Leonard Cohen is dead.
He was one of those rare songwriters—like Bob Dylan, like Neil Young, like Joni Mitchell—who has been around so long we that we have long since taken him for granted; he keeps active, keeps touring, keeps surprising us with new twists and turns to his career.
But he was 82.
Older than Elvis would have been, older than Jerry Lee Lewis is now. He is easily the biggest pop legend to have begun his career at the most advanced age. In a music world of teenagers and young prodigies, Leonard Cohen released his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, when he was all of 33 years old. If he was Jesus, it was the year he would have been crucified.
On the first and most famous song on the album, “Suzanne,” he addresses Jesus directly, walking across the water, becoming certain only drowning men could see him, and saying that “all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them.” Cohen then describes Jesus as “almost human.”
This was 1967. People were simply not writing songs like this. Everything was about Sgt. Pepper’s band and Jimi Hendrix’s various experiences, or, if you were lucky (or just hip), The Velvet Underground’s postmodern menace. Only Bob Dylan was hiding out in the basement, but by the end of the year, even he had hired Gordon Lightfoot’s band.
Leonard Cohen clearly borrowed from Dylan—the deadpan voice and folk arrangements are unimaginable without Bob paving the way—and yet he went beyond him. Where Dylan always wanted to be an accomplished writer, Leonard Cohen already was; he was an accomplished novelist before Songs was released. It would be like if John Updike walked away from his books to become a country-rock icon.
And like the greatest modern songwriters, many of Leonard Cohen’s songs are best known by others who put them across in bigger ways. Judy Collins’ “Suzanne” put him on the map, while Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” remains the definitive reading of that beautiful, fragile masterpiece.
And yet, for me, the deepest, darkest, greatest song of all is “The Stranger Song.”
Like his finest work, it mixed the sacred with the profane, the sacrament with the seediness. I’ve listened to it countless times, yet I’m still not entirely sure what it’s about. It’s about love, mystery, mysticism, shelter, dealers, deceit, and fate, but I can’t even figure out if it’s about two people, three people, or an entire parade of people. Yet lines stick out that work despite their seeming pretentions: “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger,” goes one part; “It’s hard to hold the hand of anyone who is reaching for the sky just to surrender,” goes another.
And then, at yet another part are among the most fully-realized and sophisticated lyrics I’ve ever encountered in a pop song:
And while he talks his dreams to sleep
You notice there’s a highway
That is curling up like smoke above his shoulder.
It sounds like a ghost story and looks like a de Chirico painting.
I first got my copy of Songs when I worked in a used record store; it was un-remastered and unremarkable looking, the way those original Columbia CD issues were and I doubt I paid more than five bucks for it.
At the time I knew a girl who was a poet and also appreciated the album. We would celebrate the macabre world it conjured by improvising to each other in deadpan new Cohen “lyrics,” which basically consisted of stringing together images of roads, sex, and New Testament imagery. Like a Leonard Cohen song, she had a dark mysteriousness about her, and a sexiness too.
Years later, I learned that she tried to killed herself and was only saved when her boyfriend and father broke down her door.
And yet, Leonard Cohen had long since beaten me to the epiphany, sung as obvious as though he was a blind man reciting a dog-eared hotel room Bible: “It is you my love, you who are the stranger.”
And this is just one line of one song.
And Leonard Cohen wrote hundreds of songs with thousands of lines.
And I can only imagine the scores of places each one could take us, through his own vision as an artist and through our own experiences as listeners.
And now that voice has been silenced, and we pause to reflect, as we should.
And it comes to you, he never was a stranger.