In Death Leonard Cohen Is in Danger of Becoming Cute

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 Grammyseither of which would be his first award (he won a Lifetime Achievement nod in 2010, and was part of Herbie Hancocks Grammy-winning River: The Joni Letters in 2007, but those dont count).

Theres also been an effulgence of posthumous production. Cohens 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, theres 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. Im 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.

Its justthose of us who loved Leonard Cohen didnt 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 becomingwell, 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. Its gorgeous, filled with Easter Eggs for fans, and it made me cry. But its 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 Theres nobody missing / There is no reward / Little by little / Were cutting the cord. That is, theres no heavenly reward; theres 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 dont pay attention to lines like a million candles burning for the help that never came and "you want it darkerwe 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 Cohens time as a monastic on Mt. Baldy, are consonant with the clich of the Zen master. Here is the elder Cohen reflecting sagely on Buddhist topics of impermanence and clinging.

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 waitresss 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 Cohens work were turned into sentimentality, since he so assiduously resisted it in his art.

Once a relatively obscure album track from one of Cohens 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 songs 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. Buckleys 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 Cohens 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. Its 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. Its about how love is not some triumphant, Beatles-Dolly-Parton symphony but a cold and broken Hallelujah. Its 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 becamewell, Im not sure what fans think it means actually. Halleluyah is no different, and that is fineespecially if its brought solace to the hearts of those who lost loved ones in a terrorist attack, for Gods sake.

And yet, it would be a shame if Cohens work were turned into sentimentality, since he so assiduously resisted it in his art. The man never wrote a love song that didnt 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 clich.

Its possible that Cohens life and work will be airbrushedI suppose not many people think about Frank Sinatras violence and failures with women these daysbut Id like to propose, Im afraid, a more optimistic possibility. Im 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 cant think of too many Grammy-nominated performances with lines like If You are the healer, Im broken and lame/ If Thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame/ You want it darkerwe 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 themas 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.

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