While there was a groundswell of support for Bob Dylan when he was named this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” plenty of naysayers bemoaned the Swedish Academy’s choice. The suggestion being, of course, that songwriting is less worthy of such esteemed recognition than other more formal types of authorship. And upon reading much of the criticism, my bullshit detectors soared to near all-time high levels (just short of the levels attained each time I hear our President-Elect open his mouth, mind you). Songwriting, and Dylan’s in particular, is indeed a vital part of the world’s literary tradition and more than deserving of the long overdue recognition by the Nobel committee.
Upon hearing the news of Dylan’s achievement, I immediately considered what other songwriters warrant the same honor. There are a small handful, and among these, the late Leonard Cohen, who shared a reciprocal admiration with Dylan, most definitely belongs.
The Montreal born-and-bred Cohen first cut his writing chops as a poet and novelist, before trying his luck at the more commercially lucrative world of song in the mid-1960s. Over the five decades since and from his 1967 debut LP Songs of Leonard Cohen to his recently released swan song You Want It Darker, Cohen’s lyrical and musical voice evolved in unpredictable and provocative ways. With an intimate, seldom paralleled awareness of the human spirit and empathy for the human condition, Cohen’s songs explore the intrinsic struggles and vicissitudes of love, religion, politics, and social coexistence. And many of the themes that Cohen examined decades ago flow eternal.
For instance, in the days since the November election, I’ve found myself continually reciting the opening verse from “Everybody Knows” (featured on his 1988 album I’m Your Man and in the 1990 film Pump Up the Volume), in which Cohen, in his signature baritone, stoically affirms: “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded / Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed / Everybody knows that the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor, the rich get rich / That's how it goes / Everybody knows.” Sad, but oh so true.
Just months after confiding to Billboard magazine that “I intend to live forever,” the 82-year-old Cohen passed away in his sleep on November 7th after a late-night fall in his Los Angeles home. And though he is no longer with us in the flesh, his unique voice will indeed live forever. Talk hard and rest in peace, Mr. Cohen.