ON my first visit to Montreal some two decades ago, my host decided after dinner to take me for a walk. As we left the university premises, snow started to lightly fall — the first of the season — turning the world into a magical place of blurry lines and softly swirling flakes that caressed the cheek. Coming from Lahore, I was utterly enchanted.
A short walk through the quiet, darkened city streets later, we arrived at a leafy residential area. We stopped before a modest house, one amongst many like it, with a small, well-tended garden and a white picket fence of the variety that takes one straight back to the storybooks of childhood. As we halted on the footpath, I looked questioningly at my friend.
This is where Leonard Cohen lives, he answered, with a hush in his voice.
I was silenced. The note I’d heard in his voice had been reverence, and his mind, as was mine, would have been swirling — like the snowflakes around us — with a thousand remembered melodies and phrases, poetry and cadences and moments of revelation that this man’s singular talent produced. In the quiet of the night, I thought of the beauty and perspective that this man’s music had given me, far, far away in Lahore — and that, over a lifetime. That I was standing here now was a feeling that remains to this day quite indescribable.
Cohen’s voice in song is unique, yet crucial is the magic of the words he employs.
As we stood lost in thought, out of the windy white emerged a small knot of revellers, laughing and holding on to each others’ arms, catching snowflakes with gloved hands. But as they paused before this house, they fell silent. All of us stood there for a few minutes, supplicants at a shrine, together in devotion. Then, as if by mutual understanding that privacy must be maintained, we all turned and went on our way. Later, my friend told me that this had become a tradition in Montreal, especially amongst the university students: fans express their appreciation in all sorts of ways.
This month marks the third winter after Cohen’s 2016 death. Songwriter, singer, poet and novelist, the man has left on the world a mark that will prove indelible amongst the nuanced, as did (in very different ways), Pink Floyd or The Beatles or Bob Marley.
My mind hearkens back to that distant Montreal night because on Nov 23, it was reported that Cohen’s posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, is to be released shortly. He had accomplished the songwriting and the vocals — in his signature baritone that never faltered with age — in the months just before his demise. In the years since, his son Adam, a musician himself, decided to do justice to what his father had intended to complete.
According to an AFP report by Maggy Donaldson, Adam assembled a number of star musicians such as Spanish guitarist Javier Mas, and Jennifer Warnes (who have collaborated earlier with the departed), and several others “to compose sparse but warm instrumentals to accompany Cohen’s rich baritone timbre. [...] Though his storied career needed no epilogue, [...] Thanks for the Dance offers a satisfying postscript, giving fans one last chance to savour his inimitable poetry.”
Poetry. That is the key. Cohen’s voice in song is unique, yet crucial is the magic of words that he employed to address issues from spirituality to death to politics to reflections on existentialism and the realities of the world, to say nothing of insights into the nature of love and lust, in equally arresting language and idiom. Other songwriters have spoken to these matters, but few with such exceptional talent for exactly the perfect words in the right place (and in lyric cadence) — which, perhaps, can be defined as the ones not thought of about using in quite this way, but now that it has been done, couldn’t have been more fitting. And, as any reader of poetry or literature knows, as important as the thought is the sequencing of the words, if a stanza or couplet is to be truly evocative. The fact that this poetry comes in song, with the richness and haunting dimension of music, simply adds to its complexity.
I am tempted to quote from his work here, but anyone who isn’t already familiar with his oeuvre can simply look them up. Look up ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, or ‘I’m Your Man’, or ‘The Future’, or ‘Take this Waltz’, and while the music overwhelms you, pay attention to the poetry.
Some still argue whether songwriting can be considered a form of poetry. Well, that issue was quite conclusively put to rest in 2016, when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy described his status as deserving “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
Dylan is expressive, but Cohen was a deeper thinking artist, just like his words and voice and imagery.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2019