I discovered Leonard Cohen later than I should and in a somewhat haphazard way. On a weeknight in 1990, I attended a screening of the largely forgotten (but deeply underrated) Christian Slater film, Pump Up The Volume. Too often thought of (if remembered at all) as a teen comedy, Pump Up The Volume tapped into a post-Reagan era anger among young people who lacked a voice. In the film, Slater provides that voice as a disenchanted high school senior who expresses his frustration through a pirate radio station he sets up in his parent’s Phoenix, Arizona basement.
Taking on the moniker of Happy Hard On Harry, Slater roars at his surroundings, his sense of powerlessness, all while playing some spectacular music. Soon his lark catches on with his classmates, who find a sense of purpose through his frequently ribald and hilarious rants. As would happen in a movie like this, the adults in the city lose their shit and it turns into a classic us vs. them, young vs. old, parents just don’t understand kind of deal.
Anyway, before Happy Harry would hit the airwaves, he would play the same song to announce his presence. Out of the students’ car speakers, the radios on their desks, and of course through the movie theater PA hitting my own ears, came a deep croak…
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
For me, it was an immediate “what the hell is that?” moment. Followed by a “who the hell is that?” moment.
Of course, it was Leonard Cohen.
It’s embarrassing for a half a hipster like me to admit that I barely knew who Leonard Cohen was at the age of nineteen. I think I had read something about him in Rolling Stone magazine, or passed by his album covers in some dusty bin of some now deceased record store. I couldn’t have named a song or recognized his voice under threat of torture though. That soon changed after Pump Up The Volume.
After that, I needed everything, starting with I’m Your Man, the album that housed Everybody Knows. There was so much to discover beyond that. Songs From A Room, New Skin For The Old Ceremony, Death Of A Ladies’ Man, and on and on. There are very few lyricists in the canon of rock and roll who can genuinely claim to be poets. Dylan, Reed, Bowie, and Mitchell come quickly to mind. You could make a fair argument that all took a position after Cohen. The “failed” Canadian novelist who turned to song after his books didn’t sell created a body of work that would go on to inspire and be covered by many, but bettered by none.
Bird On A Wire, Suzanne, Sisters Of Mercy, Joan Of Arc, Who By Fire, and of course, his best known composition, so gloriously sung by Jeff Buckley on his own debut album, Hallelujah. Like Tom Waits or Nick Cave, Cohen was never likely reach a great level of mainstream success. His songs peered into dark corners, Often accompanied by deceptively subtle arrangements and sung in that grand, fractured voice of his that only got deeper and more profound with the changing seasons.
A little over two years after my first exposure to that timeless voice, Cohen released what I consider to be his magnum opus, 1992’s The Future. A nine song cycle of tumult, depravity and social commentary. Leonard Cohen had seen the future, and he had declared it murder. It’s hard to wear out a CD, but that year, I genuinely tried. By then I was working in a record store myself, and one of the great joys of doing so was turning people onto new sounds. Nothing made me happier than exposing people to music they not only didn’t know they might like, but probably didn’t even know existed. Chris Whitley, Tori Amos were two of my favorite “hand sells”. I think it’s safe to say that in 1992, I put a fair bit of royalties into the pocket of that wry, grim, and ironic songsmith. Lord knows he certainly deserved it.
Cohen kept recording after that. All the way up until the end today at the age of 82. His 14th album of new songs just came out three weeks ago. Like David Bowie’s extraordinary swan song from January, Blackstar, You Want It Darker, is a fitting epitaph. One has to wonder if the title itself is some sort of inside joke. With Cohen, it could be hard to tell. His words have always had a touch of mystery. Riddles wrapped in enigmas.
In a year that has taken so many truly great talents from us, this is hopefully the final slap for a calendar that has known no mercy.
The title track of Cohen’s final album begins like so.
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame
So many torches doused this year. Did we want it darker? No. We did not. Yet here darkness comes.
Unabated, and with abandon.
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