Leonard Cohen crept around the edges of my life before he took hold.
I was first aware of him, bizarrely enough, thanks to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers — Cohen’s darkly funny The Future plays over the end credits — and, in college, stumbled across him again in the context of Robert Altman’s moody Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
Somewhere in between, I’d heard Jeff Buckley’s immortal rendition of Cohen’s searing Hallelujah, although I did not immediately connect the dots between the song and its original author.
Given how I initially encountered him, Cohen always struck me as a cinematic artist, gifted with an arresting voice, befitting something as large as the movies, but someone who remained, to me, an abstract curiosity until late 2009.
That was when I saw Cohen perform for the first time ever — both for myself and a North Texas audience — at Grand Prairie’s then-Nokia Theatre.
It was an astonishing experience (I ranked that show as the best I saw that year), and one which still ranks as one of the finest evenings of live music I’ve ever witnessed.
“The passage of time and carelessness of memory have always been foremost in Cohen's work; watching him now, cradling his words as though they may shatter before he's finished uttering them, adds a depth and poignancy to even the happiest tunes,” I wrote at the time.
That appearance in Grand Prairie would be Cohen’s first and last showcase in North Texas.
No cause of death was given, and memorial services are pending.
Cohen just released what would be his final studio album, You Want It Darker, last month.
As beautifully explored in David Remnick’s requiem, recently published in the New Yorker, Cohen’s mortality — never far from his mind — loomed much larger during the making of Darker, which he finished with the help of his son, Adam.
But those shadows always lurked in Cohen’s work, even as he balanced them out with his subtle presentation. (I’m always struck by Did I Ever Love You, a song from his 2014 LP Popular Problems, which frames a blunt romantic query — “The lemon trees blossom/The almond trees wither/Was I ever someone/Who could love you forever” — with a breathtakingly gorgeous, gossamer folk melody.) It was as if he possessed the soul of a poet and the eye of a photographer; open to the possibilities of beauty even as he ruthlessly documented the often-grim reality.
After seeing him in concert, appreciating the well-calibrated balance of dark and light, and fully grasping what it is that made Cohen such a singular artist, enduring for decades, I plunged into his catalog, reveling in the precision of his language and cool, controlled emotions — singing of love that scorched like fire, but in a way that occasionally removed its sting.
Although he will largely be remembered for Hallelujah, and rightly so, Leonard Cohen’s catalog contains so many more finely sculpted gems, which will hopefully be rediscovered or discovered anew in the wake of his passing.
When the opportunity came to see Cohen a second time, at Austin’s Bass Concert Hall in 2012, I did not hesitate.
Even then, Cohen was making allusions to time drawing short — “I hope we see you again, but if not, we’re going to give you everything we’ve got,” he said at the top of the three-hour show — but nothing in his demeanor suggested he was anywhere near finished. He was no less magnetic and restless — roaming the stage, kneeling before the other musicians arrayed around him — in 2012 than he had been three years earlier in Grand Prairie.
That staggering undertaking, touring the world with no break for three years, would be Cohen’s swan song, one final opportunity to connect with the crowds who sat mesmerized by his brilliance.
Looking back at what I wrote following that performance seems as apt a way as any to say thank you to a musician that infiltrated my life, and made it inherently richer in the process. I am grateful to have been able to appreciate such a talent in his time, rather than realizing posthumously, as has happened far too often in 2016, what has been lost.
Sometimes, what we need to hear most finds us when we expect it least.
“The gloriously indefinable and undeniable sounds of Leonard Cohen even sustains the listener, in a way,” I wrote in 2012. “Seeing someone of Cohen’s stature continue to draw so much evident joy from sharing his art with an adoring audience restores a person’s faith in music. ‘I was born like this/I had no choice,’ Cohen intoned during Tower of Song, ‘I was born with the gift of a golden voice.’
“Although the lyric bears a satiric edge, there is truth in its black humor. Leonard Cohen will carry on, struggling to make peace with himself and his music within the world, filling rooms with his bleak, beautiful and transcendent songs until he cannot anymore.”