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11 November 2016

Leonard Cohen has died and his timing, as ever, is perfect

The announcement of Cohen’s death is a reminder of what real grief feels like.

By India Bourke

It’s two o’clock in the morning, the middle of November, and Facebook informs me that Leonard Cohen has died. 

“It is with profound sorrow we report that legendary poet, songwriter and artist, Leonard Cohen has passed away,” says the announcement on his official page.

I immediately update my status with my favourite Cohen lyric: “Dance me to the end of love”. I repeat the refrain six times over, in defiance — against endings and against death.

Then I find the song on YouTube. Then I shed a tear. I don’t cry for long, however, because I know I will not lose Cohen’s words and because there are other, darker events occuring.

Back on Facebook, a recent acquaintance has already posted a response to my status: “2016 just won’t quit.”, it reads.

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I take to Twitter and find it flooded with similar sentiment.  “RIP Leonard Cohen. He got out just in time.” Tweets the comedian and podcaster Marc Maron.

In light of Donald Trump’s victory in the US election on Wednesday, people appear to be reading new meanings into old lyrics: “Everything has a crack in it, that’s how the light gets in”, quotes the actress Mia Farrow. “RIP Leonard Cohen. ‘Everybody knows that the boat is leaking. Everybody knows that the captain lied,’” posts Gary Shteyngart.

But is this fair to the songs? Is it right to make Cohen’s death reflect on the election of Donald Trump?

Yes. I see on Farrow’s profile page that her bio-line is another quote, this time from the poet, Philip Larkin: “We should be careful of eachother, we should be kind while there is still time.”

What else could art possibly be for but to remind us of this? Most especially when we are faced with unpalatable realities (such as Larkin’s own views about immigrants and trade-unions).

In between googling for a recording of “The End of Love” and listening to it, I browse Wikipedia, which tells me that the song was inspired by the Holocaust. The lyric “Dance me to the beauty of your burning violin,” is apparently a reference to the string quartets that were pressed to play beside the crematoria.

I didn’t know.

Listening again to the song’s aching, Eastern European, rhythms with new ears, I think of the Polish and Romanian relatives my mum never knew. And I think of my dad, who is not Jewish, but with whom I will forever associate the tatty, blue, cassette-tape that first played me “Suzanne”, and “Alleluia” and “Chelsea Hotel”.

I send an ex-boyfriend a WhatsApp and I return to my Facebook timeline, which is still largely an unbroken stream of reaction to the American election. Social media all too often brings out the most base elements of our discourse (as Amelia Tait brilliantly examines). But it also allows us to share our best at the times when it matters most.

In a few hours, as my friends around the world wake up, my feed will become a remembrance wall – of witty snippets, moving reflections and some of the most poignant lyrics ever written.

So, thank you Leonard Cohen for the reminder that music and social media can get you through a lot. And that what survives of us, despite the mess and the endings, is love.