‘I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream’
A gifted novelist and poet, Leonard Cohen brought a deft sense of narrative to songs that will never be forgotten
Leonard Cohen onstage at the Three Arena in 2009. Photograph: Dave Meehan
A number of years ago, RTÉ television ran a satirical sitcom set in a CNN-style newsroom, complete with newsreader, cutaways to reporters, graphics and pithy headlines ticker-taping across the footer of the screen. It was not a golden era for RTÉ comedy, but, on one occasion, this programme actually made me laugh. This was when a headline read: “News alert: Middle-aged Irishman stops going on about Leonard Cohen concert.”
For the millions who got the point of his work, Cohen was a sort of downbeat godsend: sometimes bleak, often mischievous, always himself, inspired by the chansons of George Brassens and Serge Gainsbourg, the dark imagery of the folk tradition and the grit of the blues, but capable of saying with charm to the denizens of bedsit-land that the stars are visible from the gutter. A gifted novelist and poet, he brought a feeling for words and a deft sense of narrative to a cluster of songs that will never be forgotten.
He had an endearing sense of the ridiculous, too. Playing the National Boxing Stadium in Dublin in 1988, the city’s millenium year, he began the concert by saying: “It’s great that your city is a thousand years old. And wonderful to be playing in one of the original buildings.” The between-song patter on his 2009 Live in London album includes the following: ‘It’s been a long time since I stood on a stage in London . . . I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream. Since then I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin, Focalin. I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies of the religions. But cheerfulness kept breaking through.”
The famous dourness was always there, but so was its cousin, serenity. In an interview published in the New Yorker in October last, 82-year-old Cohen calmly announced himself “ready to die”, and went on to say: “For some odd reason, I have all my marbles, so far. I have many resources, some cultivated on a personal level, but circumstantial, too: my daughter and her children live downstairs, and my son lives two blocks down the street. So I am extremely blessed. I have an assistant who is devoted and skilful. I have a friend or two who make my life very rich. So in a certain sense I’ve never had it better. . . At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.”
The final album, a sort of self-penned epitaph, is a redemptive and inspiriting piece of work. 2016 has been a sad one for lovers of popular music. But the thought of Cohen being up there in Heaven with Prince, Mr Bowie, Natalie Cole, Keith Emerson, Malik Taylor, Maurice White and Paul Kanter of Jefferson Airplane, the whole group being conducted by fifth Beatle, Sir George Martin, is in its own way rather consoling. Leonard Cohen has gone home to the Tower of Song, the glorious skyscraper to which he contributed so much. It has many more mansions than the Trump Tower will ever have and, being built from dreams, will never fade.
Joseph O’Connor is professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick