Leonard Cohen's Letter From the Future

Leonard Cohen looking reliably dapper in Denmark, August 2013
Leonard Cohen looking reliably dapper in Denmark, August 2013

Leonard Cohen, then aged 59, was experiencing a minor renaissance in the summer of 1994. Three years earlier, a French music magazine commissioned more than a dozen top alternative artists of the time — R.E.M., Pixies, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Lloyd Cole — to record their favorite Cohen songs for a tribute album entitled I’m Your Fan. One cover in particular, John Cale’s version of Cohen’s 1984 song “Hallelujah,” caught the ear of a young Jeff Buckley. The rising New York-based singer and songwriter included it on his debut for Atlantic Records, the label that had also released I’m Your Fan in the U.S.

Buckley’s album, Grace, came out in August 1994. His “Hallelujah” would take many, many years to achieve complete pop-culture saturation, pushed on its way by placement in a plethora of primetime TV shows, films like 2001’s Shrek and a 2008 American Idol performance that helped it reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Digital Songs chart. Coincidentally, surely, the same week Grace was released, so was Natural Born Killers. Oliver Stone’s controversial film follows two young lovers who become serial killers and then sensations in the lurid environment of 24-7 cable news, a phenomenon that was just then embedding itself in American culture. (The O.J. chase was just a couple of months prior.)

Natural Born Killers was also my first real exposure to Leonard Cohen’s music. Three songs from his then-newest album, 1992’s The Future, were featured in the movie. Although the soundtrack is typically over-the-top for an Oliver Stone film — everyone from Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction to Dr. Dre and the Dogg Pound or Patsy Cline and Duane Eddy to Bob Dylan and the Patti Smith Group — the songs that really stuck, and stick to this day, are Cohen’s: “Waiting For the Miracle,” which plays over the opening credits with foreboding Spanish-tinged guitar; the beatific, gospel-ish “Anthem,” which scores our antiheroes’ escape from maximum-security prison (they kidnap a sleazy TV newser played by Robert Downey Jr.); and “The Future,” the end-credits tune whose slick pop-rock arrangement belies its apocalyptic tone. It was the summer after my first year of college and I was still adjusting to music this…mature; Cohen’s songs made a pretty steep learning curve.

Your servant here, he has been told
To say it clear, to say it cold
It's over, it ain't going any further
And now the wheels of heaven stop
You feel the devil's riding crop
Get ready for the future: It is murder

Cohen, who was 82 when he passed away last Monday, was an expert at translating contemporary issues into philosophical contexts; his songs often centered around the way humans’ faults and distractions can hinder their ability to realize love, whether romantic or spiritual. Nevertheless, they seldom stop trying. Decades before Jeff Buckley, his songs were being covered by stars like Judy Collins, Joan Baez and Nina Simone, illustrious ranks eventually joined by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, U2, Tori Amos and scores of others. (One website estimates that more than 3,100 covers of Cohen’s songs had been recorded as of June 2016.)

Although the Quebec-born Cohen was able to finally attain a measure of real stardom in his own right thanks in large part to the 21st-century success of “Hallelujah” and his three final albums (2012’s Old Ideas, 2014’s Popular Problems and last month’s You Want It Darker), the sheer breadth of other artists who have covered his work would have made him one of history’s greatest songwriters even if his lyrical voice had been half as singular as it was. His actual voice, also profound beyond measure, might as well have been that of an Old Testament prophet.

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In a way, Cohen had almost a perfect instrumental counterpart in Leon Russell, the singer and piano player who passed away Sunday from a heart attack at age 74. Classically trained since age three, the Oklahoma native also wrote a song that has been covered so many times it is now a pop standard, 1971’s “A Song For You.” He belonged to the legendary group of ‘60s L.A. session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, toured with the Rolling Stones and the Joe Cocker-fronted revue known as Mad Dogs & Englishmen, and played a key role in George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh. Russell’s solo hits were much less frequent than his session gigs, but those included “Tight Rope” and “Lady Blue.” He was sometimes championed by better-known musicians like Willie Nelson, Bruce Hornsby and Elton John, an early admirer who enlisted Russell for their Grammy-nominated 2010 joint album The Union.

Both Russell and Cohen are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and both men’s list of credits and collaborators read like a list of rock’s most important figures and records since the late ‘50s. Cohen, though, at least saw the end coming, saying as much on You Want It Darker’s title track: “I’m ready, take me.” Russell, on the other hand, had been planning to resume touring in January, according to a statement by his widow, Jan Bridges.

The songwriter and the session man. Obituaries for some of rock’s greatest talents have been stacked so high in 2016 it’s starting to bring about a real sense of dread about what next year might have in store. But Cohen, at least, was never one for reassurances; not in the form of shopworn pop platitudes anyway. His work is so deeply humane that optimism can’t help but leak in here and there anyway. The one line of his that I’ve kept coming back to for years — but especially in the past week — comes from “Anthem.” It says, “There is a crack in everything…that’s how the light gets in.” CHRIS GRAY

HEY, THAT'S NO WAY TO SAY GOODBYE
One of my greatest loves introduced me to Leonard Cohen. While I didn't think much of that nondescript burned CD mix at the time, that music would come to mark the epochs of our messy, brilliant, singular romance. The song "Suzanne," with its "half-crazy" manic pixie heroine, was my first inkling that our relationship would be more than a brief affair. The minor keys of "Famous Blue Raincoat" haunted my thoughts as I spent a freezing New Year's Eve in Bushwick without him. We ricocheted back and forth to each other in the wake of my defensive posturing that I was nobody's wife. But we seemed to, for at least a time, always find safe harbor in each other when we needed it. The lines from "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" capture it best:

I'm not looking for another as I wander in my time
Walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme
You know my love goes with you as your love stays with me
It's just the way it changes like the shoreline and the sea


That love of mine kept on changing until we were ready to let each other go. It wasn't the love story I expected, but Cohen's music primed me to embrace the impossible, beautiful ambivalence I felt throughout our time together. I'm glad this music reminds me of someone worth remembering, but I'm also glad Cohen left it here for the poor souls still navigating this harrowing planet. We will need his songs of complexity, of love, of resistance in the years to come, just as we will need to remember all of the fond, enduring moments that Cohen provided for us. Let's hope this music gets us ready for whatever may be coming. KATIE SULLIVAN


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