Depressive realism is the psychological theory that depressed people just perceive the world more accurately than optimists. Leonard Cohen was one of the great skeptics, a strong tradition in his inherited faith of Judaism and his adopted one of Zen Buddhism. Born into an upper-middle-class Jewish-Canadian family in Montreal in 1934, he was privileged enough to lead a romantic artist’s life, but he spent his life questioning social orders and advantages. He was particularly fixated on unequal power dynamics — in sex, love, politics, and religion — and the ways they’re intrinsically intertwined. Cohen died last Monday, but the news of his passing wasn’t circulated until Thursday, a day when many people were already in a state of despair and mourning.
When I heard Leonard Cohen had died, I wrote my friend Amir, who wrote back “just one kick in the dick after another,” summing up 2016. Amir and I had been roommates in our early twenties, sharing a shitty apartment, both of us deeply depressed and miserable. I feel a weird tenderness now for that terrible time. Every night we sat in our separate rooms with our doors closed, and through the thin wall I listened to Amir listen to Leonard Cohen albums. That era of my young life was the last time I could remember feeling as bad and helpless as I’ve been feeling since Tuesday. I asked Amir what he remembered about that time in our lives and he said, “I find it easy to say now, but, I felt responsible for my misery.” Finding the humor in misery was Leonard Cohen’s forte.
Cohen’s songs preach about the pleasure in sadness and the underlying sadness of all pleasure. He located firmly in the reality of the everlasting present. Cohen was a perpetual seeker of wisdom who explored all the major religions and some fringe ones, including Scientology, because he’d heard it was a good place to meet women. Cohen delighted in ritual, bringing his love of religious mysticism and ceremony into his lyrics, and often into the bedroom. Cohen’s God was the Old Testament God — vengeful, irrational, His benevolence unpredictable. Cohen fixated on martyrs and often compared the act of love to one of martyrdom. His earliest and biggest influence was the poet Federico García Lorca, who was murdered, most likely by the right-wing nationalist militia during the Spanish Civil War.
Cohen wrote more than one song about the biblical story of Isaac and Abraham — the ancient patriarch’s agreement to sacrifice his child, and then God’s surprise pullback at the end. The specter of the Holocaust, too, hangs over much of his work, unbearable proof of the evils human beings are capable of. His 1984 song “Dance Me to the End of Love” — a song that has gained popularity as a first dance at weddings — was in part inspired by Cohen’s reading about “camp orchestras” at concentration camps like Birkenau, where Jewish prisoners were forced to play music as new arrivals were selected by the SS for either the camp or the crematorium.
Every post–World War II Jew, no matter how far removed they become from the culture or institution of Judaism, feels lucky to have been born any time and place other than there and then. You arrive on Earth having already escaped, burdened with survivor’s guilt. No musician captured this dynamic better than Cohen — somewhere in the back of every memory palace he waltzed through was a trace of that intergenerational trauma. This week, for many Cohen fans, the fear is coming back to the surface. When Trump picks as his chief White House strategist a white nationalist who doesn’t like Jews, we know it’s already far past the time not to freak out. As Cohen sang in 1974, “Let’s all get nervous.” I keep thinking about how my Jewish grandparents, who had loved being German, learned to feel about Germany. We’ve been told throughout this election that Hitler comparisons are absurd and exaggerated, but when I read about identity cards that must be produced on demand, it doesn’t feel far off at all. Cohen wrote about the way people can idly stand by while injustices take hold in the rightfully paranoid “A Singer Must Die”: “It’s their way to detain, their ways to disgrace / Their knee in your balls and their fist in your face / Yes, and long live the state by whoever it’s made / Sir, I didn’t see nothing, I was just getting home late.” Many of his songs have a lounge-cabaret quality that makes me think of Lotte Lenya singing Kurt Weill in the last days of the Weimar Republic, or Marlene Dietrich doing “Lili Marlene” in 1943. Was his whole adult life just a prelude to another era of catastrophe?
The beauty and infallibility of Cohen’s counsel is that it was hopeful and fatalistic in equal measure. The title track on 1992’s The Future describes a dystopian societal breakdown, where Cohen’s narrator ends up longing for the known quantities of past horrors as the grim new one is revealed: “Give me back the Berlin Wall / Give me Stalin and St. Paul / I’ve seen the future, brother, it is murder.” Listening this past week, it felt weirdly comforting to hear someone say what I really felt as “What if?” ebbed into “We’re totally fucked.” Cohen’s predictions felt like they were speaking directly to the nightmare of the last few months, culminating in the derealized feeling we all had on election night: “There’ll be the breaking of the ancient Western code / Your private life will suddenly explode / There’ll be phantoms / There’ll be fires on the road / And the white man dancing.” In the face of rising hate, he was fatalistic: “Things are going to slide in all directions / Won’t be nothing / Nothing you can measure anymore / The blizzard / The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold / And it has overturned the order of the soul.”
Cohen stintingly lived in Los Angeles for decades, and took inspiration from the city, its sounds and its people. On 1979’s Recent Songs, he employed L.A.’s Armenian oud master, John Bilezikjian, and a mariachi band he’d heard playing at El Compadre, a Mexican restaurant. The mariachi band on “The Lost Canadian (Un Canadien Errant)” made for a melding of parallel forms — the Québécois tradition of chansonniers, poetic singer-songwriters, and Mexican corridos, story ballads. He was a champion of folk instruments — his early records heavily feature the jaw harp, also known as a Jew’s harp, a fundamental element of French-Canadian folk. The jaw harp adds a touch of humor to some of Cohen’s most otherwise plaintive songs, “Bird on the Wire” and “Last Year’s Man.”
Everything Cohen sang strikes a pang of current feeling. “Of course I was very young / And I thought that we were winning / I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing, as they carry the bodies away,” he told us in 1969 on “The Old Revolution.” Ultimately, he gives the only advice that currently makes any sense, which is to exist one moment at a time and attempt to connect with your fellow human beings. “There is a war between the rich and poor / A war between the man and the woman / There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn’t,” he sang on “There Is a War,” echoing a thought I’d been having repeatedly about the way racists gaslight everyone else with their belief that racism doesn’t exist, and how American culture mirrors this effect. Cohen collapsed the space between us, and picked it apart just as well. His work dwells in the contradictions of society and its deep hypocrisy, forever resisting a simple view of humanity.
Like other poetic songwriters in the late 1960s, he saw music as a bigger platform for his ideas. Novels and poetry were not paying the bills, even for his always modest lifestyle, and so Cohen turned to songwriting in his thirties. But while folk music was his natural setting, he was never exactly, or only, a folk singer. He eventually went west to Los Angeles, and in 1977 he went through yet another timeworn ritual — that of being a famous musician whom Phil Spector threatens to shoot dead — while they recorded Cohen’s panned at the time, but later cult favorite, Death of a Ladies’ Man. With 1988’s I’m Your Man, he added synths to heighten the sense of the surreal. His final trio of albums, ending with last month’s You Want It Darker, went further into a genre of his own, neither hymn nor folk nor pop but somewhere between all three.
Cohen followed his own muses, away from trends and even further into his own sacred vocabulary. His love (and lust) songs delight in the pleasurable masochism of wanting and the sometimes ambivalent state of having: “So the great affair is over, but whoever would have guessed / It would leave us all so vacant and so deeply unimpressed,” he observed on his sloshed opus “Death of a Ladies’ Man.” He confronted mind-body dualism literally, by playing the needs of one against the desires of the other. As he got older, his voice got huskier and implausibly somehow even more seductive. In a 2006 poem he admitted, “My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke / That caused me to laugh bitterly / Through the ten thousand nights / I spent alone.” That lyrical “bitter laugh” is Cohen’s carte de visite.
About four months ago, my brother discovered that Cohen lived down the street from him. It was revealed in David Remnick’s October New Yorker profile that the great songwriter was living on the second floor of a humble L.A. duplex he shared with his daughter and grandchildren, and had recorded what would turn out to be his final album there in a home studio. My brother had seen Cohen in front of his house one day and recognized him instantly. He texted our family — my parents are huge fans. It was as if he had discovered that God was living on his street. Cohen was obviously living a modest lifestyle by choice, as he had always done at every point of his career. His monastic nature was evident long before he took several years in the 1990s to live at a Zen Buddhist monastery on Southern California’s Mt. Baldy. My brother never bothered him. That seemed rude. But he drove past his house all the time and would occasionally see Cohen, always wearing his signature hat, sometimes sitting out on the front lawn on a lawn chair, just as he is depicted on the cover of 2012’s Old Ideas. This too seemed impossible: God sitting on a lawn chair in the endless Los Angeles heat wave, like any of us.
Cohen’s work dealt with earthliness and mortality, seeking the wormholes we have available to the language of the divine, the substances legal, illegal, and neurochemical. “Oh, bless the continuous stutter of the word being made into flesh,” he sang on 1979’s “The Window.” In aiming to describe the incommunicable, he got as close as anyone can. He was told he’d been descended from a line of Jewish priests, and he set out to write a new kind of sermon, songs that are themselves a connective portal to all that is holy. Evil exists in a symbiotic relationship with good — “even damnation is poisoned with rainbows,” he sings on “The Old Revolution,” on a positive note. Even the darkness, whether depression or the ominous cloud over our never not fucked-up country, can crack.
When the news of Cohen’s death broke right after the election, the title of You Want It Darker became his final punch line. At first I thought, I REALLY DO NOT WANT IT ANY DARKER RIGHT NOW, NONE MORE DARK. When my brother found out his neighbor had passed on, he reacted with the disbelief one feels when anyone dies whom you’ve recently seen. My brother had seen him as he walked his dog last week. In the days after Cohen’s death, I’ve had different lines resurfacing in my brain like directives. Maybe: “Through the days of shame that are coming, through the nights of wild distress / Though your promise count for nothing, you must keep it nonetheless.” Or: “There is no decent place to stand in a massacre.” In the midst of chaos and fear, his work is a transcendental advice line you can always call.