In Death Leonard Cohen Is in Danger of Becoming Cute

Posthumously nominated for two Grammys, the late poet/singer/songwriter is hotter than ever. But does all this new love overlook the darker, knottier side of his vision?

Michael Putland

Would Leonard Cohen recognize Leonard Cohen?

The longtime poet-singer-icon, who died a year ago at the age of 82, has just been nominated for two Grammys—either of which would be his first award (he won a Lifetime Achievement nod in 2010, and was part of Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning River: The Joni Letters in 2007, but those don’t count).

There’s also been an effulgence of posthumous production. Cohen’s late-period book of poems, The Book of Longing, has just been reissued in a new, limited edition. A sweet, beautiful, sentimental animated video of his song “Leaving the Table” went viral two months ago. A new, “final” book of poems and songs, The Flame, is to be published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux next year.

And of course, there’s “Hallelujah.”

Forgive me for being a curmudgeon here, but the posthumous Leonard Cohen is scarcely recognizable to those of us who followed the messy, brilliant, self-destructive artist over his six decades of work. I’m not complaining, exactly. I am legitimately delighted that Cohen is getting all this attention, and while the Grammys are even more obsessed with deceased artists than usual this year, it would be a thrill to see him finally win one.

It’s just—those of us who loved Leonard Cohen didn’t love him because he was a wise, grandfatherly figure who wrote a beautiful song based on the Bible. We love him, still, because he was a poet of brokenness, loss, redemption, vanity, sex, violence, and, five decades before Lady Gaga, bad romance.

Whereas, the immortal Leonard Cohen is in danger of becoming—well, almost cute.

Take that “Leaving the Table” video, which depicts Cohen as a bardo, a disembodied soul after death in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which Cohen himself narrated a few years back. It’s gorgeous, filled with Easter Eggs for fans, and it made me cry. But it’s almost too beautiful, depicting Cohen as a kind of Marc Chagall figure flying over cityscapes, or a monk meditating on a mountain top, or a Dylanesque folkie in a coffeehouse. (To be fair, Cohen actually was a Dylanesque folkie in a coffeehouse even before Dylan was.)

Juxtapose that with the lyrics of the song, which contains such lines as “There’s nobody missing / There is no reward / Little by little / We’re cutting the cord.” That is, there’s no heavenly reward; there’s just death, coming closer. Other lines in the song are about the death of the libido (after a lifetime of sexual voraciousness), remorse in old age, and giving up in the face of looming mortality.

Cute, huh?

Likewise, the Grammy-nominated song “You Want It Darker,” which may seem conventionally religious if you don’t pay attention to lines like “a million candles burning for the help that never came” and "you want it darker—we kill the flame," which accuse the Almighty of enjoying suffering and depredation.

Or consider the Book of Longing reissue. On the surface, these songs and poems, many of which were written during Cohen’s time as a monastic on Mt. Baldy, are consonant with the cliché of the Zen master. Here is the elder Cohen reflecting sagely on Buddhist topics of impermanence and clinging.

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But between the covers are verses like “I am old but I have no regrets / not one / even though I am angry and alone / and filled with fear and desire”; and prayers like “G-d opened my eyes this morning loosened the bands of sleep / let me see the waitress’s tiny earrings and the merest foothills of her small breasts … Thank You Ruler of the World Thank You for calling me Honey;” and rejections of profundity in favor of libido: “Kyozan Joshu Roshi … / addresses the simultaneous / expansion and contraction / of the cosmos. / I go on and on / about a noble young woman / who unfastened her jeans / in the front of my jeep… / I prefer my stuff to theirs.”

Nowhere is the disjuncture between Cohen the myth and Cohen the man starker, though, than in “Hallelujah” itself.

It would be a shame if Cohen’s work were turned into sentimentality, since he so assiduously resisted it in his art.

Once a relatively obscure album track from one of Cohen’s lesser albums, “Hallelujah” was then covered (and reconfigured) by Velvet Underground alum John Cale, whose cover was itself covered by the late Jeff Buckley, perhaps the only singer-songwriter who could sing sadder than Cohen himself. Those, not the original, became the song’s definitive versions.

And then things got weird. Subsequent covers by k.d. lang, Rufus Wainwright, Bon Jovi, John Legend, Bono, and many, many others made the song into a kind of standard. The song showed up in Shrek. Buckley’s version was featured on The West Wing, Crossing Jordan, The O.C., House, Criminal Minds, ER, Ugly Betty, NCIS, and Sense 8. It was sung at sports events, including the first Red Sox game after the Boston Marathon terrorist attack, at which point it became the unofficial anthem for the tragedy and its aftermath.

And after Cohen’s death, thirty years after it was written, the track entered the Billboard “Hot 100” list.

And yet, what is “Hallelujah” about? Definitely not recovery, resilience, faith, or hope. It’s about how King David turns lust into poetry (oh, and after David “saw [Bathsheba] bathing on the roof,” he sent her husband into battle so he could marry her himself), and how Cohen is now doing the same. It’s about how love is not some triumphant, Beatles-Dolly-Parton symphony but a “cold and broken Hallelujah.” It’s about how, for some holy sinners, God and sex are intertwined. (The lines “remember when I moved in you/The holy dove was moving too” are often omitted from the stadium versions.)

Now, songs mean what their audiences make them mean. That is one of the beautiful things about public poetry. “Born in the U.S.A.” is an anguished cry of a forsaken Vietnam vet, but it became a patriotic chant. “Losing My Religion” is an oblique poem about repression and sexuality, but then it became—well, I’m not sure what fans think it means actually. “Halleluyah” is no different, and that is fine—especially if it’s brought solace to the hearts of those who lost loved ones in a terrorist attack, for God’s sake.

And yet, it would be a shame if Cohen’s work were turned into sentimentality, since he so assiduously resisted it in his art. The man never wrote a love song that didn’t have some kind of dark twist in it. He never covered up his own flaws or pretended to piety. And not once did he rely on cliché.

It’s possible that Cohen’s life and work will be airbrushed—I suppose not many people think about Frank Sinatra’s violence and failures with women these days—but I’d like to propose, I’m afraid, a more optimistic possibility. I’m hoping that if Cohen does win one of those Grammys, that some of what is brilliant about his work sneaks through the mass appeal, and finds an audience almost as an act of subterfuge.

I can’t think of too many Grammy-nominated performances with lines like “If You are the healer, I’m broken and lame/ If Thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame/ You want it darker—we kill the flame.” Or with quotations from the Kaddish prayer, or the biblical utterance Hineni (“Here I am”). Or with a ringing condemnation of the conventional notion of God (“A million candles burning for the help that never came”). “You Want It Darker” has all of these, plus a cantorial choir and the whispering voice of an octogenarian singer who is clearly looking beyond the final horizon.

If a million people think “Hallelujah” is a prayer of hope, well, good for them—as long as one in a million listens more closely and uncovers the vast, dark treasure of Leonard Cohen for themselves. Probably listening alone.

And to you, to that one lonely listener, I offer you this. The last time I saw Leonard Cohen live, he ended his performance with the following blessing. “Be well, be kind,” he said. “If you have to fall, may you fall on the side of luck. May you be surrounded by friends and family. And if this is not your lot, may blessings find you in your solitude.”