Leonard Cohen was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize on May 14, an honour that has been called “the Nobel Prize of the Arts.” The prize confirmed what the world already knows: that he is a beloved and respected performer, a Canadian whose fame and reach are global. His words and his music are a part of our lives.
And why do we love Leonard Cohen? His name resonates beyond the sometimes obscure worlds of poetry and folk music. People who like those kinds of things love Cohen, but people who, conversely, could care less about them still love Leonard Cohen. In an attempt to answer this unanswerable question I’ve compiled a list.
Reasons to love Leonard Cohen:
- He has embraced the idea of the troubadour: the ladies’ man, the singer of joy and heartbreak, the rider of white horses (onstage). It’s an act of what the Italians have called “sprezzatura,” careless, ideal grace and nonchalant ability. He is a captive in the Tower of Song.
- He deplores the idea of anyone taking this pose seriously, with characteristic deflating wit.
- He takes it seriously.
- His work is an exploration of Romance, investigating the rituals, systems and symbols of lust and devotion, our deep need to be overwhelmed by sensation and emotion, yet to channel these into pattern and meaning.
- My friend Sunnie made a t-shirt that riffs on Cohen’s poem “Marita:” “Leonard Cohen / please find me / I am almost 30.”
- His irreverent challenge to the sexual mores of his time continues to resonate: Beautiful Losers, particularly, remains one of the most interesting, shocking and thought-provoking literary works on human sexuality (and other things) around. His juxtapositions of the conventionally obscene with the conventionally tender and beautiful challenge our understanding of these categories. I had to explain to a distressed student once that “You Have the Lovers” was not ruined by the intimation of a kind of multitudinous orgy, that the sense of communion was the point of the poem.
- He uses the flesh to contemplate the divine: this is a man profoundly engaged with the investigation of mystery, ranging across belief systems and traditions (his comparison of mythologies) to seek spiritual revelation.
- His voice, gravelly and off-key, slow and precise, is one of the most unmistakeable around. When he won a Juno in 1993 for Best Male Vocalist he wryly stated “Only in Canada could somebody with a voice like mine win Vocalist of the Year.” He was, er, “born with the gift of a golden voice.” It keeps getting better.
- He grapples with the atrocities and the politics of his time: the Holocaust, dictatorships, human suffering, greed and exploitation. Works like “Everybody Knows” and “The Future” present the flaws of the world to the public in a way that echoes long after the song has ended.
- My father, an engineer with little time for most music, played his records unceasingly when I was growing up: evenings, weekends, afternoons. When we were young we groaned and complained, until by the time we were teenagers we knew every word and loved them all.
- He is generous to other performers, and has gifted them (and us) with his work: think of Jennifer Warnes’ broken swoop of voice in “Song of Bernadette;” Concrete Blonde’s throaty yowl of “Everybody Knows;” the numerous iterations of “Hallelujah” performed through the years, including K.D. Lang’s, which I consider the best cover (everyone has an opinion on this one).
- He confounds the elitists by producing highly accessible, appealing, thoughtful ballads. He confounds the populists by producing abstruse, experimental work. He contains multitudes.
- His answers to the unanswerable questions he keeps asking come back, always, to Love and to Failure, to the need to embrace a necessarily imperfect world:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in. (“Anthem,” 1992)