There is a chilling sense about this year of decks being cleared, of business being liquidated in a hurry. It is as if the Universe is engaged in a throat clearing exercise, tensing its muscle and vacating the tubeways for … what? A massive belch?
Some of our most fabulous beasts have left the planet. They almost seemed happy to do so. Think of Leonard Cohen’s joyful farewell to the dying woman who inspired ‘So Long Marianne.’ Hold the door, my love, I’m right behind you.
Is it supposed to be like this? Whatever happened to raging against dying light? Trailblazers always, have the likes of Cohen and David Bowie even managed to subtly shift the culture’s perception of death?
But how ever much we may boggle at the way these show makers crafted our experience of their deaths, the fact remains that it’s a rum sort of a year.
Trump won the election. How many of us saw that, really, really saw it? The Chicago what’s their names won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. In English soccer, Leicester City won the Premier League, an event which, trust me, was so bizarre that anyone who predicted it a year ago would have been safely and compassionately conveyed to the waiting chemical arms of the nearest mental hospital. Best place for them really.
Strange happenings haven’t just confined themselves to the celebrity sporting level either, although Bob Dylan winning the Nobel is worthy of pause. I lost two people close to me this year, both in circumstances that I don’t feel I could have predicted. So it goes, as old Kurt Vonnegut is sometimes excoriated for saying.
But I really don’t know what else he should have said. So it goes. So it goes.
Let’s be honest: as kids we all hated Leonard Cohen. The ear of a child is attuned to seek out beautiful sounds, a primal manifestation, perhaps, of that timeless longing for beauty which undoes us all, sooner or later, one way or another (so it goes). We close our eyes and quest for magic glamour, shutting out the noise of Leonard strumming and warbling while the adults in the room below get louder and drunker.
It’s only later that the words come in and make pictures. And you start to walk inside the pictures. There is no one alive, man or woman, who hasn’t dreamed once of spending the night beside Suzanne, listening to the lap of water on the river bank, dreaming of going looking for God knows what among the flowers in the morning.
At parties, Leonard was the 3am guy, only coming on when morbid introspection began to settle in. If you had got lucky and found someone to share that witching hour with, then more power to you, and Leonard was your delicious, nihilistic crooner, your mood music to beautiful futility, all the more beautiful for being sweetly suffered together. If not, it was just you and him, two bleak birds on a wire, waiting for the morning and sleep.
It helped when I began to hear other people doing versions of Leonard songs. Shorn of his own sound – and think for a moment of how rare this is – they began to sound cool, even beautiful. It isn’t the bohemian dream of Suzanne, but there’s something desperately seductive about the ironic detachment of lines like:
“They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
Trying to change the system from within.
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan: then we take Berlin.”
Just like David Bowie, Leonard had become a chameleon. The bucolic wistfulness of the 60’s was replaced by something darker (for we like it darker, apparently), something that managed to be both playful and cool, something that, partly with the aid of a dance beat, had become quite funky. It helped, I suppose, that advanced age had made Leonard’s voice more interesting. He still couldn’t sing, not really, but woe betide a proper singer who tried to imitate that utterly unique sound.
Curiously, he now became the best interpreter of his own songs. A song like ‘Dance me to the end of love,’ with its frank yet ironic eroticism, its sense of lust and self-deprecation, would sound awful inside the chords of some conventional chanteuse or crooner (think Ronan Keating doing ‘Fairytale of New York’).
Like his idol Yeats, Cohen’s voice conveyed perfectly the sense of an old man caught forever inside the sensual dance, glorying in it while it mocks and (probably) consumes him.
‘Everybody Knows,’ as interpreted by its author, is every angry paranoid bore who’s ever drenched your collar with bile in a pub, yet it also manages to say something that’s all the more exciting because it sounds profound, even while it shouldn’t: it somehow manages to make humiliation, that slow, existential crush of all our spirits, into something cool:
“Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Give or take a night or two …
Everybody knows you’ve been discreet
But there were always those people you just had to meet
Without your clothes … And everybody knows.”
Like David Bowie at the outset of the year, Leonard released what it seems was always intended to be a farewell album, a thing forever enshrouded and defined by the death of its creator. I’m not sure that I like the new ‘Death Rock’ genre, although as some have pointed out, it’s actually been around for quite a while. Johnny Cash surely had death big on his mind when he covered songs like ‘Hurt,’ and people tell me Eliot Smith was at it a while ago as well.
Where have our fabulous beasts gone? More immediately, from our point of view perhaps, is the question of what unfolding thing they leave behind? Maybe the supermoon will offer us clues.