Everybody knows that the dice are loaded,
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed,
Everybody knows that the war is over,
Everybody knows the good guys lost.
These were the first Leonard Cohen lyrics I heard in my life. I was fifteen, several months into my immigrant experience in the US. The song was the theme to Pump Up the Volume, a film that fed my teenage angst compounded by the multitude of culture shocks I was going through. I wondered who this man was that knew so deeply that the world is fundamentally unfair, and though my English was limited the power of these words was unadulterated. And when Christian Slater’s pirate radio DJ character put on Cohen’s If It Be Your Will, it crushed my soul in the most beautiful way.
I encountered Cohen’s music again two years later, and again through film. This time it was the masterful soundtrack by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails for Natural Born Killers. Cohen’s Waiting for the Miracle and The Future bookended the film, and they were as perfect songs of anger and despair as they come.
Yes, anger, an emotion that probably does not come to your mind when you think of Leonard Cohen’s work. But you could sense its undercurrent through those songs, and through the songs like Democracy, whose lyrics are some of the most daring every written, if only you open your ear to them. Who else could describe America as “the land of the best and of the worst”? These words have never been more prophetic in light of this week’s events. In The Tower of Song, Cohen sings “But of this you may be sure, the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor.”
Cohen’s anger was always tampered by his feeling of powerlessness. What can a man do in the face of unfathomable, unstoppable, cruel forces that govern this world? Cohen knew this well. When a man is powerless but nevertheless seeks a source of justice, he may turn to god, as Cohen so often did in his work. Because he is powerless against the rich having their channels in the bedrooms of the power, the following lines were, “And there’s a mighty judgment coming,” immediately doubting his hopefulness, “but I may be wrong.”
Of course there is no Leonard Cohen without his songs about love. I continued to listen to him as I entered my own, beautiful, confusing, and tortured relationships with women. The thing that I loved about Cohen’s love songs most was his sensitivity and his willingness to acknowledge being hurt. In the world full of idiotic machismo he was the one contemporary who told men that it’s OK to be sensitive, and that it’s OK to feel wounded, “Ah, they don’t let a woman kill you, not in The Tower of Song.”
Cohen also freely acknowledged that he hurt the women he loved, as all men do. “Like a baby stillborn, like a beast with his horn, I have torn everyone who reached out for me,” he sings in Bird on the Wire. He knew that love was fundamentally messy, and that squaring one’s desire for freedom and love was a nearly impossible task. That’s what Bird on the Wire is about.
As Cohen got older he came to realize only what the old wise men know, the futility of one’s life’s efforts, that a man is really like “a worm on the hook.” Of course acceptance never invalidated those efforts – a man without anger and love and all the striving that comes with them is no man at all – but only put them in a different light, a light more peaceful. Whenever I would dream of interviewing Cohen, and I dreamed of this countless times – that I never will is a source of infinite sadness – I knew what I would write about. My article would be titled Poetry of Acceptance. It is Cohen’s own brand of existentialism. In Closing Time, he sings, “And I lift my glass to the awful truth, which you can’t reveal to the ears of youth, except to say it isn’t worth a dime.” He is acknowledging the awful truth of one’s futile and ultimately meaningless existence, and he equally acknowledges that it is pointless to try telling this to the young, because the young need to go through all the efforts themselves. It’s the only path to understanding.
Of course, such acceptance and sadness go hand and hand – there is no way around it. But the flip side of sadness is that it can be beautiful and comforting. I never understood people who did not see this and who escaped from sadness in whatever way they saw therapeutic, “who by fire, who by water.” Leonard Cohen was not one of them. To be sure, he had his own ways of catharsis, and his self-deprecating humor was always within reach, not only in his lyrics, but in the way he engaged his audience during his concerts. When he played a rudimentary keyboard solo during his life performance in London, and the audience applauded, he chuckled and said, “You are very kind.” That’s something from a man of genius.
The first time I saw Leonard Cohen live was about half a year after my grandfather passed away. Leonard Cohen was Jewish, like me, and his family came from Eastern Europe, like mine. He looked uncannily like my grandfather. When he came out on stage, for a brief moment it was as if my grandfather was reborn, standing in front of me in a tailored suit and a fedora, with a guitar in hand. It was soul-crushingly beautiful, just like the first time I heard Cohen’s voice.
The fact that Cohen’s fountain of genius almost never sputtered has always been awe-inspiring. I do not ask for constant greatness from an artist – one great thing is enough. But just when I thought, at the turn of this Century, that one could hardly ask more of him, Cohen produced 10 New Songs, an album of infinite beauty and depth. That Old Ideas and Popular Problems that are full of powerful songs were released when he was nearly 80 is almost unfathomable. And of course we are now blessed with his swan song, You Want It Darker, which came out only three weeks ago. These albums are essentially about death, and that Cohen had the courage to share his thoughts on death is somehow uplifting. There was acceptance in those songs, too, as when Cohen sings on death’s behalf, “I want him to be certain that he doesn’t have a burden, that he doesn’t need a vision, that he only has permission to do my instant bidding.” The unburdening is what Cohen was seeking most throughout his life, and I know that he has finally found it.