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Light Among The Shadows

Philip Jeyaretnam pays tribute to the late Leonard Cohen, who was more poet than mere songwriter.
Nov 19, 2016 5:50 AM

THREE years ago I flew to Rome to hear Leonard Cohen in concert. He was nearing the end of a series of world tours, prompted by the loss of millions of dollars to embezzlement on the part of a trusted manager. This fateful turn of events resulted also in the production of three great albums, two of which were written in his eighties. Last month saw the release of his final album, You Want it Darker, a playful title that evoked his lifelong exploration of gloom and shadows.

His response to the theft of the financial fruits of so much of his creative endeavour was an epic demonstration of resilience. That night in Rome, the man on stage defied his age to captivate a packed audience of old and young. Almost 80, he performed for three hours, with tremendous verve and energy, ranging both through classics like 'So long, Marianne' and 'Suzanne', as well as showing off new songs fresh off his latest album Old Ideas, like 'Going Home' and 'Darkness'.

At the end of the evening, he bade us goodnight, telling us to go home with or to our loved ones, but if that was not possible then to enjoy the solitude. That evening I did go home with my loved one, yet it was the parting shot that stayed with me. It was a light-hearted farewell, but hinted at the central theme of his life, and his music, that we flirt with love, but marry loneliness. In 'Darkness', Cohen, who had often times plumbed the depths of depression, offers the insight that in the midst of darkness, shades of grey become points of light. While in 'Going Home', which begins with the singer addressing Leonard directly (I love to speak with Leonard / He's a sportsman and a shepherd / He's a lazy bastard / Living in a suit) Cohen describes in three lines the motivation for his writing and living: He wants to write a love song / An anthem of forgiving / A manual for living with defeat.

When a man as extraordinarily talented as Cohen, whose creativity had a longevity few can dream of, speaks of darkness and defeat, it is both sobering and consoling.

All of us live with defeat, failure, disappointment and bewilderment, and understanding the universality of this condition gives us the strength to persevere.

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It is doubt not certainty, complexity not simplicity that enriches life. 'I'm Your Man' starts as a croon to romantic commitment.

A young man imagines himself the boxer, stepping into the ring for his woman. Yet when he is older he regrets the promises he could not keep. In 'Dance Me to the End of Love' he gives himself up, so that she can dance him to the end of love, and yet that phrase suggests not so much death in each other's arms but the likelihood that long before then, love ends and death will after all be solitary.

Like 'Going Home', 'Famous Blue Raincoat' expressly references the songwriter, taking the form of a letter to the lover who had left for another man signed off with the words Sincerely L. Cohen. While he accepts that the other man took the trouble from her eyes that he thought was there for good and which he consequently never tried to take away, he has to live with his abandonment, at four in the morning, as winter sets in in New York. Being a ladies' man did not preclude waking up alone.

Cohen's investigations of love and loss were deepened by his spirituality.

In 1995 he became an ordained Buddhist monk, yet more of his songs invoked biblical iconography than Buddhist. His song most covered by other artists, 'Hallelujah', addresses the Lord of Song, but ineluctably turns back to Samson's entrapment and betrayal by Delilah, who tied him to a kitchen chair and cut his hair.

Cohen's is sometimes a familiar trope of woman as hoped for salvation and ultimate undoing. But he never rests on that limited thought.

Solitude draws him to deeper, darker reflection, toward acknowledgment of shortcomings, and above all to our almost universal failure to love fully despite a myriad invitations to do so.

His music was surprisingly melodious and his gravelly voice always hypnotic. The world has lost a great poet, whose humility and candour made him a great man.