Leonard Cohen did prepare us for this. In the title track on his final album, You Want It Darker, out last month, he sang, “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.” He told the New Yorker‘s David Remnick, “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. . . . I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable.”
He later disavowed this last statement—”I said I was ready to die recently,” he told a press conference at the Canadian consulate in LA shortly after the New Yorker article came out. “And I think I was exaggerating. I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever.”
But he was old—82 in September—and infirm, seldom able to leave his apartment. In a video of that press conference, he slumps in his chair, he holds a cane between his legs, and his breath comes short. He had devoted years of his life to Zen Buddhist meditation. If that doesn’t prepare you for the acceptance of death, what will? Unless it’s the “Unetaheh Tokef,” the Hebrew Yom Kippur prayer, sometimes translated as “Let Us Cede Power,” which acknowledges that only God knows who will live and who will die over the next year, and which he adapted in his song “Who by Fire”:
And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?
(Though I must admit, my favorite part of that Remnick article was the part when the reporter arrives late for a meeting and the old man gives him “the most forbidding talking-to I have experienced since grade school.” Zen acceptance only goes so far.)
So no, I wasn’t shocked when the news broke last night that Leonard Cohen had died on Monday, November 7. Yes, I was sad. But I was prepared. It was not a surprise like other events this week. This made it easier to mourn. Also, “admiration is much easier on the soul than disgust,” Mike Miner, another Cohen fan, wrote to me in a Slack chat. As he is with so many other things, he is right about this.
Even at the beginning of his career, when he was still a relatively young man, Cohen sang about death and other forms of transcendence, mostly sex and God. These were the things that interested me most when I was in college, when I first started listening to his music. Cohen was not recording or touring in those years. He had left us for the first time to live as a monk on a mountaintop outside LA. (Another charming detail from the New Yorker story: he would occasionally descend to visit a grocery store, where would have intense discussions with the deli clerk about potato salad.) To me, he was already dead, in a way, or like a literary character (“a knight from some old-fashioned book,” as he put it in “Bird on the Wire,” the first of his songs I ever heard), permanently fixed in my imagination. I wanted to meet a man like him. (That he would probably never be faithful was part of the allure. A woman of the world needs to survive a painful and transformative affair like that.) And I also wanted to be him, to possess the sort of wisdom that comes from experiencing everything the world has to offer. In some ways, he was a modern-day psalmist. In “Hallelujah,” his best-known song, he sang about King David, but in life, he was Ecclesiastes. When I listened to his some of his songs, especially “Who by Fire” and “The Story of Isaac,” I felt everything I was supposed to feel at synagogue but never did.
What forced him back on tour was a tragedy for him—the embezzlement of millions of dollars by his former business manager—but I would be lying if I didn’t say it was a gift to the rest of us. I saw him when he hit Saint Louis, at the Fox Theatre, a magnificent old gilded movie palace from the 1920s. It was seven years to the day before he died. He was elegant and courtly, wearing a suit and hat, which he removed in tribute to the members of his band during their solos. His voice was deep and well-used—a remarkable instrument, I remember thinking at the time. He was dignified, but he didn’t take himself seriously. (“You told me again you preferred handsome men,” he sang in “Chelsea Hotel #2”, his tribute to Janis Joplin, “but for me you would make an exception.”) He seemed wise. He seemed like a man who had lived.
So my mourning for him feels clean—another great word from Miner. I will miss him, though. And I will continue to listen to his music. I will especially remember driving around my neighborhood this fall late one night looking for a parking spot, his voice keeping me company in the darkness.