The enormity of Leonard Cohen’s contribution to popular music is just sinking in as the world remembers the Canadian poet-novelist’s work over decades. It’s an irony that lack of initial success should have so discouraged him that he turned to songwriting, in which he excelled most. Only last month lyricist-singer Bob Dylan hit headlines by winning the Nobel Literature Prize, triggering a debate on whether songwriting was indeed literature. It is, however, unfortunate that Cohen should pass away just as we start realising that the semantics of songwriting could be so enormous, and considered bigger than the medium of the artiste through which it is delivered by the writer/lyricist.
Cohen’s vast work — his first book of poems published while he was in college — gives him a more exalted place in creating an impact with the written word. It is a pity he abandoned writing books and poems but, as fate would have it, thrust him his metier. It’s another contradiction that he should be a reluctant pop star with an ascetic outlook, at odds with the hedonistic world of rock music, but late in life he had to go on tour as a performer to relieve financial stress. The range of his work, covering love, faith, despair, solitude, war and politics, and diverse artistes who performed his songs, from Tim Hardin to U2, Aretha Franklin down to Bob Dylan and Elton John, were a tribute to his virtuosity. As “the master of erotic despair,” he has left a telling legacy, according to his son, in his October album You Want It Darker.