viewpoint. brett hetherington

Writer and journalist/ www.bretthetherington.net


Finishing a long biography of the long, long life of the singer/songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, something occurred to me the other day. Here was a man who had toiled away on his work year after year, suffering from regular periods of depression, only to become commercially successful across the globe after the age of 60.

Cohen had been a well-known figure in his native Canada and much of Europe since the 1970s, but the massive US market had largely ignored the richly dark and sombre images that filled his music and writing; this despite the fact that he has lived in California on and off for most of his now 81 years on the planet.

What I admire, just as much as the penetrating insight of his wordcraft, is Cohen's resilience against the storms of our existence (his father died when he was only eight years old) and his resolute persistence in being the artist that he wanted to be. He was, and most probably still is, an extremely generous man who rarely took on the egotistical trappings of the standard pop star.

A crack in everything

Despite being born into a wealthy family, Cohen always lived in small houses, and in fact spent many years of disciplined silence and contemplation in a Buddhist monastery. Over time, he learned to embrace his own imperfections and saw that this was how the universe is constructed, too: “There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in,” he wrote: a phrase now used by a number of psychologists to counsel their patients.

For much of his free time, though, Cohen had been a womaniser and used drugs such as speed and alcohol to keep him going, but in his later years the love of a wonderful woman collaborator helped him find a satisfaction and contentment that eludes so many of us in middle-age. More than almost any other contemporary singer, he was intent on bringing female singers from the background into sharing centre stage in his recordings and his songs benefit greatly from this.

Around the same time, he had every dollar of his earnings stolen by a former lover (whom he had trusted) and an accountant who exploited her. After years of gruelling court cases he was able to get back some of his money but, reluctantly, he was forced back on the road to tour again after a decade and a half of avoiding playing to live audiences. To his surprise, this time he loved it in a way he never had before. The wider public loved it, too, as shown by his sell-out world tours since 2007 (that included Zaragoza-born band member Javier Mas).

Always a spiritual man and often superstitious (his outlook combined his family's Judaism with aspects of Hinduism and a taste for bible myths), today he remains an inspiration to writers and musicians as diverse as Judy Collins and Jeff Buckley. There are over 3,000 versions of his songs recorded by other artists. One of the most beautiful songs of the 20th century was at least partly written about Leonard Cohen. I must have listened hundreds of times to the soaring vocals of Joni Mitchell on her track “A Case of You”:

“On the back of a cartoon coaster

In the blue TV screen light

I drew a map of Canada

Oh Canada

And I sketched your face on it twice.”

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