There’s something about these troubadour guys with raspy voices, a way with imagery and words. They’ve got “Forgive me” written all over themselves, they look like misfits from the roads at times. Most of all, you can’t get their songs out of your head. And they keep on going long after it seems a probable, likely thing to do.
Look at Bob Dylan. He cut a Christmas album, an old-songs album, a new one a while ago called “Modern Times” with “Thunder on the Mountain” as one title and Scarlett Johansson in a video of one of the songs. Oh, and you may have heard they gave him a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Look at Tom Waits. He still looks and sounds like he stepped out of a bar he’d inhabited for a weekend, squinting at the daylight, like an old lyric of his: “I never saw the morning, ’til I stayed up all night.”
Look at Leonard Cohen. He passed away Nov. 7 at 82, and all of a sudden songs starting swirling in any number of people’s heads, and his ode-like, testament-like, summation-like “Hallelujah” was heard all over the land.
A good friend of mine and I were talking about him. We had actually been alive when a song called “Suzanne” surfaced, which was in 1967, and he started singing it right there — softly, to be sure, but he knew the lyrics: “Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river/You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever/And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there/And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China…”
I knew a young woman who sang the song in a high voice in a bar in Sausalito where blues players came often, and that was the first time I heard the song, and the voice was as clear as a bell, and the imagery, in my young age, seemed both disturbing and inviting.
Back then, and further on in the 1970s, Cohen, who was Canadian and raised Jewish, looked like a traveling kind of guy. He was some kind of catnip for the ladies, with tousled black hear, singing the same song on a 1972 concert, the backup singers singing with him, the adoring looks from the women in the audience.
He was a writer, natch, a novelist, natch, and a poet, of course. And then he became a singer, and then one could guess that Leonard Cohen was what he was. Except, after much success, he entered a Buddhist monastery and become some else, or rather, added a layer, until he found that most of the money he had made was gone with an agent. And so he reemerged, sounding as wise as ever and more, that raspy voice a little more epochal, and he made albums and he toured. And this Leonard Cohen was a little different, but stayed that way to the end: short hair, very cool hat, slick pants, business suit and tie. He was craggy, but like something new and fresh.
The songwriting never flagged. He had a new album and a collection out recently, and his song “Dance Me to the End of Time” was, somewhat unexpectedly, inspired by the Holocaust, but sung by many others, including the incomparable Madeleine Peyroux.
Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but in truth he was beyond any sort of category like that. There was always a beat to any of his songs — guitar, drums sometimes, the backup singers, all that — and people who liked rock and the rockers themselves loved his music, Dylan especially, and well he should.
He said that all of his writings had music in them, were songs, including his novels and poems, and that makes a kind of sense because of the infinite variety of music in sound, tone, passage of time, in meaning. Music is the perfect backup singer, minus voice.
You get the drift from his song titles through the years: “Sisters of Mercy,” “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” “Bird on the Wire,” “The Partisan,” “Lady Midnight,” “I’m Your Man,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Field Commander Cohen,” “I Left a Woman Waiting,” “True Love Leaves no Traces,” “Jazz Police,” “Take This Waltz,” “You Got Me Singing,” “Born in Chains.”
So Leonard Cohen died last week, the same week Hillary Clinton’s dreams of becoming the first female president of the United States also died.
So on Saturday Night Live, there was Sue McKinnon, pretending to be Hillary Clinton, and she was singing, in a white dress, like a sad cabaret singer:
“I did my best, it wasn’t much/I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch/I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you/and even though/It all went wrong/I’ll stand before the Lord of Song/With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”
Hallelujah. Leonard Cohen, king of a bunch of songs.