Songs of love and hate

Canadian singer and poet Leonard Cohen i


Sometimes the Chicago Cubs win the World Series.

Sometimes a boil on the backside of humanity is elected president and Leonard Cohen dies.

Such is life.

My reaction to this world’s less certain, bleaker junctures has always been to hunker down with music and sweat it out. And even before his death on November 7, I found myself turning increasingly to Cohen’s music, not for comfort, but for the dark and visceral joy of listening to a man who saw all this coming and wasn’t afraid to stare it in the eye.

The great comedian Richard Pryor once commented, “It’s hard enough being a human being; it’s really hard enough just to be that. Just to go through everyday life without murdering a motherfucker is hard enough, to just walk through life decent as a person.”
Pryor was talking about the added weight racism adds to the burdens of everyday life. But his words could just as easily describe the central theme of Cohen’s music: life is hard, and we multiply the suffering through our own arrogance and stupidity.

The Canadian-born musician began his career as a poet, a path that would later influence his searching but concise lyric style. Disappointed with his lack of success as a writer, Cohen moved to the United States in 1967 to pursue a career as a folk music singer–songwriter. He would go on to produce some of the most spiritually and emotionally incisive work of the following decade, rivaled only by Bob Dylan in his creatively off center examinations of religion, politics, and sex.

But as fascinating as those earlier albums are, the music I’ve been drawn to over the last year is the handful of albums Cohen made in the late 1980s and early ’90s, work that jettisoned his trademark folk and flamenco stylings for cold, synthetic electronics and vapid, soul sister backing vocals. Combined with his increasingly husky, age-damaged voice, the work presented Cohen as a demented lounge singer in some backwater of purgatory.

“I’m Your Man” in 1988 was the first Cohen album to feature his new, grimly sardonic take on modern music and themes. Released during the bleak days of AIDS, crack and Reagonomics, the album revived Cohen’s career, a remarkable accomplishment considering its pitch-black humor and dead-eyed examination of the era’s economic and spiritual malaise.
“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
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows”

Released in 1992, “The Future” can be seen as an even grimmer companion piece to “I’m your Man.” Only four years down the road, but now the very fabric of America and it’s supposedly inviolable values are in question, and a funhouse world of moral turpitude has replaced the heartland imagery of yesteryear.
“Give me back my broken night
my mirrored room, my secret life
it’s lonely here
there’s no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby
that’s an order!”

The title song also includes what may be the most flesh-crawlingly accurate lyric Cohen ever penned: “I’ve seen the future, brother, it is murder.”

If all these themes sound familiar, it’s because our world has finally caught up with the man’s horrific vision. We’ve arrived, and now the question is: How do we live with that knowledge, and with each other?”

But for all his hard-eyed realism and unsentimental musings, Cohen was no misanthrope. In “Anthem,” an oasis of a song set among the apocalyptic decay of “The Future,” he offers a vision of hope among the ruins, and words we would all do well to heed in these strange, heartsick times.
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”


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