Weep not for Leonard Cohen, for he does not have to witness the ascension of Donald Trump to the most powerful position in the world. And yet, in July this year, it was Cohen’s 2014 album Popular Problems that kickstarted development of my #Trumpocalypse #mixtape.
I said it then, and I say it again now: “If we’re going down in the #Trumpocalypse, I’m going down with Leonard Cohen.”
The ‘popular problems’ he addressed in his penultimate work included past and present horrors of human suffering, entwining the geopolitical with the deeply personal as his best work always does. From the comfort of my bathtub it sounded almost like the blues and a perfect soundtrack for our times.
Your Girl Reporter was on special assignment in Queensland’s Wild North as the extraordinary US election played out. Still in some shock at the result, I was expecting a catch-up on its aftermath when I broke for lunch the next day, not the news that Cohen too had left us.
Just a day earlier another poet, Jeet Thayil – well known here in Brisbane as Arts Queensland’s recent poet-in-residence – had christened the new era The Age of Indecency. It’s a fitting moniker for our changed circumstance and it’s no place for Leonard Cohen, the world’s last gentleman. But if we are to go down in the #Trumpocalypse I was going down with you… I was too far from home for such news.
I saw some people starving
There was murder, there was rape
Their villages were burning
They were trying to escape
I couldn’t meet their glances
I was staring at my shoes
It was acid, it was tragic
It was almost like the blues
– Almost like the blues, Popular Problems 2014
Most tributes focused on two of his songs, Hallelujah and Suzanne, but the myriad of favourite lines which flooded Twitter and Facebook were a powerful testament to the extent of Cohen’s body of work. If another songwriter was in with a chance for next year’s Nobel, surely it would have been Cohen.
I said I was going down with Len, and it was his last three albums I started with, on the flight back to Brisbane. After Popular Problems, I steered my way – through the ruins of the altar and the mall – with the help of You Want It Darker, released just weeks before his death in October 2016.
Seemed the better way
When first I heard him speak
Now it’s much too late
To turn the other cheek
Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way
Sounded like the truth
But it’s not the truth today
– It seemed the better way, You Want It Darker 2016
Cohen is reported to have regarded his last album as his finest and I’m happy to give him that. The musical arrangements are exquisite, perfect grace notes to the low down depths of his bass.
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame
– Title track, You Want it Darker, 2016
You want it darker. It’s not a question, but a final weary observation from His Dark Eminence. Cohen, who always gave it to us dark, seems to be shaking his head at humanity on the eve of our destruction. If I’m sounding biblical, it’s because I’m going down with Leonard Cohen.
I caught the darkness drinking from your cup
I said: Is this contagious?
You said: Just drink it up
– Darkness, Old Ideas 2012
Cohen’s Jewish heritage suffused his poetry, with of course Hallelujah the best known example of how effortlessly he could weave the liturgical into his work. But it wasn’t just the language, it was the theme of so many of his songs, including the wonderfully romantic Dance Me to the End of Love (Various Positions, 1984). Its cruel inspiration was the musicians, forced to play in the death camps of the Holocaust.
It is painful to recall a past intensity, to estimate your
distance from the Belsen heap, to make your peace with
numbers. Just to get up each morning is to make a kind of
– Lines from my grandfather’s journal, The Spice-Box of Earth, 1961
History is forgotten by all but the scholars within a generation or two. If we are truly to remember we need the poets and the artists of pitiless eye and bleeding heart and Cohen possessed both, expressing them in phrases “deep and truthful as ever and multidimensional,” as Bob Dylan told David Remnick for The New Yorker.
In You Want It Darker, Cohen deals himself out of the game and leaves the table, raising a glass to when it’s over as he goes. But as it gets darker, we will not kill the flame. I’m going down with Leonard Cohen, travelling light like we used to do. If we need a candle to guide us, he left a few.
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows 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, I’m Your Man 1988
Cohen was asked during a press preview of his 2012 album Old Ideas where the light came in to a track like Darkness, a reference to another great Cohen couplet – there’s a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets through (Anthem, The Future 1992).
“It’s just the song that allows the light to come in,” he is said to have responded.
“It’s the position of the man standing up in the face of something that is irrevocable and unyielding and singing about it. It’s the sort of position Zorba the Greek took; that when things get really bad, you just raise your glass and stamp your feet and do a little jig and that’s about all you can do.”
I’m going down with Leonard Cohen, forever singing sweetly from the Tower of Song.
© Sally Baxter 2106
Want more Leonard Cohen? Try this:
Leonard Cohen, dead at 82 – Richard Gehr, Rolling Stone
Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems, review: ‘a masterpiece’ – Neil McCormick, The Telegraph
Leonard Cohen turns 80 – Lincoln Mitchell, The Observer
Leonard Cohen makes it darker – David Remnick, The New Yorker
Want more Baxter? Join me on Twitter or Facebook for my Saturday Soundtrack, featuring the #Trumpocalypse #mixtape and other musical adventures: #RadioBaxter