There’s a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in
I am not sad Leonard Cohen is dead, exactly, apart from the immense, existential human sadness at the ephemerality of life he wrote about better than anyone else. He’s spoken a lot about feeling tired and ready to die, his body breaking and exhaustion setting in, and I respect that. I wouldn’t keep him here against his will, particularly given the current state of pretty much everything. He has given us enough. I mourn his loss, that unbearable weight of articulacy and passion lost to the world, but we are (or can be) so much better and braver for his words and his work and his existence, and it would be unfair – not least to him – to wish for more.
Above all, Cohen told the truth – dirty, messy, delicate, uncomfortable, unforgivable, human truths about relationships and belonging and change and aging and dying and despair and grace in the face of defeat – and there’s never been anyone to touch him for understanding or perception or nuance. Difficult honesty, with himself as much as with us, was etched into his work at the root. “It was something to do with the truth, that if you told the story, that’s what the song was about.” There’s beauty there, always, but there’s also determination and strength – you cannot break down barriers without empathy, after all, and Cohen tended to hardwire empathy through ears and hindbrain without passing through ego on the way.
This and this are probably my favourite obituaries; they’re beautiful, and talks about his music as a search for light or ‘a manual for living with defeat’ (pace Going Home), and thus the human condition. I have Leonard Cohen stories, of listening to Songs Of Love and Hate with my first sort-of boyfriend, of trading familiarity as currency with friends and lovers, the ache of Dance Me to the End of Love or Suzanne,the haunting thrill of Bird on a Wire and its lonely resignation, the surrender of Famous Blue Raincoat, Anthem as credo and I’m Your Man as desire and thrill and the squirming inner twist of longing prompted by So Long, Marianne or That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, the cynical, charismatic abandon of The Future and Everybody Knows. These songs carried me through triumph and tragedy, heartbreaks I knew I’d never survive and traumas I didn’t think I could. They were there when the world turned black and empty. They still are. You want it darker. We kill the flame.
Everyone has Leonard Cohen stories. He has been a light in the darkness for countless millions of people, particularly the mentally interesting or thoughtful or oversensitive people, for longer than I’ve been alive. He has taught me things about love and suffering and grace and survival I am still learning and will be for many years. He taught me that art and love both mean more than pain, in the end, and you can’t get to the one except through the other. For all that so much talent and torment probably didn’t make for easy or even happy relationships, the spiritual generosity of his last message to Marianne is shattering precisely because of the love that glows there like a banked flame. There’s joy and resignation and passion and abandon of all kinds in his work, and a wisdom few of us can ever reach for. His loss is devastating but his work is still here, in this mess we’ve created, and this isn’t his fight, for all he soundtracked it years ago.
Despite his bleak familiarity with darkness and despair, there was a warmth and courage and wry amusement to Cohen that Liel Lebowitz summed up:
“To see Cohen play was to gawk at an aging Jew telling you that life was hard and laced with sorrow but that if we love each other and fuck one another and have the mad courage to laugh even when the sun is clearly setting, we’ll be just all right.”
He’s right. There is courage and connection if we reach for it and at least the possibility of redemption.
Forget your perfect offering. Ring the bells that can still ring. There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.
Thank you, Leonard Cohen, for everything.
Nb. One of these days I will get around to writing about my heroes before they actually die. Honest.