Life, Death and Leonard Cohen
Jordan Hamel pens an essay about how Cohen's dry acceptance of death and the afterlife helped make playing the game of life fairer and less lonesomePhoto by Tom Hill/Getty Images Music Features Leonard Cohen
“I’d love to speak with Leonard, he’s a sportsman and a shepherd, he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” Not many of us can get away with embodying the voice of god, but Leonard Cohen did. After decades of wandering the musical wilderness, he found himself old, broke, swindled and defeated—ready to become the person he was always meant to be. Despite his declarations in “Tower of Song,” Cohen wasn’t “born with the gift of a golden voice,” he carved it from tongues of his failure, out of the side of Mount Baldy, the shorelines of Hydra, the breaths held by grace, the grace to lose and lose again.
When I was a teenager, I obsessed over Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Jim Morrison—all of the rock troubadours. I read biography after biography, spent lonely nights pretending I had found answers and solitude in their inscrutable, surreal and—at times, terrible—poetry. Half a world away, in a small New Zealand town, I wanted to touch God and his troubled flock; I wanted to sit with Kurt Cobain on his MTV bed of flowers. I mistook an unsettled existence for art and fantasized about onlookers cataloging my youthful depression as something universally valuable. I was young and sad and nearly as stupid as I still am now.
At the O2 Arena, in 2008, 74-year-old Leonard Cohen shuffled on stage amidst an army of aging fans, the ghosts of financially irresponsible and duplicitous managers and the orchestra of longtime collaborators and session musicians he had assembled. He recounted a recent drink he had with his 102-year-old teacher and told the eager British masses “excuse me for not dying.” I watched a DVD of this concert with my former English teacher, Michelle—the type of teacher who doesn’t use her last name, the type who will enrich your teenage life and love of language in unthinkable ways, especially if you’re one of her favorites.
Like every queer-but-didn’t-release-they-were-queer kid in a Catholic school, I was far too attached to my English teacher. I know many of the people reading this right now are thinking about their own Michelle, the teacher or mentor who went the extra mile for them—that showed them the possibilities of other lives when their own became tight and ill-fitting. Michelle introduced me to contemporary New Zealand poetry, to Chekhov, Camus, Dostoevsky—all of the tools I needed to build an arsenal of insufferable art opinions in lieu of a personality. On the eve of college, I was determined to reinvent myself, to blossom from quiet awkward teen to time-traveling troubadour—a student who’s an old soul and drinks wine and strums a guitar in his dorm late into the evening and scribbles poems on the corners of scrap paper.
None of this worked out as planned. I never learned to play guitar, my poetry was garbage and drinking Merlot in your room as an 18-year-old made people think I was off-putting, not interesting. As hard as tried, I could not cultivate an aura of mystique. But it didn’t dampen my love for those writers or my quiet confidence that I could, one day, be recognized as “New Zealand’s Bob Dylan” (gross, I know, I apologize).
I started spending my summers home from college cutting down rich people’s trees with Michelle’s partner Brian and his black Labrador Maggie. Being outside all day, developing a tan and things resembling muscles, talking government conspiracies with the guys down at the landfill, having a colleague who’s very cuddly and likes pats (Maggie, not Brian)—it was unequivocally the best job I’ve ever had. Brian might be the smartest man I’ve ever met; he loved music and poetry too much to ever personally pursue them. When I asked him why he liked cutting down trees for a living, he told me that when his body is busy then his mind can wander. He saw work as a distraction, not a vocation.
Eventually, he grew tired of teenage Jordan crowing about Bob Dylan—the surrealist carnival prince of folk—and how every lyric was a new mantra for me. One day, I was delivering a sermon about Dylan’s poetic mastery and Brian’s patience ran thin. We finished the job, grabbed a box of terrible beer and retired to his and Michelle’s home so he could introduce me to “a real songwriter, not like your Bob Dylan bullshit.” He put on Leonard Cohen’s 2008 Live in London recording and something bloomed in me like a trash bag opening to the morning sun. Not long after this shift, Brian would take me to see Leonard, live in Christchurch, a concert that would change me forever.
Despite being famous for writing prayers to misery, I found joy—joy I didn’t know I was looking for—in Cohen’s songs and his onstage demeanor. I saw someone so comfortable in their own depression but not beholden to it. As Leonard once told journalist Mikal Gilmore, depression wasn’t “the engine” of his work, “just the sea [he] swam in.” My frantic consumption of all things Leonard began, and it’s a funny thing to enter someone’s decade-spanning discography near its end—it felt like walking backwards through a man’s life, watching him age in reverse. I took the role of a voyeur who was in far too deep, listening to his famed “golden voice” then hearing the younger version, no baritone or timbre, just the resonant words and the ideas, the misery, the joy, the verve—all of it present. It felt like listening to a younger man covering his future self.
A decade later, I can only hope that I, too, am growing into a more reasonable version of myself. Despite all that Leonard and his music have given me in my life, he has a lot to answer for. I have journal upon journal of the worst teenage poetry imaginable hidden somewhere I cannot divulge, for self-preservation reasons—all of it inspired by, or dedicated to, Leonard. Pages and pages of uncomplicated, overinflated, indulgent musings on sex and death and love and god from a young boy who didn’t know much about any of those things. But, Lord, I thought I had truly stumbled upon all of the answers—I was jacked to the gills on hormones and anxiety; I felt alone in crowded spaces; I was life’s unexpected protagonist.
In reality, I was another “lousy little poet[s] coming around, trying to sound like Charlie Manson,” like the ones Leonard took great pleasure in deriding. But I know I wasn’t the only one. If you’re still reading this essay, you probably have similar journals or screeds of secret longing polluting a family basement or forgotten file cabinet. I hope, one day, we can shed our shame like a cloak in spring and celebrate our terrible beginnings. Bad poetry is easy to write and inflict upon an unwilling world, but good bad poetry is a rare thing of unexpected exhilaration. I’d like to think that Leonard looked for joy in the terrible just as much as the rest of us—that he found beauty in sewers and alleyways. No, not beauty, something else. He told us all—his lovers, his listeners—that “we’re ugly, but we have the music”; a mantra I held too close throughout awkward and uncertain years of fear and adolescence. While I embraced the ugliness, I categorically did not have the music.
I don’t think Leonard always had it either. His debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen was released in 1967, when he was the ripe old age of 32. Much like today, Leonard came to be in a generation of art where youth and newness were sought out and displayed like prized livestock at county fairs. It’s a well-known fable that, when asked about the possibility of signing Cohen to the Columbia label, the label head responded “A 32-year-old poet? Are you crazy?” (As a 31-year old poet this devastates me.) A writer friend of mine religiously believes no one should publish a book before they turn 30 (I realize the irony in using this anecdote, considering that Cohen published two books before he turned 30; however, neither of them are particularly memorable so just bear with me). My friend says that, while there is so much to say in youth, whatever you commit to permanence during that time will undoubtedly become a regret or curse.
I followed her advice, not by choice but by circumstance. My first book came out in 2022—not long after I drifted into a new decade. Despite making it to the magic number 30, there are still things in my work I regret—things that I can’t revise or erase. Even though everything I produced prior to that point would have been significantly worse, I think reflecting on anything you’ve previously created and feeling completely satisfied with it is deranged and terrifying behavior. I think that’s why Brian was so intent on staring me away from Dylan and into the orbit of Cohen. Where Dylan had self-assurance, Cohen had restlessness. Dylan, at times, wanted to be God or sit beside God; Cohen wanted to kill God and then resurrect him, if only so he could answer to an uncertain world. And whom among us hasn’t wanted to kill God? Leonard spent his life demanding those answers. From his much-publicized time spent serving at a Buddhist monastery to his reclusive sojourns to the island of Hydra, he searched. It’s all there, on display in his discography: the constant genre exploration and reinvention, the unpredictable.
From his “one man and a guitar” beginnings to the sparse orchestral arrangements on New Skin for the Old Ceremony—and onwards through the wall of sound and guns and booze that came with the Phil Spector-produced Death of a Ladies’ Man to the cheap Casio keyboard that carried Various Positions—Leonard never seemed satisfied musically. 1988’s I’m Your Man felt like a culmination of the first phase of his artistry. His voice was lowered into the ground like a casket filled with velvet and gravel; his deadpan humor and wryness shone through, amidst the heavy subject matter of fascism, betrayal and the AIDs crisis—all backed by his propulsive Yamaha synthesizer. Listening to that album made me feel like I was in a nightclub floating along the Styx. Where to, exactly? It’s unclear, which made me—and Cohen—want to go there even more.
Like fathers and sons across the world, sports have always been a primary bonding mechanism for Dad and I. It didn’t even matter what sport, it could have been rugby, cricket, basketball, tennis or boxing. There could be a particularly engaging game of snooker on TV—we’d still sit down with a beer and dissect everyone’s techniques. No rivalry or contest was too insignificant for us to invest in. However, as I started to inch towards adulthood, music became another unexpected source of connection for us.
It started with classics: mid-2000s arena rock like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam, Dad sharing music from his youth, watching DVDs of famous Supertramp and Springsteen concerts on a Friday night. As I started developing something that resembled my own music taste, I grew braver with my suggestions and, to his credit, Dad was surprisingly receptive. Before I knew it, New Zealand indie darlings like The Veils and The Beths were on heavy rotation on Dad’s iPod shuffle gym mix.
The second time I saw Leonard live was with my Dad. Same venue, same city—only two years later. I had talked about my first time in his presence as a near-spiritual encounter, but I don’t think Dad was looking for a spiritual experience. I think he just wanted to spend time with his son. Maybe he felt left out that I’d had such a formative musical experience with Brian and not him. I don’t think he expected a near-octogenarian to put on the show of a lifetime. As before, Leonard’s charisma and generosity radiated from the stage. He spoke and sang like a man who wanted to be there, beyond all things. He treated the audience like old friends catching up at a funeral. Musically, he was the perfect amalgam of his various eras—having taken the best parts from his past Leonards and displaying a balance of risk and care that only comes with years of experimentation in the face of complacency.
Upon reflection, I think it was when I first started to get any modicum of “success”—or whatever you want to call it—with my writing that I started tipping the scales heavily in favor of risk over care. I just wanted to push without necessarily knowing what I was pushing towards or against. A few years later, I’m still not certain I know. I thought risk was synonymous with growth. Instead, it’s often a hindrance—preservation is as important as innovation.
I think about the sports broadcasters discussing an athlete in their 30s who is still in their prime. Whether it’s LeBron James, Tom Brady, Megan Rapinoe or Richie McCaw—it’s always the same conversation: They marvel at their longevity and their guile and their mastery of the game, all before gently predicting their inevitable demise because, as we all know, finality is unavoidable. As Dorian Lynskey said in his Guardian piece shortly after Leonard’s death: “For Cohen, defeat was the truth of things; the source of all the best jokes; the reason to make art; the crack where the light gets in.”
For a man as comfortable in defeat as he was in a black Stetson—and with no interest in conquering Father Time—I would argue Leonard got closer to conquering him than anyone. His 2008 London rejuvenation was just the beginning of a long and fruitful third act; his final trilogy of Old Ideas, Popular Problems and You Want it Darker was, possibly, the most consistent period of his career—in addition to his most prolific. Having fully grown into his voice, those albums represented reflection and confession, not rumination and regret. The instrumentation is sparse—some strings here, an organ there—as Leonard allows himself the time and space deserved after spending a life taming a beast that wouldn’t go to sleep. “‘I like it slow, slow is in my blood,” he once sang.
Truth be told, I don’t remember exactly where I was the day Leonard died. Probably in Wellington, a city an ocean apart from Dad and Brian. Maybe I put on his Live in London album and reminisced about the contagious warmth he’d filled the arena with. Maybe I told one of my friends—whom I usually take for granted—that I loved them. Knowing me, I almost certainly panicked about my own mortality, stared deeply into some paisley wallpaper and told myself I wasn’t going to waste another minute avoiding writing or creating the things I wanted to see in this life—and then I, probably, proceeded to do very little about it. I remember asking Brian, one late night at his house—after several red wine bottles and mushroom risotto—if he feared death. He put down his glass and told me that, when you’ve lived as much as he has, there’s not much left to fear. I’m not sure if he was at peace with it or if, with age, he had just become better at ignoring his own ending.
I had more or less grown out of the suicidal ideation that washed like a flood from a petty God over the young men of our small town—a luxury many others were not afforded. Death still terrified me, though; it still does. I doubt I’ll ever come to terms with it, but maybe that’s the remnants of youth still alive within me. Leonard once joked that he was “too old for suicide,” he said it would be “unbecoming.” In my darker moments, I’ve found solace in his gallows humor—how it permeated across his writing and his music. It met the outrageous conceit of living on its own terms in a way I find incredibly soothing.
When I find myself a little too tempted by the gallows, I always wonder what parts of ourselves we inherit and what parts are of our own making. I never told my dad I had thought about killing myself, never asked him if he felt the same way as a teenager. I never even asked him if he’s scared of dying, like I had with Brian. The prospect of speaking a question like that into the world feels too much like the manifestation of a reality I’m definitely not ready to face, even if he is.
On his last album, a month before he died, Leonard seemed as ready as anyone could be. He littered his songs with a dry acceptance of the inevitable, “clos[e]ing the bar,” “leaving the table,” being “out of the game.” I imagine very few of us get the chance to publicly declare our own demise or, as Leonard did so often in his music, argue with himself about what, if anything, comes next. I’m writing this essay half a world away from my home. My writing has given me opportunities to chase dreams and futures I never saw as catchable all those years ago—listening to Leonard, writing atrocious poetry.
I still know nothing about sex or love or God. But, every day away from those I care about most still feels like a day lost. Maybe Leonard was right, that the rent we all pay in our towers of song is loneliness in a time we could have spent elsewhere. Deep down, I think I know we all leave the game someday; for now, we’re still at the table, still at the bar—and it’s a blessing to still be here. It was never a curse, and I pray I get plenty of time for midnight arguments with Brian and quiet moments with Dad while the drinks are still being served.
Jordan Hamel is a New Zealand writer and performer. He is currently at the University of Michigan on a Fulbright Scholarship. His debut poetry collection, Everyone is Everyone Except You, was published in New Zealand by Dead Bird Books in 2022 and will be published by Broken Sleep Books in the UK in 2024. He is also the co-editor of No Other Place to Stand, an anthology of New Zealand and Pacific climate change poetry from Auckland University Press (2022). His recent work can be found, or is forthcoming, in POETRY, Sonora Review, Gulf Coast and Best New Zealand Poems 2022.