So Long Leonard. Your Life Is A Lesson In Dignity

Leonard Cohen playing the O2 in Dublin

In July of this year, an e-mail Leonard Cohen wrote to his ex-partner and great love Marianne Ihlen, who was days away from death, went viral. In it, Cohen wrote: “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

Unfortunately, Cohen’s prophetic words came to pass a lot sooner than many had hoped, with the sad news emerging today that Leonard had finally grasped Marianne’s hand and moved on from this life. Not only does he leave behind a towering body of work that has touched generations of fans, his life is a lesson in dignity and humility that people living though these uncertain times should look to for inspiration.

He wasn’t perfect – Ihlen once said she contemplated suicide due to his repeated infidelities during their relationship – but he was the first to acknowledge these imperfections. A life spent researching various religions, even becoming a Zen Buddhist monk for a number of years, suggests that he never stopped looking for answers and trying to improve himself.

What other so-called ladies’ man would imagine a conversation with his father and write, “I locked you in this body/I meant it as a kind of trial/You can use it for a weapon/Or to make some woman smile” as Cohen once did in ‘Lover Lover Lover’? Only one who was acutely aware of how lucky he was to lead the life he had.

In his excellent recent piece for The New Yorker, David Remnick speaks of visiting Cohen in his home in Los Angeles earlier this year. In spite of ill health, Cohen was constantly offering his guests refreshments and food, ever the gracious and attentive host. You would wonder how many other artists of Cohen’s standing would do this. Yes, it’s basic manners but it is also an example of how Cohen always seemed to carry himself. Humble, dignified and grateful for what he had.

Not that he ever wanted for much. Cohen seemed happiest when living on the Greek island of Hydra with Ihlen in the 1960s. An island that at the time had no cars and very little electricity, freeing Cohen from distractions and allowing him to concentrate on his writing. Remnick describes Cohen’s residence in LA as a modest dwelling. It did not have the trappings of fame and fortune but Cohen seemed happy that his family lived nearby and that he had his affairs in order and could look after his family.

This must have been a great comfort to him after he was forced back on the road in 2008 due to the mismanagement of his financial affairs by his former business manager Kelley Lynch. The first stop on that tour after his native Canada was in Dublin and he would return many times over the following years. While most people would feel aggrieved at having all of their money robbed and having to go back out and work well after retirement age, it seemed to revitalise Cohen and he would produce three excellent albums during this late-career renaissance – Old Ideas, Popular Problems and the recently released You Want It Darker. 

Although Cohen had won his civil suit against Lynch, she never paid the money owed to him and in 2012 she was sentenced to eighteen months in prison for violating a restraining order against him. At the conclusion of that trial, Cohen addressed the court with typical class, saying: “It gives me no pleasure to see my onetime friend shackled to a chair in a court of law, her considerable gifts bent to the services of darkness, deceit, and revenge. It is my prayer that Ms. Lynch will take refuge in the wisdom of her religion, that a spirit of understanding will convert her heart from hatred to remorse, from anger to kindness, from the deadly intoxication of revenge to the lowly practices of self-reform.”

Cohen displayed this remarkable generosity of spirit throughout his life and career. In the 1974 documentary ‘Bird on a Wire’, Cohen speaks before a performance of ‘Suzanne’ (which can be seen from 9:09 here) about how the rights to the song were stolen from him. Rather than be bitter about the affair, which would have lost him a great deal of money in royalties, Cohen takes a more noble stance. “It’s a song that people loved and fortunately the rights were stolen from me,” he says before adding: “I thought that was perfectly justified because it would be wrong to write this song and get rich from it too.”

Even when he slipped up, Cohen’s class could always redeem him. He once revealed during an interview with the BBC that the song ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ was about the singer Janis Joplin. He would later express deep regret at having named her, saying: “That was the sole indiscretion in my professional life. I deeply regret associating a woman’s name with a song. I used the line ‘giving me head’ and I’ve always disliked the locker-room approach to these matters.” A stark contrast to the attitude some other powerful and influential people have to such indiscretions.

With those kind of people in power, the world is facing up to some worrying and uncertain times but perhaps we can all do some small things to help make the world a little bit nicer. Be kind to each other, be humble, have manners and remind the people that you care about that you love them and you’re there for them. It’s what Leonard would have done.


Mark O'Brien

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