By John Cody
In what seems like the strangest and most cruel twist of fate in many years, we not so unexpectedly, but in a most unprepared way, lost one of our greatest writers. Leonard Cohen’s death was announced two days after an overqualified woman lost to a overly tanned demagogue in what feels like the most significant threat to the free world in last week’s U.S. election. It brings to mind one of my favourite Cohen songs, “Democracy Is Coming to the U.S.A.”
It’s coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.
It’s here the family’s broken
and it’s here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Grieving Leonard’s death is a bizarre balm in having to deal with the victory of a republican orangutan, and yet it is one. It’s like he picked that exact moment to shuffle off this mortal coil. Like he knew in some way that there was a kind of poetic justice to leaving us just then. Just like how his lyrics lift us and set us down with a staggering humour and razor-sharp intellect. It’s a funny notion to regard Leonard as a thinking man’s poet. Although he was never polemical, who plumbed the depths with more brutal precision? Many of his ideas and philosophies have informed my own artistic ideal over the years, and his observations have become my own. When asked his opinion of the rise of gun violence in America, his answer was matter of fact: “What do you expect when the center of our western spiritual investigation is the image of a man nailed to a cross?”
How can you argue with that? That’s kind of the point with Leonard Cohen. You can’t argue with him. At least for those of us who dwell in the fraternity of the lugubrious. It didn’t hurt that his delivery of statements like that one were crooned softly with that bruised Lothario tone of his that would make women swoon and men take the edge of their seats in anticipation of what would spill forth from his lips next. Those of us desperate for the next utterance from him will be waiting a bloody long time for someone with the same kind of perspicacious insight.
The triumvirate of the greatest singer-songwriters in history are Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Dylan has the political landscape down to a tee, Joni, the emotional banquet, and Leonard, the intellectual itinerary. There is spirituality and sensuality in all three, but it’s with Leonard that we acknowledge our own cerebral shortcomings, hubris and sexual incompetence, while still longing to be released to carnal desire.
I describe Joni’s writing process as one of intrigue/meditation and Leonard’s as one of activity/enterprise. “Both Sides Now” was a meditation on duality from the position of introspection, whereas “The Future” was a précis on the violence in pop culture from the position of extrapolation. You can get that from the way both of them speak about their own lives and this world we live in — a world that Leonard once described as a “butcher shop” in an interview with NRK-TV. If the former is the Queen, then the latter is the King. The holy man of the FM radio as it were. In Joni’s words, “the prince of righteousness.”
We are the better for having his catholic values coalesce with our own and the poorer for no longer having such a rich resource available to us whenever he decided to swathe us in his music and prose.
I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene.
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Either he exposes us to our own existential vanity or to the vanity of our own existence. A subtle distinction, indeed, yet it’s in that sliver of difference that Cohen’s light burned brightest. A light that may now be dimmed but will never die out.
You want it darker?
Photo credit: Carolyn Brown