Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Leonard Cohen RIP

Days later, and it's still sinking in. We've become uncomfortably used to dealing with the deaths of A-list musicians this year.  But much like David Bowie's death, the clues were all there, left behind in Cohen's words and music, and we somehow didn't see it coming.  How can somebody leave behind such great art in the face of death, and maintain this type of poise and dignity until the very end?  Us ordinary folks may never understand it.  

Cohen's remarkable final act is now well known.  His former manager stole most of his life savings, and Cohen embarked on a massive, years long set of world tours to rebuild his fortune.  If he hadn't nearly been bankrupted, does he live out a quiet retirement, releasing the occasional studio album to mild acclaim by a fanbase and critical establishment that had more or less forgotten about him when he became a recluse in the mid 90's?  Instead of that alternate reality, he not only rebuilt his retirement fund but also his musical legacy.  Would the obituaries have placed him second to Bob Dylan among rock era lyricists (I have seen this written over the past week) if that tour hadn't happened?  Would he have been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 without the newfound sympathy and interest in his music in the wake of the management scandal?  He'd been eligible for fifteen years and people weren't exactly up in arms about why he hadn't been elected.  The Leonard Cohen of 2005 hadn't released an album in over a decade, and had been widely assumed to have fallen off the deep end due to his years long stint in a Buddhist monastery.  

But you also have to wonder about the toll that years of touring took out of the body of a man in his late 70's.  He was meditating for hours per day in the monastery well into his 60's, so he was obviously of sound mind and body.  You still have to think that without his misfortunes, he stays at home all these years and is still with us.  He unknowingly traded that for a pile of riches he'll never get to enjoy and a "legacy".  Cohen never cultivated any kind of legacy and only people who lionize the 27 Club give a crap about legacies as they pertain to unforeseen death, but without that tour, the headlines probably read "'Hallelujah' composer dies" rather than the stuff you've been reading this past week.

Speaking of "Hallelujah", what happens if John Cale doesn't overhaul the song in 1991 and turn it into the now familiar piano led ballad?  The radio staple from the "I'm Your Fan" compilation was REM's version of "First We Take Manhattan".  This was "Out of Time" era REM, who were suddenly one of the biggest acts in music and were played on the radio across multiple formats.  Before "The Future", and before "Closing Time" inexplicably became a minor hit at the height of grunge and the years long Boyz II Men/Mariah Carey run of pop chart domination, Leonard Cohen was a relic with a covers album, not too different from the "Red Hot and Blue" covers album of Cole Porter songs that was released the previous year.  U2's "Night and Day" was the "hit" song from that album, because like REM on "I'm Your Fan", they were the biggest stars on an album filled mostly with cult acts.  There was no comeback for Cole Porter, who had been dead for decades, but at the same time there wasn't exactly a rush to cover more of his songs from that point on.  

In 1991, John Cale and Leonard Cohen were nearly the same artist, "legacy" wise.  Their styles are nothing alike, but in stature, they could be grouped with the likes of Patti Smith as the kind of artists major labels used to keep around to increase their cred among the weekend paper reading intelligentsia.  Other musicians would cite them as an influence, which also was considered important when building a roster of artists for your label.  Both were arguably far bigger in Europe than in North America.  A few years later, and Cale was arguably still ahead -- Cohen made "The Future", but Cale reformed the Velvet Underground and toured the world.  Could anyone have predicted how their careers would diverge from then on?  Cale has remained active for the past two decades, Cohen disappeared for years but eventually became a megastar anyway, who would have known?


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