By Chris Kulawik
PUBLISHED MARCH 12, 2008
On March 10, 2008 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted a Columbia
alumnus. And no, it wasn't Madonna. His name is Leonard Cohen, and
the odds are good that you've never heard of him. Don't worry. Few have.
The Quebecois-born Cohen published his first book of poetry, Let Us
Compare Mythologies, in 1956 as a McGill University undergraduate.
After an aborted attempt at law school, Cohen traveled south to
Morningside Heights. Here Cohen enrolled as a graduate student in the
English department. The independent-minded Cohen lasted just one
forgettable year in the program. As George State, professor emeritus
of English and comparative literature, recalls, "I don't remember
coming across Leonard. The courses were mostly lectures with no
assigned papers or tests, so I might have been in a course with him,
but I just don't remember." The young poet proved quite unmemorable.
Apparently, so did Columbia. We lost Cohen to the Greek island of Hydra.
Cohen spent the better part of a decade on the undeveloped island.
There he wrote his third book of poetry, Flowers For Hitler, the
follow-up to the 1961 much-celebrated Spice-Box of Earth, and two
novels, The Favorite Game and the cult classic Beautiful Losers. 30
years later, in the updated preface to the new Chinese edition of
Losers, Cohen, in his classically self-depreciating manner, wrote of
his magnum opus:
"Beautiful Losers was written outside, on a table set among the
rocks, weeds and daisies, behind my house on Hydra, an island in the
Aegean Sea. I lived there many years ago. It was a blazing hot
summer. I never covered my head. What you have in your hands is more
of a sunstroke than a book.
Dear Reader, please forgive me if I have wasted your time."
The critics were kinder.
"James Joyce is not dead," wrote the Boston Globe. "He lives in
Montreal under the name of Cohen ... writing from the point of view
of Henry Miller."
Cohen's first record, the eponymous Songs of Leonard Cohen, came
relatively late in life at 33 years old. He released the now classic
album during 1967's Summer of Love. Although critically
well-received, Cohen's sullen, morose, and decidedly reactionary
brand of folk rock did not quickly catch on. The poet-cum-musician
had entered the music scene amid levels of artistry, talent, and
experimentation not since replicated. A standout album any other
year, his songs had to compete with the Beatles' landmark Sgt.
Pepper, Cream's Disraeli Gears, Jefferson Airplane's psychedelic
masterpiece Surrealistic Pillow, and debut albums from Jimi Hendrix,
The Doors, and The Velvet Underground and Nico. It would take 22
years for the RIAA to certify the album gold in the United States.
His music, like his career, would never be "mainstream." Cohen,
however, was and remains a musician's lyricist.
Admittedly, Cohen was never a particularly great musicologist. In an
interview with the BBC he mused, "I'm a lot better than what I was
described as for a long, long timeyou know, people said I only knew
three chords when I knew five." He was first and foremost a writer.
Few would disagree. Cohen's work has garnered a cult following.
Artists as varied as Johnny Cash, U2, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright,
k.d. Lang, Philip Glass, Regina Spektor, and Bob Dylan have covered
his songs. R.E.M., so influenced by Cohen's "Suzanne," gave the
Canadian bard co-songwriting credit on their song, "Hope."
40 years later, the 73-year-old practicing Jew and Zen Buddhist monk
is as influential as ever before.
His songs, like his poems, took months and years to perfect.
Accompaniments were few, usually a guitar and later, in the 80s, a
dated synthesizer. Cohen's lyrics reflect a certain cynical nepotism.
He finds beauty in anguish, in each tempestuous goodbye and
unresolved couplet. "Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld," scribbled
Kurt Cobain, "So I can sigh eternally." The beleaguered rocker was
onto something. Despite the brief respites and movements of levity,
darkness pervades Cohen's work. If his albums are divine cantos, then
his songs are psalms. This 20th-century David has done more than most
popular artists to accurately depict the human condition. "There's a
crack in everything," Cohen writes. "That's how the light gets in.
That sums it upit is as close to a credo as I've come."
I write about politics, not art. I know I've done Cohen no great
justice, but this was one opportunity I could not pass up. Cohen,
like Federico García Lorca, Jack Kerouac, and the great Columbians
before him, has a divine gift. He is a master poet and a humble soul.
I say with the greatest respect and admiration, "Congratulations, Mr.
Cohen." This award was a long time coming.
Chris Kulawik is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and
political science. Chris Shrugged runs alternate Wednesdays.