Growing up, I listened to some of the greatest musicians and songwriters of all time, and I hated it. Now, as somewhat of an adult, I get a lot of my artistic taste from my father, but as an 8-year-old, listening to Bob Dylan, Randy Newman or Leonard Cohen was the worst punishment I could think of. Car rides were terrible — I just wanted to listen to Disney Radio, but in my family the rule is and always has been that the driver gets to pick the music, so 8-year-old me knew all the words to “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Hallelujah.”
These old men with beautiful lyrics and horrible voices haunted my childhood and have since become my musical heroes. I used to think music was just about sounding pretty, but these artists taught me that music can change a person. I am still realizing the complexity of their lyrics, and when a song like “Hallelujah” has more than 80 verses, I imagine I will be learning from them for the rest of my life.
Last Thursday, I found out one of the greatest songwriters of all time, Leonard Cohen, died at age 82. Cohen combined poetry, politics and theology in a way that was new to music. His lyrics ranged from the heights of hope to the depths of despair. We all experience that, and he found the truth of the human experience.
His song “Hallelujah” has been featured in “The West Wing,” “One Tree Hill” and even made it onto the “Shrek” soundtrack. Last week on Saturday Night Live, two days after his death was announced, Kate McKinnon sang “Hallelujah” as Hillary Clinton in a powerful opening performance, and we found poignancy in the words, “Even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.”
“Hallelujah” has been covered by some of the greatest musicians of all time including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Jeff Buckley, R.E.M., Tori Amos, Bob Dylan and more than 300 others. In 2012, Alan Light wrote “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah.’” Every version is full of lyrics that strike me to my core and make me see myself and the world in a new light, but aside from the lyrics, “Hallelujah” taught me that I don’t need to receive recognition to be great. Bono called “Hallelujah” “the most perfect song in the world,” even though it did not receive significant recognition until decades after it was written.
“This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah,’” Cohen said.
Cohen’s willingness to explore and even intertwine religion, sex and politics made his songs unique. He was, as one critic wrote, “the Archbishop of erotic despair.”
Beyond “Hallelujah,” Cohen wrote masterpieces such as “Like a Bird on a Wire,” teaching me about failure, forgiveness and freedom. “For like a baby, stillborn/Like a beast with his horn/I have torn everyone/who reached out for me/But I swear by this song/And by all that I have done wrong/I will make it all up to thee.”
When I listen to “Anthem,” I can’t help but feel that he is speaking directly to me. “There’s a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in,” I am an imperfect failure, and that is the only way I can shine. I have heard it explained as an analogy to original sin: There was no need for a fall. We were born with failures, born cracked. Because of that birth, there is already light within us.
“Every heart/to love will come/but like a refugee.”
“Famous Blue Raincoat” taught me about taking responsibility for even unintentional actions and forgiving those who wrong you for the right reasons. You can hear the heartbreak in his voice as he tells the story of losing a woman he loved to another man. At the end of the song that is written as a letter, he acknowledges that his pain is for the best. I take his lyrics with me through my tragedies and try to reach the level of self-realization Cohen does in “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
“And what can I tell you my brother, my killer/What can I possibly say?/I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you/I’m glad you stood in my way/If you ever come by here, for Jane or for me/Well, your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free/Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes/I thought it was there for good so I never tried.”
In addition to his heart-wrenching confessions and realizations, his lyrics showed his sense of humor. “I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
I also learned from Cohen’s personal life. Cohen spent years in a Zen Buddhist Center in California, and when he returned to the outside world in 2005, he found out that his manager had run off with almost all of his money. So at 73 years old, he went back on tour. Cohen humbly and elegantly began performing again for the first time in more than 15 years.
“Being forced to go back on the road to repair the fortunes of my family and myself was a most fortunate happenstance because I was able to connect with living musicians,” Cohen told the New York Times. “And I think it warmed some part of my heart that had taken on a chill.”
Cohen’s life and music were enigmatic, poetic and powerful. His death is a somber reminder to take nothing for granted and to be thankful for the legacy he has left.
“Now I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back/They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track/But you’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone/I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the tower of song.”