A Heartfelt Tribute to Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen died this November at the age of 82. He recorded his final album from a special chair in his living room two weeks before his death despite his body being wracked with cancer and suffering from severe back pain.
Cohen was prolific throughout his life. He actually toured up through 2013 when he was in his late seventies. That is an inspiration for us as we are growing older. In addition to being in awe of his resilience, I feel a connection that spans most of my lifetime and reaches deep into me.
Songs of Despair and Magical Love
Many of us in our sixties today came of age to the music of Leonard Cohen. His songs formed part of a backdrop of life during the turbulent 60s. Leonard Cohen was not the Beatles or Elvis. He captured the darker moments of the frightening world I came of age in only a few short years after my parents escaped the Holocaust. He captured a century that saw two world wars and where as children we did nuclear disaster drills, ducking under our desks at school.
Cohen was always searching, voicing both fear and despair, and yet also magical love. That was his allure when I sang and played “Suzanne” on my guitar when I was sixteen.
Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river. You can hear the boats go by. You can spend the night beside her. And you know that she’s half crazy. And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her she gets you on her wavelength and she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover.
Cohen shared the messiness of being human. In “Bird on a Wire” he voiced some of my own inner questions and moral dilemmas.
But I swear by this song and by all I have done wrong, I’ll make it all up to thee. I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch. He called out to me, “Don’t ask for so much.” And a young woman leaning in her darkened door. She cried out to me, “Why not ask for more?” Oh, like a bird on the wire. Like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.
The universality of his lyrics echoes a reality that in addition to joy and beauty, each of our lives has moments of pain and struggle. Listening to his vulnerability, I somehow feel less alone. Rather than contributing to despair, it gives me hope. One of my favorite lines is from a song “Anthem.”
Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
When I listen to his new album, I find Leonard Cohen’s words continue to resonate with my feelings today, in our uncertain world. His aging voice is soothing; the music is hauntingly beautiful, both sad and inspiring as he boldly speaks of his approaching death. He clearly was anticipating it and was ready to die.
In the title song of the album “You Want It Darker” he proclaims, “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game. I am ready my Lord.” As I am growing older and see the reality of my own mortality more clearly, Leonard Cohen’s last album weaves an acceptance of all the ragged edges of life and the cracks where a shining light comes in.
And so, in my tribute to Leonard Cohen, I say thank you. You have voiced so much of what I have felt across my life, the terrifying and thrilling moments in our world today together with its amazing beauty. I close with your amazing words:
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin; Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in; Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove; Dance me to the end of love Dance me to the end of love.
How has Leonard Cohen’s music influenced you? Do you have a favorite song or lyrics that speaks to you? How have the artists you grew up listening to grown up with you as well? Please share in the comments.
Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D works as an independent consultant to schools and organizations with over 35 years as a teacher, principal, curriculum director, and superintendent in public education in California. With Dr. Dorothy Steele, she co-authored the book, Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn. Becki and her husband Rito are also working to develop an environmental research center on their private reserve in the Nicaraguan rain forest. They live in El Sobrante, California, and have three adult children.