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So long Leonard Cohen

12 November, 2016 — by Leon Barton0

Trump, Brexit, Bowie, Prince, Aaron Ramsey’s suspension for the European Championship semi-final… just when you thought 2016 couldn’t get any shitter, Leonard Cohen’s gone and said goodbye.

In truth, he was 82 years old so Leonard Cohen’s passing comes as less of a shock than most on the RIP roll-call this year. Still, perhaps it was because my mother was a fan and I’ve been aware of his work for most of my life, that it just doesn’t feel right he’s not with us any more.

It was a similar feeling when John Peel died in 2004 because Cohen has sort of always been there, around, coming through near-by speakers, in the ether… Also, because youth and energy was never a part of the Cohen-package, he’s always seemed somewhat ageless and timeless.

No doubt his words and music will live on, people as influential and beloved as Cohen never really die.

The following piece is not meant as an exhaustive tribute or obituary – there will be plenty of those around, written by people more qualified to do so than me. Rather, it’s just a little look at some of my favourite Leonard Cohen songs.

‘Suzanne’ from Songs of Leonard Cohen [1967]

As if to emphasize just how different a figure in popular music he would be, a few short years from Pete Townsend penning “I hope I die before I get old” in ‘My Generation’, the 33 year old Leonard Cohen released his debut album.

Suzanne was the lead track, and where contemporaries like Hendrix, Lennon and Joplin emphasised volume and grabbed attention through sheer guttural emotion, Cohen’s quiet, mysterious contemplation was just as shocking in it’s own way.

“And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there. And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China”

As celebrated historian and huge Cohen fan Simon Schama once stated, “peel me an orange.”

‘The Stranger Song’ from Songs of Leonard Cohen [1967]

I could have just filled this list with songs from his first album but in an attempt to spread the chronology of this list I’ll narrow it down to these, partly because there’s such a great version of this track on YouTube, taken from ‘Once More With Felix’ – fellow singer-songwriter Julie Felix’s TV show.

Nick Cave tweeted earlier to say “For many of us Leonard Cohen was the greatest songwriter of them all. Utterly unique and impossible to imitate no matter how hard we tried.” And listening to Cohen invoke biblical themes in this utterly incredible song (“he was just some Joseph looking for a manger”) you can see exactly how hard Cave has tried. (I’m speaking as a huge Nick Cave fan by the way).

‘Bird on a Wire’ from Songs From a Room (1969)

When push comes to shove, this is my favourite from the Cohen pantheon. Described by the man himself as “a simple country song”, it has been covered by Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash (and overly-smoothly by the Neville Brothers) but it’s the original that remains the definitive take.

There’s just something about the warble in his voice as he struggles to hit the high notes in the chorus that feels so apt in a song about attempting to be free in a society governed by conventions and restrictions. Stunning.

‘Lover, Lover, Lover’ from New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)

I’ve lived in Austria for the past seven years and I’m stunned that whenever I visit the Flea Markets and second hand shops I often find 70s pop compilations featuring Leonard Cohen songs (this track seems the most popular). Seeing his name between Boney M and Smokey felt so weird considering his work is considered high-art in Britain, but across much of continental Europe he was a ‘pop star’ as much as a poet. Which, after getting over the initial surprise, I thought was actually quite cool.

A big success on this side of the Atlantic, Cohen’s excellent 4th album New Skin for the Old Creemony didn’t even reach the Billboard top 200 in the States. Perhaps, in fairness, the simplicity and strong melodies of this track were the nearest he ever got to writiing a pure pop song. My (now 4 year-old) son used to sing this one in the bath all the time.

‘Hallelujah’ from Various Positions (1984)

Truth be told, I prefer the classical guitar stuff to the synths that dominated his 80’s backing tracks. And I prefer the John Cale and Jeff Buckley versions of this, surely his most well known song. And yes, it has become a horribly mainstream X Factor staple. But despite all that, the main reason I’ve included this on the list is because I remember a radio interview where Cohen said it took him several years to write and “a good song will always yield.” Inspirational, considering the many, many articles I’ve abandoned after a few sentences.

Cohen himself acknowledged the song had become annoyingly ubiquitous in recent years, but, after being ripped off and left near-penniless by his former manager, I guess the royalty payments were much appreciated.

‘Lullaby’ from Old Ideas (2011)

Bringing us more up to to date, all of Cohen’s recent releases have been excellent, but I particularly love ‘Old Ideas’ This track I find suitably soothing – a fitting epitaph perhaps. So long Leonard.

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