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By just about any measure 2016 has been a rough year. In addition to the turbulent, terrifying political sea change of Brexit and President-elect Trump, we’ve lost many great artists this year, artists whose work in the years ahead would be especially welcome. While the passing of Leonard Cohen on November 7th was not as shocking as Bowie or Prince, given his age and his recent proclamation that he was “ready to die,” it is an immense loss nonetheless. Less a songwriter than a poet putting music beneath his words, Cohen made songs that are both legendarily melancholic and exquisitely beautiful, the cutting, cynical lyrics buoyed by delicate mandolins and soulful female-backed choruses. Often they have a confessional feel to them, particularly when he is plundering the lower moments of his own life (as in the epistolary “Famous Blue Raincoat” which, while not strictly autobiographical, is written as a direct address from Cohen to a man who ran off with his girlfriend, and is simultaneously affectionate and merciless to all three participants.) But that gives his work a generosity as well, the sense that he is pouring all of himself into every line, with the signature graveled delivery that makes a listener lean closer, hold it tight. It would be near impossible to put into words how much his music has meant to me; cliches about feeling less alone and better understood don’t seem nearly enough to honor such a talent. But I’ll try.
It’s tempting in these dark, uncertain times to write about one of Cohen’s more pessimistic, later period songs, and there are many to choose from – “The Future” (“I’ve seen the future, baby/And it is murder”); “Everybody Knows” (“Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich”); hell his final album was called “You Want It Darker,” and apparently we do. But I’m choosing instead to focus on a song from his debut album, and one that was likely on his mind in his final days: “So Long, Marianne.”
Upbeat by Cohen standards, “So Long, Marianne” is a shimmering, strumming ode to a love that doesn’t always come easy. It’s fragile and fraught, the singer struggling to reconcile his wish for freedom to wander with a longing for the shelter that such intimacy offers, balancing both the yearning and loneliness that can creep in even after knowing your partner for decades. In one touching, wistful turn of phrase that speaks to Cohen’s origins as both a poet and novelist he says they met when they were “almost young” (something it’s difficult to think of Cohen ever being), and you can sense in every passing stanza how the years between the couple have created both an uncrossable chasm and a shared history that can never be forgotten. There’s a lived-in warmth that feels unique to the rest of Cohen’s catalogue, probably because it is based on a real woman, a real relationship that Cohen had over several years with Marianne Ihlen, whom he met in Greece and eventually moved to Montreal with, along with her young son. The relationship ultimately did not last but the song stands as a monument, not only to her and what they shared, but, to borrow from another Cohen number, to the cracks that let the light in, the beauty in life that makes the pain bearable even if just for a moment.
And so I’m going to close this by quoting, in full (which hopefully doesn’t break any copyrights), Cohen’s letter to the real Marianne, written when he learned she was dying:
“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. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and for your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
In the years ahead, there will be many times when we might feel hopeless, despondent, scared, all of which is perfectly understandable, even advisable to a certain point. But let us also be the ones who stretch our hands out to one another rather than push one another away. I’ll see you down the road. Thank you, Leonard Cohen, for all you’ve given us and for getting there first. And for the love of God, 2016, please don’t take anyone else with you on your way out.