Leonard Cohen, the seminal singer whose deep, inimitable baritone has offered dark yarns exploring the intersections of sex, death and religion for more than 50 years, has never been a particularly cheery subject.
He’s always seemed much older than his years.
In 1988, he sang, “My friends are gone, and my hair is grey. I ache in the places where I used to play.” He was only in his 50s.
Now, preparing to release his 14th studio album, You Want It Darker, on October 21, he sat down with the New Yorker’s David Remnick and discussed his life. What was most eye-opening was his openness and acceptance of his own impending death.
The profile covered his life — from putting out his first record in 1967, after spending years living in London, writing poems and living on a $3,000 (Dh11,016) grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to his lifelong battle with depression that led him to become a monk in 1996 — but about 80 per cent into the thorough piece, his thoughts turned to death.
All lives, of course, end in death, and Cohen has certainly never shied away from the subject in his music. Furthermore, he is 82 years old and in poor health. When Remnick, unbeknown to him, arrived late to one of their scheduled interviews, Cohen sternly called it “a form of elder abuse”.
His reasoning, as Remnick hinted, was that he doesn’t have much time left on this earthly plane — he doesn’t want to waste it waiting for a magazine writer.
Age has already robbed Cohen of a certain smoothness in his basso. Instead of the silky, velvety Bowmore 25 single malt that his voice was years ago, it has become rough and grizzly, and somehow deeper, like a glass of Old Potrero cask strength rye — it’s still adored by fans, but in a different way. That became clear while rehearsing old songs during his 2007 tour.
“I hadn’t played any of these songs for fifteen years,” he said. “My voice had changed. My range had changed. I didn’t know what to do. There was no way I could transpose the positions that I knew.”
Even now, though, as Remnick writes, “The depth of his voice makes Tom Waits sound like Eddie Kendricks.”
Since that 2007 stint, he continued to tour — at one point in 2009 playing his first show in Israel since 1985 — but time kept marching on, taking Cohen’s health with it. By 2013, after 46 years, the man who has been called the Bard of the Boudoir and the King of Melancholy likely played his final show on the road.
Remnick writes: “The musicians all knew this was not only the last night of a long voyage but, for Cohen, perhaps the last voyage. ‘Everybody knows that everything has to end some time,’ [collaborator] Sharon Robinson told me. ‘So, as we left, there was the thought: This is it.’”
Now, Cohen is hoping to wrap up songs, poems, all the unfinished projects that fill an artist’s life. But he finds it difficult.
“I don’t know how many other things I’ll be able to get to, because at this particular stage I experience deep fatigue ... There are times when I just have to lie down. I can’t play anymore, and my back goes fast also,” he said, adding, “The big change is the proximity to death. I am a tidy kind of guy. I like to tie up the strings if I can. If I can’t, also, that’s OK. But my natural thrust is to finish things that I’ve begun.”
Death has arguably been on Cohen’s mind since he began writing poetry if not before, but it appears to have taken hold ever more as of late.
In July, Marianne Ihlen, who was Cohen’s lover and muse when he lived in Greece during the ’60s, passed away at the age of 81. She’s the subject of So Long, Marianne, in which the beyond-his-years 33-year-old sang to his similarity aged girlfriend, “We met when we were almost young.”
Before she died, Cohen sent her a letter, which was read on her deathbed.
“It said, ‘Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine,’” according to the CBC.
It likely doesn’t help that Cohen’s living musical contemporaries, the ones who planted the seeds for modern rock and folk music, are slowly diminishing in number.
Elvis Presley, who was born a year after Cohen, died young in 1977. But earlier this year, so too did Presley’s longtime guitarist Scotty Moore. David Bowie, who released his debut the same year Cohen did, also died this year. Much like Cohen, he watched death inch toward him and recorded a final album titled “Blackstar” that reflected upon it.
Cohen wondered about his own unfinished songs. From Bowie to Warren Zevon, releasing a final album centred on mortality, and the final reckoning thereof, isn’t uncommon. But Cohen doesn’t know if he’ll have time.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs. Maybe, who knows? And maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know,” Cohen told Remnick.
His thoughts on the process seem clear, direct and businesslike.
“I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business,” he said. “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”