The Tower of Song

Updated - November 17, 2021 06:13 am IST

Published - November 12, 2016 12:24 am IST

“I was born like this, I had no choice. I was born with the gift of a golden voice,” wrote Leonard Cohen in “Tower of Song”, suggesting he was sentenced to a life of imprisonment in music. It was a life in which he fused pain and passion, blended the sacred with the profane. Among the greatest of the singer-songwriters to emerge from the sixties, Cohen spoke of extreme passions in liturgical phrases and with biblical references. The Canadian troubadour, who found inspiration in Greece and fame in the U.S., was a successful novelist and a poet before turning to lyrics “to slash your wrists by”, rendered almost conversationally in a brooding and arrestingly sensual bass. Unlike other musicians, he didn’t fade away as he grew older, or when “he ached in the places where he used to play”. His last two albums were suffused with witty, self-deprecatory humour and intimations of his own mortality. Cohen also remained a spiritual seeker in his verses all his life, his songs often deviating from the narrative to ask questions about the divine, as he wandered from Zen Buddhism to Advaita Vedanta while staying Jewish by faith.

Along with Bob Dylan, who called him “No.1 to his Zero”, Cohen blurred the line between poetry and lyric in the sixties and seventies. They spoke the language of the time using words of rebellion and spirituality. The words of “Suzanne” and “Closing Time” dive into religion and morality, cutting just as deep without the music. “Bird on the Wire” was where he hit peak, the simplicity of the rhyme serving to ram home the complexity of the emotion. He retained his edge even in his last album, speaking with the same voice and shifting only in theme to death and leave-taking. Cohen used chords sparsely, not allowing the music to drown the words. However, his music was no lesser a feat. The rises and falls of “Hallelujah” draw listeners to emotions of accomplishment and dejection in the gap of a few notes; the soft sensuality of “Dance Me to the End of Love” is rendered with a tinge of sadness that befitted the link in his mind between the song and the Holocaust. “So Long Marianne”, ode to his muse and lover, is an overture that steps beyond the words and the music into a higher emotional realm. Cohen’s death is a loss to all who look for reason in the rhyme and rhythm. Always a perfectionist, he often described his masterpieces as “incomplete”. >Cohen may be no more but he will, for many years from now, be speaking to us softly from his window in the tower of song.

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