I first heard Leonard Cohen’s voice where I suspect many others do: in a freshman year college dorm. It was “Chelsea Hotel №2,” and Cohen’s candor struck me like a thunderbolt — the whining trumpet, the powerful down strokes of the minor chords and his distinctive, famously imperfect voice froze for me a moment in time. Part of me still lives in it.
When I came out of the closet, his words “There’s a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in,” already decades old, welcomed me with a knowing smile to a more truthful and more humbling phase of my life.
When I moved to New England for my first job, Cohen followed me still. When I was crippled with the anxious loneliness every twenty-two year old feels but none discuss, and afraid of the unknownness of the years stretching out before me, and lying on on the floor because I couldn’t afford a mattress, the surreal imagery of “The Stranger” lulled me away to a mystic realm where highways curl like smoke and jaded men and women are forever embroiled in the “holy game of poker.”
And when anti-establishment populism exploded across the West this year, Cohen was there, in the whispers of the fearful and the shouts of emboldened alike, counseling that, “Everybody knows the fight was fixed / the poor stay poor, the rich get rich / that’s how it goes / everybody knows.”
His distinct discography and mysterious life endeared him to millions of fans across the world, all who must now carry on without him. He was a touring machine, who spent years of his life on the road around the globe playing hours-long shows for swooning fans and drawing their hearts ever nearer to him. He was a rambling former monk and a brutal comedian; a poet and a singer defined by the simplicity of his poetry and the blemishes and limitations of his voice.
And despite his candor, he truly was the loungy, self-aware king of mystery; mysteriousness gently shrouded small parts of Cohen’s soul. To appreciate his career and to love his music is to enjoy the shadows and sparseness in both Cohen himself and the music he made. He owned his mystery, and we loved him for it — he made us believe we could own ours, too.
No matter their age, his songs continue to convey monumental beauty and pain in ways no other artist has ever been able. They are as piercing and as poignant today as they were the days he penned them, and contemporary music thirsts for more of Cohen’s knowingly imperfect beauty. It is a thirst that will likely never be quenched.
Fortunately, millions of current and future fans will continue to find Cohen and his work in the nooks and crannies of their lives. He’s shepherded millions through passing moments of doubt, forlorn memories and instances of quiet wonder, and this moment is no different. It should surprise no one that right before departing a tumultuous world laden with cracks and darkening on a daily basis, Cohen left behind a record like his last. “You Want it Darker” is an exquisite parting gift; one that can and should be interpreted as the mysterious icon’s final question.
I can only imagine that he smirked before asking it, just before one of the last lights went out.