A few years ago, I was chatting with a publicist I’m friendly with, and I mentioned that I lived in the Mid-Wilshire area, around Pico and Fairfax. The publicist smiled and said, almost conspiratorially, “Oh, you know who lives there? Leonard Cohen.”
He said it like he was sharing a secret confidence with a likeminded soul. He figured I would be excited to know this, and he was right. My old neighborhood was a nice one, but it was hardly posh — especially by Los Angeles standards. But at that moment, it was suddenly flecked with undeniable cool. Leonard Cohen lived in my neighborhood.
Whenever I’d go for a walk, I always held out hope that maybe I’d run into him. The publicist, who had worked with Cohen during the release of the 2005 documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, didn’t tell me where exactly his house was, and I didn’t ask. It felt like an invasion of privacy and, anyway, I preferred the mystery of knowing that Cohen was somewhere around, as if his essence was somehow floating through the air. After all, that’s the relationship I’ve had with him and his music all my life. I doubt I’m the only one.
Singer-songwriters come in two forms: the ones whose confessional candor makes you feel like you know them intimately, and the ones who like to wear a mask so that we can’t quite see them behind their lyrics and music. If Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen fit the first category and Bob Dylan and Tom Waits the second, Cohen, who died at age 82, occupied a space in between. His vocals couldn’t have been more direct or naked, especially as he got older and his instrument grew more ragged, but he had an extraordinary ability to seem otherworldly even when he was singing about basic scenarios like unrequited love.
There are the standard explanations for how he achieved this feat — his unconventional use of nylon strings on his guitar, which gave his songs a more exotic feel, or his previous career as a novelist and poet, which gave his words a more literary bent than those of your typical coffee-shop folkie. But from his debut album — 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen, released when he was 33 (old for a genre populated by 20somethings) — Cohen was never as simple as those standard explanations made him out to be.
The first song off his first record, “Suzanne,” is as good a place to start as any. It tells a seemingly familiar story — it’s about a man in thrall with a beautiful woman — but his words only suggest things, never settling on anything concrete. Jesus shows up at one point. We’re told that “There are heroes in the seaweed.” And Cohen describes his unfulfilled desire with these lines:
You want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind
“Suzanne” is one of Cohen’s most popular tunes, but nobody really can grasp it — even if we know the song’s real-world inspiration. His voice, casual and wistful, keeps hinting that there are things he’s not telling us about Suzanne, and the more we listen to the song, the more we convince ourselves that we’ll somehow figure out what’s being unsaid. But you never will, just as Cohen’s slightly withdrawn singing style suggests that he, too, isn’t entirely there. He’s just stopped by to say a few things, and then he’s on his way.
That air of atmospheric, world-weary exhaustion was crucial to Cohen’s early career as an acoustic troubadour. That stance left a melancholy center at the heart of his songs — a place so tender only the listener could take up residence — and it added layers of heartbreak to other people’s work. (Robert Altman’s fantastic 1971 Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller features Cohen’s songs, providing that movie with all the unexpressed longing that its main character, played by Warren Beatty, cannot express to his unattainable true love, Julie Christie’s enigmatic madam.)
And despite his legend as a suave ladies’ man — his famous lovers included Joni Mitchell and Rebecca De Mornay — his songs about sex and devotion never felt especially arrogant or cocksure. He was the gentleman, not the cad. This disconnect was not lost on the artist, who told The Guardian in 2001, “I read with some amusement my reputation as a ladies’ man. My friends are amused by that, too, because they know my life. Even when I was younger I was never aware of it, to tell the truth, so I could not take advantage of it. But for someone who has that sort of reputation and has spent so many nights alone, it has a special bitter amusement attached to it. … That reputation has not served me well. There are women whom I have wanted to meet who have declined any interest in my company simply because of my reputation, simply because they did not want to be a name on a list.” We thought we knew him, but maybe we didn’t.
In the ’80s, Cohen moved to a more electric, synthesizer-driven sound, becoming a growling chronicler of doom. Cynical tracks like “Everybody Knows” and “The Future” were catnip to pseudo-intellectual dorm-room bros who wanted to seem far deeper and sophisticated than they actually were, but Cohen’s genius was delivering these end-is-nigh manifestos with utter nonchalance. He seemed to be saying, “Listen, the worst is already on its way, so why get alarmed about it?” And as with his earlier work, “Everybody Knows” repaid repeat listenings because listeners were fooled into believing they’d eventually get a bead on Cohen’s perspective on encroaching apocalypse. But as always, he was there, but not there.
The more Cohen’s voice thickened in later years, the more he took on the guise of a wise elder telling us what he’s learned in his many travels. It was a poetic, romantic persona — the wandering, wizened sage — but his whispered vocals conveyed lifetimes of regret and experience that his lyrics only alluded to. And in the post-9/11 era, he was a pillar of comfort, albums like Ten New Songs getting a lot of us through the shock of the 2001 terrorist attacks. In a world that suddenly felt deeply unstable, his solidly basso voice felt like one of the few things we could count on. Now, that aura of mystery suggested security — America might be falling apart, but the world of Cohen’s songs was a warm, safe alternate universe where we could visit, at least for a while.
The New Yorker recently published a terrific profile of Cohen, and although I don’t live in my old neighborhood anymore, I was curious if writer David Remnick had gone to visit the artist at his home. Sure enough, there was this mention: “Leonard Cohen lives on the second floor of a modest house in Mid-Wilshire, a diverse, unglamorous precinct of Los Angeles.” Later, Remnick notes, “He gets up well before dawn and writes. In the small, spare living room where we sat, there were a couple of acoustic guitars leaning against the wall, a keyboard synthesizer, two laptops, a sophisticated microphone for voice recording. … Cohen did much of his work for You Want It Darker in the living room, e-mailing recorded files to his partners for additional refinements.” And Cohen reveals, “[M]y daughter and her children live downstairs, and my son lives two blocks down the street.”
These brief glimpses into the man’s inner life felt like revelations. He really did live there. He was an actual person, not just a voice that came out of the speaker, delivering information from a world only he saw. I thought of the only time I had ever seen him. It was 2000 at a 25th anniversary gala screening of Altman’s Nashville. Many actors who had been in Altman movies over the years came to the event, but when a quiet, thin man walked down the aisle to his seat a few rows ahead of me, I very nearly gasped. It was Leonard Cohen. He didn’t speak to anyone. Perhaps that would have shattered the illusion.
You Want It Darker was released on October 21, and like several of his recent albums, it sounds like the work of a man who can see oblivion in the near distance. Death is all over the record — but also recognition that, no matter how old you get, nobody knows anything. As was often true with Cohen, the words don’t all scan, but the invisible connections between lines are just as rich as the lyrics on the page. That’s especially true of the opening title track…
There’s a lover in the story
But the story is still the same
There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame
But it’s written in the Scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame
It’s a song about the end, but I can tell you from personal experience that “You Want It Darker” also worked really well as a way to channel my anxiety going into the presidential election — an anxiety that, it turns out, I was well-founded in feeling. We are once again entering a time of real darkness, and I assumed I’d be using plenty of Cohen’s songs to help get me through it. Now he’s gone, too. I’m trying not to think of it that way, though. As far as I’m concerned, he’s still around, hanging out in my neighborhood, unseen but certainly still there.