artistry.
There was something about Leonard Cohen albums, though he cris-crossed genres from polka to folk ballad to light disco to torch song, that you knew what to expect. They rarely disappointed. You knew nothing would be held back, there would be wry wit, mordant touches, openness about the wonder and mystery of women, a musical diversity but also a consistent quality control. Even his most underwhelming record (probably Dear Heather) has some peaks such as the 9/11 song On That Day which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy. The track length of songs on 1992’s The Future probably led to Malcolm Tucker’s barb about the to-do list “longer than a ****ing Leonard Cohen song” but it still gave us Waiting for the Miracle and Anthem. The live albums, especially Field Commander Cohen and 2015’s Can’t Forget, are almost without exception terrific.
You knew with one of his songs, from Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye to when he did find ways to say goodbye on You Want It Darker, that this was an artist like no other. A fixture of the 1960s Greenwich music scene who would retire to a Greek Island, a snappy dresser who was comfortable in the clothes of a monk, a reclusive wordsmith who would command his troupe of musicians in packed stadia, Leonard Cohen was inscrutable. I’m Your Man, Sylvie Simmons’ biography, comes closest to unscrambling him, but the mystery remains.
There are poets who became rock stars, such as Joan Baez in the era of Cohen, or in latter days, Sleaford Mods or Kate Tempest. But few had Leonard Cohen’s playfulness. When he’s angry, he manages to keep smiling. Not every artist can whistle in the dark, few can do it like Cohen.
Who couldn’t be charmed by the growl in Tower of Song? Particularly when he (sort of) sings “I was born like this, I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
So many people have recorded wonderful cover versions of his songs. Their wonder is rooted in the man who wrote them, the last great poet-rock star. You Know Who I Am? Well, not quite.