Death of an Everybody Man

Posted November 13, 2016 on 3:02 pm | In the category Canada | by Mackenzie Brothers

It has been an awful week for Canadians. On the day before their US neighbours made a mysterious and potentially threatening choice of a leader, Leonard Cohen died in Los Angeles, and on the next day, as he had requested, a plane flew the body of the crown jewel of post-war literature and song, back to his home city of Montréal, and on the day after that he was buried there in the family plot after a private traditional Jewish ceremony.  It was almost twenty years ago that the best German writer of his generation, the very cerebral Durs Grünbein, told me that he really only knew only knew of one Canadian writer, Leonard Cohen, as he had become  the splendid troubadour of the post-war world.  At that time Cohen had  written two novels, one of which received Canada’s highest literary honour, and about ten books of poetry, all of which contained some poems   that had become as well known as any lyrics  written by anybody else in this period. What set him apart from other writers was that he had set a number of his published poems to music, and had made a very successful career singing them. Space here is far too limited  to begin listing the several dozen of these songs which have become part of the repertoire of the twenty-first century’s gathered memory. No other author comes close to matching them.

But the most extraordinary part of Cohen’s career was still to come. Instead of moving at seventy into a well-endowed retirement, he began  anew his travels around the world as a true troubadour would do, presenting these and many newly-conceived poem-songs in  almost 400 concerts over six years, most of them sold out, while expanding the themes of his new songs into a celebration of the broadness of life’s possibilities and the inevitability of the ending of it all.  And he  had widened their scope by  powerfully adding  a foundation of spiritual satisfaction with the whole process that had been missing in his earlier years. And what a group of songs they were (according to his son Adam he was writing on the day he died), culminating in several new disks that were as unexpected as they were triumphant. His last one , “You want it darker” begins with a title song accompanied by the choir from his childhood synagogue in Montreal, and with a Hebrew solo by its cantor. It appeared a couple of weeks before Cohen’s death.  When you look carefully at the full implications of his extraordinary poems about Auschwitz, Hitler and the fate of Jews including his family and that of his Montréal friend, the Rumanian-born Canadian poet Irving Layton,  for whom he served as pallbearer, we can certainly add Leonard Cohen’s name to the small list of the foremost Jewish writers of the post-war period. In the end he completed the circle,  returning in full force to his beginnings in the Jewish section of  Montréal.  Cohen begins Harry Rasky’s film, “The Song of Leonard Cohen”, the best  presentation of his life, by singing  in French the wonderful French-Canadian song “Un Canadién errant”  (“A wandering Canadian”) and admitting on questioning that he feels it pretty much also applies to him.  May the force be with  him.

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