One last hallelujah: A tribute to Leonard Cohen

Franchesca Spektor/Staff

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Editor’s note: And so it goes — yet another musical legend has died in 2016. Leonard Cohen died last Thursday at the age of 82. Even in the moments leading up to his death, he had an uncanny, transcendent self-awareness. You Want it Darker, his 14th and last album, was released with a quiet fatalism. Darker was Cohen’s swan song.

Leonard Cohen shaped popular music with the same profound, understated grace that he used to craft his masterpieces. He only achieved popular success in this century; only the five albums he released in the aughts ever broke into the Billboard Top 10. But his influence broke through generations, genres and into popular culture at large.

Here are some thoughts from The Daily Californian writers and contributors affected by Cohen’s passing.

Leonard Cohen might be the reason I write. My parents didn’t care about him. I wouldn’t have ever come in contact with his music if it hadn’t been for Lana Del Rey’s cover of “Chelsea Hotel #2.” I heard Lana singing to an idol, telling me that he spoke her language. So I delved in myself to see if he spoke mine. Damn it, I didn’t know that language could do the things it did in Cohen’s hands. His voice was crusty. His words were jagged. He knew how to harness human speech better than anyone.

Language is a really funny thing. The sheer potency in Cohen’s use of the English language cracked open its importance in my life. I count Songs of Love and Hate among one of my favorite albums. Maybe it’s fitting that I was listening to Songs of Leonard Cohen the first time I chanced upon UC Berkeley’s linguistics department website when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to major in. I’ve devoted my academic career to the study of linguistics in part because of Cohen.

Cohen treated words like actions.

I want to devote my life to doing the same. I hold his words in the highest esteem. “Are your lessons done?” No. With Cohen as my teacher, my learning will never be done. The closest I’ll ever come to seeing Cohen perform live was at a Lana Del Rey concert. She performed her cover of “Chelsea Hotel.” I cried that night, seeing his words flow out of her.

I used to romanticize the relationship between Cohen and Janis Joplin described in the song. The intimacy shared by such legends is so staggering, like when the ancient Greeks would die just by witnessing the Gods in their true form. I think that was part of the allure for Lana too.

I like to believe that Cohen met god in his life on Earth, but when he passed he elected for the quiet of the void. That was just his style.

— Justin Knight, A&E

My four years at Berkeley — and three at the Daily Cal as the rock critic in 1974 to 1977 — all my best friends and roommates were extraordinary musicians. I could not play, but I could write, so I became a lyricist, creating dozens of songs with the members of The Fans, The Waves and New Marines.

Nowadays, I have a funny little acoustic axe, diatonically tuned so I can’t play a wrong note, so long as it’s in the key of D. The night Leonard Cohen died, I walked out to my patio and worked out, within a few seconds, “Bird on the Wire.” After dinner, with a glass of wine, I have gone out there under the oak tree and played it and sung it every night since.

“And if I, if I have been untrue, I hope you know it was never to you.”

It helps that my voice has grown almost as deep and smoky as the great Zen Orthodox master’s in my old age. Oh shade of Leonard, as so many are saying this awful week, you got out just in time.

— Larry Wilson, special to the Daily Cal

It’s fitting, in a sad, quiet way, that I feel so incapable of describing my emotions about the passing of the artist who articulated the feeling of inadequacy. Despite his prolific career, Leonard Cohen still managed to touch all his listeners at a personal level by expressing ugly emotions with such candor. I felt drawn closest to him with “Is This What You Wanted.” The song is musically memorable in its own right, with an unexpected chord structure and a rhythm alternating seamlessly between lilting and pulsing.

But the lyrics are what made me and countless others ache, both for Cohen’s detailed slow-burn heartbreak and for our own relationships where we just never felt like enough. It’s easy to fall into a rut when you can only compare yourself unfavorably to others, as Cohen does in his lyrics; all of us have felt like the Vaseline to someone’s K-Y Jelly, or the Mr. Clean to their father of modern medicine. Self-help gurus everywhere will tell you that dwelling on being just immeasurably less than someone else is counterproductive; sometimes, though, you just have to wallow. Cohen’s yearning croon can form your own self-pity into poetry; even in his passing, he sends a message from his heart to ours: “The situation does suck, but it can still be beautiful.”

— Sahana Rangarajan, A&E

I always imagined Leonard Cohen being 7 feet tall. That was almost certainly inaccurate, but it seemed closer to the truth than anything more reasonable. If he wasn’t 7 feet tall, he was probably six and a half, and at that point, there’s basically no discernible difference.

One of many notables I learned about Cohen during the internet’s collective grieving process after his passing was that he was actually only 5 feet and 9 inches. That’s my height, if not half an inch shorter. This towering, impenetrable colossus in spirit — the man who proved that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, or at least capable of drawing blood with far more grace and style — was closer to the ground than I was. Cohen’s always felt elusive, methodically vulnerable to the extent that his lyrical transparency seemed to be in service of making himself invisible altogether. Even in death, he feels no less distant than he had in life.

The truth is, we’ve been eulogizing Cohen for as long as he’s continued to defy expectations and release great albums well past his 70s. Yet he’s stubbornly endured despite our attempts to cap his legacy, making his sudden departure all the more unsettling. But even in tragedy, there’s transcendence in feeling your heart beat harder than ever in the moments when you just want it to stop altogether. We wanted it darker, and even with the lights finally out, I still feel his flames.

— Pranav Trewn, special to the Daily Cal

My ex had a beautiful voice, but three drinks into the night, he would completely lose his ability to sing. One drunken night, while we were preparing ourselves for him to fly back to school in upstate New York, we wept on each other and choked out the entirety of “Hallelujah.” The Jeff Buckley version; my favorite. Cold and broken, indeed. I’m positive we sounded awful.

“Hallelujah” was the first song I ever translated into French and one of the first I learned to play on the guitar. I lose it when teens at talent shows skip the sex verse. I’ll fight you if you think the Rufus Wainwright version is definitive.

It is a song so ingrained in our national language of despair that when I hummed it while comforting a drunk friend, he turned his head from the toilet to groan that he “wasn’t a meme.”

Trope or not, I don’t care. “Hallelujah” will never lose its power for me.

When the news hit that you were dead, Leonard, I put on the original. I needed to hear you sing poetry of incomparable, soaring despair.

Thank you for your music. Thank you for your life.

— Neil Lawrence, Opinion

Contact the Daily Cal Arts Staff at [email protected].