Before you can learn a body of music, you need to find a way in. For other listeners my age, the portal into Leonard Cohen’s songbook materialized in 1993 on the lips of Kurt Cobain. “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld,” Cobain groused during “Pennyroyal Tea,” one of Nirvana’s gnarlier mood swings. “So I can sigh eternally.”
Hell of an introduction. To escape Cobain’s world and drift into Cohen’s was to abandon a miasma of teenage despair for the mystical introspection of adulthood — a strange kind of sanctuary where Cohen’s consummate elegance seemed to drain all of the self-pity out of feeling blue. Cobain was howling into the void. Cohen had engaged it in polite conversation.
That conversation started in 1967 when Cohen released his debut album at the age of 33, and it ended Monday when Cohen died at the age of 82. He spent much of his life singing about divinity, desire and death, and when David Remnick recently asked the songwriter about what might be in store for us after the big sunset, Cohen replied, “I don’t ask for information that I probably wouldn’t be able to process even if it were granted to me.”
Cohen’s roundabout spiritual journey has been well documented. He tried Kabbalah, Scientology, LSD, red wine and five years in a Zen monastery on a California mountaintop. His nagging depression frequently bent his spiritual quest in difficult directions, just as his humor, vitality, lust and grace bent his ballads in astonishing ones. Yet, along the way, his music became synonymous with gloom, which always felt like one of pop music’s pandemic misconceptions. Cohen’s quest was a serious one, but seriousness and misery are not the same thing.
And for a sad man, he liked jokes. For one, he liked to say that he only learned six chords — a self-effacing explanation of his music’s modest melodic range. Of course, he compensated for it with the color of his words. As one of the greatest lyricists to ever grace our little vale of tears, Cohen offered testimony (“I have tried, in my way, to be free”), prophecy (“Get ready for the future: It is murder”), and one of the most tender couplets ever set to melody (“And you know that she will trust you/For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind”).
Despite all of the heavy, metaphysical searching evoked on his lyric sheet, Cohen judged the quality of his work by its everyday usefulness. In 1995, he told the New York Times that songs “must be measured by their utility. Any jaunty little tune that can get you from one point to another as you drive, or get you through the dishes, or that can illuminate or dignify your courting, I always appreciate.”
Such a humble way to explain such a beautiful, colossal idea — that our spiritual work and our daily work are really one and the same. What’s more, getting through those dishes might be stranger than we allow ourselves to acknowledge. That idea came to the fore with Cohen’s extraordinary 1988 album “I’m Your Man,” a collection of woozy songs that drift through the absurdity of existence over a patina of cheap-sounding synthesizers.
Witty and wise, Cohen seems to have figured out his entire endeavor by the time he reaches the album’s grand finale, “Tower of Song,” in which he describes the world of song-craft as a factory, a prison, an asylum, a purgatory and a heaven. By the time he reaches the song’s penultimate verse, he’s a prophet again: “You’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone/I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song.”
And, God, listen to how he sings those lines. Listen to the spit, the tongue, the teeth. Listen to how he made that immaculate baritone sound sexier than life and deeper than death. Cobain’s sigh was surely a crush. The forever kind.