'It's unbecoming to find you in a place of entertainment, trying to forget the tiny horror of the last million years."
So begins Leonard Cohen's 1979 poem, "Unbecoming." If you hadn't already heard, 2016 continued its merciless campaign against musicians of note, as the acclaimed Quebec-born artist passed away at the age of 82 on Nov. 7.
For music fans — and fans of the written word in general — it seems right to pause and acknowledge this extraordinary singer-songwriter. If Cohen occupied a songwriting echelon, of sorts, it's certainly populated by the likes of Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Lou Reed, Laura Nyro and Nick Drake. He leaves behind a wealth of work, including two novels, 13 collections of poetry and 14 studio LPs, all filled with voluminous longings from both the sacred and profane realms. Judging by the strength of his latest record, 2016's You Want It Darker, it's a shame Cohen didn't, as he recently suggested, live to be 120 years old. The world would certainly be all the richer for his wry explorations of the sensual and spiritual.
Cohen never had the greatest singing voice — a thin, declamatory delivery in his younger years which eventually settled into a raspy, strangely soulful bass monotone — but the earthiness of the delivery added a gravitas to classic pieces such as "Bird on the Wire" and "Suzanne." It's hardly new or even unique for an artist to explore such dichotomies, but Cohen's beautiful economy of phrase cuts straight to the heart, gracefully revealing various inner personalities that informed his work. Cohen was, among other things, a poet, a religious scholar, an unlikely ladies' man, a Zen Buddhist monk, and a gentle family man. If you've seen the film Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, you'll know he wouldn't have been a bad stand-up comedian, either.
Consider one of Cohen's most popular songs, "Hallelujah." Over a simple chord progression, which is humorously outlined in the lyrics themselves, listeners are presented with multiple biblical references, rather explicit sexuality, and meditations on relationships — divine or carnal — which are by turns amusing and deeply sobering. The original version from 1985's Various Positions features a faux gospel arrangement and a dispassionate reading of the lyrics, which is easy to forget following the varyingly earnest interpretations by John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, singing priests, open mic night attendees, and seemingly thousands of others, speaking to the strikingly universal nature of Cohen's writing.
Unfortunately, Cohen is not the only musical luminary we've lost recently. Multi-instrumentalist Leon Russell, who performed at Stargazers Theatre just five months ago, passed away on Nov. 13 at the age of 74. While best known as a keyboardist and singer-songwriter with a robust solo career (to the tune of more than 400 songs), Russell was also a multi-instrumentalist and session musician who produced and collaborated with the likes of Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ike and Tina Turner, Phil Spector and, famously, Joe Cocker, as well as acting as a mentor to the then-fledgling artist Elton John.
Jazz pianist and vocalist Mose Allison, who performed at Colorado College's Armstrong Hall in 2010, also passed, on Nov. 15 at the age of 89. Allison was an exemplary jazz-blues artist, mixing bebop with country-blues stylings in his original compositions as well as recording highly regarded covers of Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Rogers and Willie Dixon. In the years since his 1957 debut LP, Back Country Suite, Allison released over 30 albums and has been recognized as a significant influence on rock artists ranging from The Who and Jimi Hendrix to The Clash and Elvis Costello.
I've read numerous condemnations of 2016 as a "giant dumpster fire," with its many unexpected events and untimely musical deaths — David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Phife Dog, too many others to list. I wonder if our protracted musical grief is approaching a strange sense of acceptance. Perhaps the posthumous tributes are still holdouts from the bargaining stage.
Or is there something more cynical at work? The latest in the long line of "Hallelujah" covers was a repurposing by Saturday Night Live cast member Kate McKinnon. Dressed as Hillary Clinton, she delivered a piano-and-vocal rendition with complete sincerity, then turned directly to the camera for a finale that broke every metaphorical wall, including the one between impressionist and political proxy. "I'm not giving up," she intoned, "and neither should you, and live from New York, it's Saturday Night!"
Cohen himself was not acknowledged during the performance, nor was his recent death.
Was this a tacky move, reducing an uncredited song to emotional manipulation for dubious identity politics? Undoubtedly. But, as Cohen himself stated — there are many different hallelujahs.
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