Music experts reflect on legacy of Leonard Cohen, 'a national treasure'
Meredith MacLeod, CTVNews.ca
Published Friday, November 11, 2016 11:36AM EST
Leonard Cohen only enjoyed popular success late in life but had a profound, often invisible effect on music that lasted almost 50 years, said several music experts, sharing their insights with CTV News on Friday.
“Leonard had an influence that extended like an underground stream throughout the entire culture, especially among other artists,” said Brian D. Johnson, who interviewed Cohen several times and reviewed his work for Maclean’s.
Montreal music journalist Michael Williams says Cohen deserves a state funeral because he “changed the lyrical content of music everywhere.”
His deeply poetic songs, almost 50 years’ worth, often didn’t achieve commercial or critical success until they were covered by other artists but Cohen was in a league of his own as a songwriter, said music journalist Alan Cross. He influenced the likes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan.
“When you are an influencer of those kinds of influencers, you really did something remarkable.”
The power of Cohen is that, in pop culture world dominated by the self-absorbed, his songs have always been a reflection of others, said music writer Eric Alper.
“He very rarely talked about himself in his songs. He was a sponge and had a great antenna for other people’s views and other people’s feelings and in turn, brought it inwards and showed it back out. He held the mirror really, really well to people.”
Johnson says Cohen was humorous, though his songs grappled with themes of love, loss and longing, and he was dubbed the “grocer of despair.”
“We have lost of one the brightest wits to enter the Canadian cultural landscape. He was a funny man and that came from a rich, rich deep heart,” Johnson told CTV’s Your Morning.
But Cohen had his share of heartache, having to battle back from debilitating stage fright, years of artistic exile, heavy drinking and a bankruptcy in his late 70s after his former manager embezzled $5 million of his savings.
Former next-door neighbour and friend Ann Diamond said Cohen was a phenomenon in Montreal, but was always generous and approachable.
“I had this image of him as an operator, confident and maybe brash, probably someone I wouldn’t like. But he won me over right away, because of how honest and real he was,” she said on Your Morning.
Fans began creating a memorial of candles and flowers outside Cohen’s Montreal home shortly after his death was announced Thursday night.
“That’s what you do when you grieve for someone you didn’t know but who affected your life so profoundly,” Ramin Eshraghi-Yazdi told CTV Montreal.
Diamond, who wrote a 2015 memoir called “The Man Next Door” about her experiences with Cohen, says her friend was complicated and had both a dark and a light side.
“He was not a simple person, but he presented himself in a concentrated form and that’s where his brilliance truly lied.”
Cohen began as a poet but turned to music to make a living. His voice was derided early on as flat and atonal but it morphed into an unmistakable low rasp that he often said came out of whisky and cigarettes.
Cohen earned multiple Junos and Grammys, was named to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but “unlike so many stars, he understood the art of humility,” Johnson said.
In a review of his 14th and last album, “You Want it Darker,” released just last month, Johnson wrote that Cohen is a “national treasure” who was taken for granted.
“As if he’s always been with us. In a sense he has. His confidential baritone, which gets immeasurably deeper as the years go by, echoes between the bedroom and the Bible like some pre-Cambrian catacomb of the soul. It’s a voice that sounds older than Canada, older than time—and the voice of an artist who now seems acutely aware that his days are numbered.”
Johnson says he was shocked by Cohen’s death “even though he gave us every sign that it was coming.” The last album was clearly made as if Cohen knew it would be his last and the Canadian native joins David Bowie in “curating their own passing.”
In his last interview with the singer, when Johnson asked about his health, Cohen replied: “I’m a little too weak to get out there and boogie and a little too healthy to die.”