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11 November 2016

Leonard Cohen knew that joy could be found – but we have to walk bravely into the dark to find it

The poet John Burnside on the heart and artistry of Leonard Cohen

By John Burnside

At the end, Leonard Cohen was not just a great artist but an exemplary presence, a person of warmth and humour and gentility. Having catalogued humanity’s sins, he recognised that there had to be a crack in everything for the light to shine through. On the way, he was robbed of his money and, temporarily, of the spiritual refuge that, as an old man, he must have believed he deserved – so he went on the road again, a slight, birdlike figure who could still command a stage, an artist whose moral strength seemed unfathomable. Like his countryman, Glenn Gould, returning just before he died to make a stunning and utterly new interpretation of the work that made his reputation (Bach’s Goldberg Variations), Cohen revisited the old songs. While the process was usually gentle and sometimes only audible to the most dedicated listeners, he added a new warmth, a hint of antique gold that, as he tipped his hat and walked off-stage, nobody could doubt he had earned.

And yet, for all that, he never forgot the essential story that he had come to tell: a narrative of bewildered love and genuine loss that, even while it shredded the listener’s heart, also satisfied some marrow-deep, perverse need to settle for nothing but the authentic. For Cohen, as for the great European poets he so admired, everything in life that was authentic was a single entity, a fabric of mixed emotions and contradictions that could not be reconciled in a pretty lie. His key song is “Famous Blue Raincoat”, perhaps the most beautiful song of friendship and rivalry ever written. Though he explored similar ground in his novels (Beautiful Losers and The Favourite Game, both of which are due for some serious re-evaluation), this is the song that has haunted me ever since I first heard it, in 1971. I still remember the moment when, home from the one record shop in my steel-milling home-town in the Midlands, light years away from “the music on Clinton Street”, I put Songs of Love and Hate on the turntable and one great song after another – masterpieces every one – tumbled into my more or less innocent head. “Avalanche.” “Last Year’s Man.” “Dress Rehearsal Rag.” “Diamonds in the Mine.” Flip the record over. “Love Calls You by Your Name.” “Famous Blue Raincoat. “Let’s Sing Another Song, Boys” and, finally “Joan of Arc”. Was there ever an album so consistently fine, or so doggedly honest?

I played it over and over. Now and then my sister would come in and repeat the famous formula (music to cut your throat to) but I didn’t think that was right at all. These songs faced up to the darkness in life – and in our own, perverse hearts – but it called out to all of our faculties: moral anger, humour, irony, tenderness, friendship and, more than anything, courage. This music wasn’t about giving up, it was about recognising how we had been duped and, so, learning, not to be silent, not to concede, but to sing another song. A song that, like the one before it, might also grow old and bitter – all is flux – but a song, nevertheless, that was new and honest for now. I loved them all, but it was “Famous Blue Raincoat” that haunted me then and I played it over and over and over (though, to be truthful, my 16-year-old self barely understood its core story, and he certainly did not get its references to the Church of Scientology, to which Cohen had briefly affiliated himself in the hopes, he said later, of meeting attractive women). My parents were horrified and my mother, who confessed later that she had considered calling out “the little white van”, tried to institute a ban on all things Cohen. How could I explain that, unlike the manufactured “hits” on Top of the Pops, these songs lifted my spirits and, at the same time, suggested a way out of the sad maze in which she, and everyone else I knew, seemed trapped?

Now I look back and I see that I understood much more than I thought I did. Understood is not the right word – it almost never is with poetry and song – but it parallels something else, a faculty that combines intuition and self-recognition in a kind of excited apprehension, a faculty that, even when it peers into the darkness, is akin to joy. Leonard Cohen knew that joy could be found – for a time, on a tentative and provisional basis – but he also knew that we have to walk bravely into the dark to find it. At the end, it does not stay, but it leaves its mark: in Cohen, a deep calm, and a gentility that few achieve. He may be gone, but the work remains, He will never go clear.

John Burnside latest poetry collection is “All One Breath” (Jonathan Cape). He writes a regular nature column in the “New Statesman”.

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