Maybe William Logan has been waiting to unlimber his literary AR-15 on the corpus of Leonard Cohen for a long time. It sure seems like it; and now his moment has come:
“When a poet dies,” Logan writes in his New York Times review, “his publishers often hurry into print whatever scraps lie stuffed in his desk drawers or overflow his wastebasket. This is the book business at its darkest and most human, but many balance sheets have been balanced by a posthumous work or two.
Death is the moment when all eyes are upon the poet for the last time; beyond, for most harmless drudges, lies the abyss. Leonard Cohen, who died two years ago, wore many a fedora — poet, novelist, songwriter, a singer of sorts — but only the last trade, which he took up reluctantly, made him a star.
Cohen was never taken very seriously as a poet. He wasn’t much of a singer, either; but the gravelly renderings of his lyrics gradually attracted a mass audience that seemed more like a cult. . . .
Such songs now form the hoarse, moaning soundtrack to countless movies and television episodes. When a Cohen song rises from some awkward silence it’s a good bet the director has run out of ideas. The religiose sentimentality and painful growl, like a halibut with strep throat, have patched a lot of plot holes. He’ll give an emulsified version of everything the scriptwriter left unsaid.”
Logan’s target here is The Flame [“Poems, Notebooks, Lyrics, Sketches”], which he says, “has a little of everything for Cohen fans and nothing for anyone else. . . .”
And he goes on from there, to trash Cohen’s verses, his singing, the music, his many romances, etc.
The poems are monotonous scribbles of the moody-undergraduate school, what young Werther would have sung had he been Canadian.
(Of course he had to work in a sneer at Canada.) But I smiled all the way through Logan’s snide harangue, remembering the night I saw Cohen in late 2013 in Brooklyn, in the waning days of his endless tour.
A cult? His band was skin-tight, the arrangements first rate, the backup singers flawless, the whole ensemble seamlessly rehearsed, and Cohen himself fully identified with it all and his place in it, giving us his all.
Many of the older songs seemed to have aged with him, and sounded better in what Logan mocks as a “painful growl,” than their younger recorded versions. I don’t expect to see a higher-quality live concert in my remaining years. And if I am aging one-tenth as well as Cohen and his work, it would be worth it all.
And no doubt, as Logan insists, Cohen must have written lots of poetic fluff in his sixty years of production, and doubtless The Flame reflects that.
So what? He also wrote plenty of lines that will last, though I must resist the urge to quote my favorites here.
Resist? Who am I kidding. From many of those I treasure, just these few:
From “Closing Time”:
And I swear it happened just like this
A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The gates of love they budged an inch
I can’t say much has happened since
But closing time . . .
It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA . . .
It’s coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway
In amorous array
Democracy is coming to the USA.
“Democracy is coming”? At first I thought that song was a prophecy; now I see it as an aspiration, or even a desperate cry.
Plus one more, from “The Darkness,” a later song which reflects a sense of what was coming in place of Democracy‘s fading hopes:
I got no future,
I know my days are few
The present’s not that pleasant
Just a lot of things to do
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got that too . . . .
So maybe The Flame is fluff and detritus. (I haven’t read it, but I’d like to anyway.) Still, I’m pretty sure Leonard Cohen’s work and legend will outlast both that possibility and William Logan’s “harmless drudge’s” drive-by fusillade.
I mean, “a halibut with strep throat”?