How the light gets in

As Leonard Cohen’s documentary ‘Words of Love’ is remembered, his infamous work haunts years passed

On the night of the US presidential election, Leonard Cohen was trending on Twitter, with hundreds of thousands praying for the materialisation of Cohen’s famous lyrics: the coming of democracy to the US.

The song saliently captures the wry cynicism Cohen is famous for, through the allusions to the disaffected voters and downtrodden, who are “neither left or right/just staying home tonight/getting lost in that hopeless little screen.” It’s a fitting image beyond question, conveying how many of us, even across the pond, stayed up to watch the votes trickle in, hopeful that there would be a light (or at least a crack) at the end of the tunnel for 2020.

““There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” – the famous words that spawned countless saccharine Instagram captions, and many more terrible tattoos.”

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” state the famous words that spawned countless saccharine Instagram captions, and many more terrible tattoos. These were the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem. Cohen died in 2016, and a posthumous documentary, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love premiered at the Sundance festival on the January 27 two years ago. It explores the romance between Cohen and his muse, Marianne Ihlen, set against the dream-like backdrop of emerging 1960s youth culture in Hydra.

Like swimming in the Irish sea and baking banana bread, lockdown brought with it the resurgence of the dying art of letter writing. When watching Marianne and Leonard, the most beautiful part is arguably the concluding scene, which narrates the final letter Leonard sent to her: “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine;” a moving tribute to a love story that not only inspired So Long, Marianne, but also transcended borders, age, time and space.

Cohen is famous for his poems, many of which in their embryonic form, were letters he wrote to women. They are famously Romantic in a sense, both with and without the capital “R”. However, Cohen humorously stated that, when it didn’t work with women: “I appealed to God.” His work can be characterised by its unique ability to walk the fine line between the holy and the human – his second poetry collection, The Spice Box of the Earth, refers to the Jewish Havdalah ceremony which marks the end of the Sabbath; it occupies the boundary between the holy day and work week. In this collection, the sacred and the secular appears alongside poems about love and sex, as well as fairytales of mythical heroes.

His death in 2016, days after the US Presidential election saw a resurgence in the popularity of his music – his notorious penchant for doom, gloom and destruction seeming increasingly relevant.”

His death in 2016, days after the US Presidential election, saw a resurgence in the popularity of his music. Seemingly, his notorious penchant for doom, gloom and destruction became more relevant by the day, as Hallelujah appeared on American Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. His songs not only articulate a sense of hopelessness often mitigated by an appeal to higher powers, but the feeling of emerging from chaos to survey the wreckage. Cohen released You Want it Darker, his final album, just three weeks before he died; the once-great gravel voice reduced to a croak. As the psychological fallout of 2020 persists at the dawn of the new year, and vaccines appear on the horizon, there is still a pervasive sense of emerging from disarray to survey a trail of destruction left in the wake of the last twelve months.

There are over fifty tribute albums to Leonard Cohen and too many covers of Hallelujah to count.”

There are over fifty tribute albums to Leonard Cohen, and too many covers of Hallelujah to count; it’s the song you can’t walk into a lift, or past buskers on Grafton street, or be put on hold without hearing. It’s even sung at weddings despite the contradictory lyrics. Hallelujah captures what makes Cohen’s music so universally loved and enduring- the recurring tongue in cheek appeals to a higher power; the wry cynicism that defined his later work (think The Future or Tower or Song) and Cohen’s famous claim that “regardless of the impossibility of your situation, there is a moment where you open your mouth and throw out your arms and yell ‘Hallelujah!’”

In 2013, Cohen performed in Dublin live at the age of 79, breaking in between songs to thank the audience for attending “at great geographical and financial inconvenience”. Forced to commence touring late in life after being embezzled by his previous manager, and partaking in countless encores before he left the stage, there persisted a certain finality to the performance. Cohen died just three years later. Revisiting his work at the dawn of a new year seems all the more pertinent, as the blurred boundaries between the everyday and the extraordinary are thrown into sharp focus.

Grace Gageby

Grace Gageby is the Deputy Comment Editor for Trinity News and studies English and Philosophy.