Content Block

Film & Music 11/11/2016

Leonard Cohen: Moses in a fedora

For Frank Turner, the late Leonard Cohen was a prophet, a poet, and a perfect songwriter

Rock'n'roll and religion have more in common than either protagonist might like to admit. It's not just that the communal throng of the mosh-pit fills a cathedral-sized hole in the souls of the kids (myself, a metal fan raised by a grandfather who was a priest, very much included). There's a canon of accepted work, heretical ideas, scriptures and testaments.

My own musical journey was sort of upside down, from a strictly musicological point of view. I started with Iron Maiden, worked through thrash and into punk rock and hardcore. It was only in my mid-20s that I started working through the accepted canon of rock'n'roll. I discovered Dylan, Young, Springsteen and the like in a slightly embarrassing, and embarrassed, late blooming, after years of touring in noisy guitar bands. And huddled serenely in the middle of this storm of classic material and towering heroes was Leonard.

Even in the 1960s, Leonard Cohen stood apart. He was older than his peers, he was from the artistic and faintly mysterious realm of Montreal. He'd been a genuine poet before he'd been near a guitar, not just some whippersnapper at the heels of Woody Guthrie, figuring out his linguistic voice as he went. There was a sense of otherness, of wisdom, of being as old as the hills, surrounding the diminutive Canadian.

At several decades remove, I sensed this too, and initially I grasped a few of his more obvious songs – Bird On A Wire, Suzanne – whilst hurtling headlong down a more obvious rock'n'roll pathway, towards Minnesota, New Jersey or Los Angeles. But always, purring in the back of my mind, was Leonard's golden croak. I knew I'd have to make time, sooner or later, to lose myself in his work.

In the end, it was my friend Sarah who gave me the shove over the precipice. Leonard is famous as an aphrodisiac, but there was no romance here, only passion. Sarah is one of purest music fans I know, and she opened up the locked box of Cohen to me, taking me deep into the depths of his catalogue. I was a lost cause; my listening diet was monopolised, I felt like I was wandering through snow-bound New York or around a Greek island for months.

Trying to explain why Cohen was one of the greatest songwriters of all time is, as the cliché has it, like trying to dance about architecture. There's not much that you can do other than just play the damn songs, preferably in a quiet room, in the dead of night, alone, with a glass of red wine for company. His plaintive, rich but reedy growl gently brings his perfect couplets before you like offerings in a temple. His vision of human frailty, imperfection, and the struggle to live meaningfully and morally in a fallen world, cut right to the core of your being. Unlike most modern songwriters, his words stand up as poetry on their own, but the melodies are not incidental to the art, not some meaningless backing track. The first time I heard him sing his own chord progression in the first verse of Hallelujah – “it goes like this, the fourth the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift” – I despaired of ever creating much of meaning in my own life.

That is almost the only criticism of Cohen I can think of. His perfection is so exquisite that it is intimidating. A Springsteen song can inspire other writers to imitation. Cohen's work tends to make the more mortal songwriters among us cower in bedazzled fear, incapable even of sincere flattery. More than anything else he makes me think of an Old Testament prophet, descending from the mountain, his songs carved in stone, to offer them to an unworthy world.

And yet he was never so dour as some of his more casual listeners and detractors might have thought. He always had style, and a sense of humour, albeit a morbid one. Moses in a fedora, wise-cracking on the sidewalk outside the Chelsea Hotel. And his departure, as with everything else in his life, was impeccable; leaving behind a stunning final album on the day the world went mad. A deeply spiritual man, he lately said he'd like to be reincarnated as his daughter's dog. He has earned, I'd wager, at least that much, with the monuments to his genius that he left behind for us. Rest in peace.

Frank Turner is a British singer-songwriter