Leonard Cohen Taught Us How to Live

Janine Schaults offers a personal reflection on a singer-songwriter unlike any other

Long before “Netflix and chill” served as code for more than chaste binge-watching, a crush once asked me to come over and watch a 2005 documentary about Leonard Cohen, entitled I’m Your Man.

It’s a fitting tactic for sensitive boys to use the acclaimed Canadian songwriter and poet as a pick-up line, since Cohen perfected the art of the sophisticated come-on in his music.

And spoiler alert: It completely worked. Who could stand a chance against the primal desire on display in his work, especially “I’m Your Man”? Just one stanza of the 1988 track could cause a pair of panties to go missing. Case in point: “I’d crawl to you baby, and I’d fall at your feet/ And I’d howl at your beauty like a dog in heat/ And I’d claw at your heart, and I’d tear at your sheet/ I’d say please (please)/ I’m your man.”

It’s also the same song that once saved the life of late film critic Roger Ebert. Beset by health issues, Ebert relayed to Esquire in 2010 the time he was about to be discharged from the hospital after undergoing yet another surgery — this particular visit resulted in the removal of his jaw — but dilly-dallied around his room packing his bags until the Cohen tune he often played on repeat ended. It was here that his carotid artery burst. Had he left any earlier, before the song’s final notes, the calamity would have happened en route home.

With Cohen now dead at the age of 82, it’s comforting to think of the two sharing a hearty handshake up in heaven (even if Ebert fiercely rejected the notion of an afterlife).

The announcement of Cohen’s death Thursday evening came as a shock despite the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer warning us of his mortality in a poignant interview with The New Yorker last month. “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me,” he said.

Only in July, he penned a farewell letter to his former lover and muse, immortalized in classic songs like “So Long, Marianne”, on her deathbed. He wrote, “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon.”

Indeed he did and more quickly than anyone allowed themselves to believe.

Donald Trump winning the presidential election this week surely has fans focusing on the biting political tenor of Cohen’s discography. The brooding pessimism of “Everybody Knows” sums up the last 18 months for many disillusioned voters: “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.”

“You want it darker,” Cohen stated on his 14th studio album, released mere weeks ago. In my A- review, I offered that the line served as a taunt, that Cohen was turning our own fears against us. Now that he is gone, does it get any darker than losing the gritty voice we relied on for five decades to make sense of the madness?

A boyfriend recently confessed that seeing Cohen in concert was the closest he’d ever get to church. Even for the devout, Cohen standing on a stage dressed in a sharp suit and prim fedora leading a robust band with cooing backup singers is sacred. Raised Jewish and later a practicing Zen Buddhist monk, his manicured words offer a spiritual education to seekers everywhere. The light gets in by allowing the profane to chisel away at the fissures in the holy.

Over the last eight years, Cohen held services around the world. He started touring again in 2008, first as a way to reclaim his fortune swindled by a devious manager, then for enjoyment. Despite the trove of material left behind, a singular memory of a magnificent night at the Chicago Theatre in 2009 will keep him close. Back then, the duration of Cohen’s tour remained unknown and ticket prices soared. Unwilling to live with the regret, I nabbed one ticket at the last minute and found myself sitting next to an elderly Eastern European man who, for no reason at all, returned from intermission with a DVD from the merch table just for me. A random act of kindness spurred on by the generosity overflowing from the stage. Weaseling backstage later, I ran into the band, sans the main attraction, and actor Ralph Fiennes who shared my deer-in-the-headlights euphoria of witnessing “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Hallelujah” emit from Cohen’s bowed form.

He spent half the show genuflecting toward the audience in an outward expression of gratitude when it should be the other way around. It was another lesson, just like his labored-over words, his humility, and even his death, teaching us how to live.


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