About a fortnight ago a colleague asked me what I thought of Bob Dylan winning the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature. Without hesitation I replied: “It should have been Leonard Cohen.”
This was not to suggest that Dylan was unworthy of the award. He certainly meets the judges’ criteria, having undoubtedly “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
But so has Cohen. Or rather had. As the world now knows, the Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and author passed away on Friday in Los Angeles at the age of 82, just weeks after releasing his final album, You Want It Darker, which, in his customary haunting way, pretty much announced his impending death to the world.
Touchingly, his passing came within months of the death of his former lover and muse, Marianne Ihlen, for whom Cohen wrote the much-loved So Long Marianne on his second album, Songs From A Room.
Learning in late July that she was also dying of cancer, Cohen wrote to Ihlen telling her, “I think I will follow you very soon”. He then added: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine … Endless love, see you down the road.”
Like millions of fans around the world, I was deeply saddened by Friday’s news. Yes, we have a large body of Cohen’s work to enjoy, but there’ll be no new songs which means so much wisdom, insight and beauty has been lost, when we need as much as we can get.
Because he’d proven in his sixties, then his seventies and with his latest – last – album, in his eighties, that he was still very much on song. You Want It Darker is haunted by death, but it’s damn good, even though Cohen recorded it from a medical chair while riddled with cancer.
Cohen has been a staple of my musical life for almost fifty years, ever since a friend arrived at my doorstep in 1968 with the first Songs Of Leonard Cohen album. It was an Australian Record Club monthly selection and, thank goodness, he couldn’t be bothered returning it.
Listening to it for the first time was a revelation. The opening chords of Suzanne – which took Cohen 19 takes and had original producer John Hammond yelling “Watch out, Dylan!” – still transport me back to that youthful summer whenever I hear it. A beautiful melancholy comes over me which, come to think of it, is an apt description of most of Cohen’s work.
My friend and I found gems in pretty much every line of his songs. We missed plenty too, as teenage boys are apt to do, and were completely perplexed by The Stranger Song. Still am actually.
But there were plenty of ‘poetic expressions’ that I’m still moved by decades later. Cohen seemed to dash them off at will, even in conversation.
I was lucky enough to interview him over a crackling telephone line in the mid-eighties. Surrendering my normal journalistic defences, I spent the first few minutes gushing about how many wonderful moments his music had given me. As you’d expect, he took the compliments with great grace. He was a true gentleman in that way.
I have long since lost the notes of that conversation but I remember asking him why he’d never married in the traditional sense.
“Because marriage is the monastery of the heart,” he said, dashing off a sublime metaphor in between cigarette puffs. “And I am incapable of respecting the vows.”
Was Cohen better than Dylan? It’s a debate that could sustain full day seminars, even university courses, and the audience would divide every time. And it still wouldn’t matter. Only the music does.
But I’d go with the Canadian because although Dylan has written many great songs, Cohen has never written a bad one. At least, not in my mind anyway.
This is not to suggest there hasn’t been inferior work occasionally. Death Of A Ladies’ Man springs immediately to mind, but I blame the album’s crazed producer Phil Spector for it. That aside, there’s been a consistent excellence throughout Cohen’s 50-year career.
He was a craftsman, sometimes spending years on his songs (Hallelujah took five). Dylan would spend just minutes on some of his and occasionally it showed. Cohen also penned a dozen books of poetry and a couple of novels. And though it wouldn’t sway Nobel judges, he was also spell-binding live, even when he toured in his seventies to rebuild a fortune squandered by a former manager. Dylan live, especially later in his career? Let’s not go there.
The American rates the Canadian highly, as was evident from a conversation Cohen recounted in a New Yorker article published just weeks ago.
As author David Remnick recalled, the two song writing greats were out driving one day in Los Angeles when Dylan told Cohen that a famous songwriter had said to him, “O.K., Bob, you’re Number 1, but I’m Number 2.”
Remnick wrote that Cohen smiled at the memory, before recounting what followed: “Then Dylan says to me, ‘As far as I’m concerned, Leonard, you’re Number 1. I’m Number Zero.’ Meaning, as I understood it at the time—and I was not ready to dispute it—that his work was beyond measure and my work was pretty good.”
And maybe that’s true. Maybe they both deserved Nobel Prizes for all the ‘poetic expressions’ they’ve given us in an increasingly unpoetic age. Sadly, because of the Foundation’s Statutes, that can never happen now – they don’t give out Nobel Prizes posthumously. So each of us will just have to honour Cohen in our own way.