My favorite parting shot of Leonard Cohen comes from, as far as I can tell, his only Kentucky concert: a three-and-a-half hour poetic manifesto of sublime elegance performed at the Louisville Palace on the eve of Easter in 2013.
Instead of casually walking offstage before intermission or encores, he skipped. At 78, he skipped like a kid at a carnival, seemingly enraptured by the sounds and sights around him.
That image sticks with me this morning, the day after his passing at age 82. As a poet and pop stylist, his loss is incalculable. It is hard to imagine folk and pop music, especially work attributed to singer-songwriters of multiple generations, having its sense of narrative insight without artists like Cohen. Sure, he can be more properly viewed as a poet with his songs serving essentially as half-spoken recitations of spiritual reflection, unwavering romance and thinly veiled social discontent. But while his stories usually didn’t end well, they seldom succumbed to despair. Even his darkest meditations like “The Future” (“I’ve seen the future, brother… it is murder”) were fueled by a proud, subdued defiance. But when his heart openly yearned, as it did on such early classics as “Bird on a Wire,” Cohen and his songs took flight. Maybe that’s why he skipped offstage with childlike animation in Louisville. Maybe he was trying to see if he had wings — or, at least, if they still worked.
I bought my first Cohen album in 1974. It was called “New Skin for the Old Ceremony.” Critics, for the most part, hated the record because it departed from the coarser folk sway of the initial Columbia releases that had already defined his career. I was especially taken with a song called “Field Commander Cohen,” a darkly orchestrated work filled with great love/war metaphors and a protagonist described as “some grateful, faithful woman’s favorite singing millionaire; the patron saint of envy and the grocer of despair.” Short of Bob Dylan, who could come up with a character profile like that?
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Any summation of Cohen’s career, however, has to pay heavy respect to the last decade of his life. After returning to the stage following a 15 year absence that included time spent living in a California monastery as a Buddhist monk, Cohen dived into a period of extensive recording and touring that yielded three wonderful studio albums (the most recent of which, “You Want It Darker,” was released as recently as last month) and four live recordings. They presented Cohen as a fedora-wearing sage, an artist that recited his songs in a deep, inviting whisper alongside contained orchestration that was almost noir-like in its mix of cool and contemplation.
There is a bit of the gentlemen monk within these remarkable victory lap recordings. The same held true for the Louisville concert, when Cohen sheepishly apologized for the fact his band didn’t include the then-hospitalized bassist/bandleader Roscoe Beck that evening.
“I hope you won’t feel any disgrace to the enterprise,” he remarked.
Quite the contrary. Thank you for your years of service, Field Commander Cohen. We salute you.