Feature | November 29, 2016
Black Hat, Black Star: A Last Look at Cohen and Bowie


leonard cohen

When Leonard Cohen died in Los Angeles on November 7, 2016, it felt like it was time. The news was saddening and even shocking, but his music—ambivalent hymns about love, mortality, and the divine—had long been converging on acquiescence to his inevitable end. You Want It Darker, released only a couple weeks before his death, was the latest in a series of records increasingly cognizant of the coming dark. At eighty-two years old, Cohen seemed well-aware of his age, telling The New Yorker’s David Remnick that “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” After the comment went viral Cohen clarified: “I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever.”

As a musician, Cohen will live forever — his voice will endure on his records even as his breath expires — though it will not be on his terms. His iconic and over-covered song “Hallelujah” is already charting at number 59 on the Billboard Hot 100, though the familiar ode (You’ve heard some iteration of it—in Shrek, in Watchmen, on American Idol, or sung by any high school romantic teaching himself guitar) is a predictable but unfitting choice for a eulogy. Not because it isn’t representative of Cohen’s thematic concerns but because he’s already written better ones for us to choose from.

The deep-voiced psalmist of “Hallelujah” had taken to writing bleaker hymns before You Want It Darker. Old Ideas (2012) and Popular Problems (2014), for instance, are filled with songs of both repentance and reproach. On “Darkness” he sings:

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

At first pass, such lines may seem tactlessly bleak, but the value of Cohen’s poetry has always been in the geniality of his grimness, the wryness of his metaphysical brooding. Raised Jewish, he continued to seek out spiritual solutions for his lifelong depression, even being ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk later in life. While there’s definitely engagement with religious themes in You Want It Darker — addresses to god (“I’m ready my lord”) and reluctant retrospection of religion (“Now it’s much too late / To turn the other cheek”) — Cohen never really takes a stand. If Popular Problems had moments of defiance and bitterness, You Want It Darker is a weary and steady appraisal of how things are: You — god, or whoever else — wanted it darker, and look how dark it is.

The genius of You Want It Darker is that it is a solemn album that never loses itself in seriousness. Only Cohen could condemn an indifferent god, comment on the ineluctability of human suffering, revisit past loves, and sing about “leaving the table” of life in a way that also sounds patient, at times nearly comforting. Rarely does Cohen seem agitated (nothing like the opening of “Did I Ever Love You”), his voice a low growl that’s largely unstrained. Much of this has to do with the production, which complements his voice with strings, piano, and backing vocals, a modesty that some of Cohen’s previous records lack.

divider

Genius, though, is an odd word to use for Cohen. He didn’t strike the figure of the artist meticulously constructing his aesthetic; his public persona, at least, was an odd, old man in a black hat, singing because he might as well, seeking musical and spiritual remedies for wounds he knew would never heal. In his later years his talent, if not his genius, was finding the sublime in the space between disbelief and disappointment, realizing that witnessing a miracle was nothing compared to seeing it undone. Take his lines in the lilting, piano-driven “Treaty”:

I seen you change the water into wine
I seen you change it back to water too
I sit at your table every night
I try but I just don’t get high with you

The final track of You Want It Darker, “String Reprise / Treaty,” is a particularly nice touch, with the end circling back to the beginning, outlining Cohen’s absence in lovely swells of chamber music. Cohen didn’t write You Want It Darker knowing that he would die soon after, but he knew he would die soon. The final words of the album give him the last word, a slow return to the earlier lyrics of “Treaty”:

I wish there was a treaty we could sign
It’s over now, the water and the wine
We were broken then but now we’re borderline
And I wish there was a treaty
I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

Cohen’s last lines — expressing a wish he knows will never be granted — are a neat coda to his late discography, which itself is a sort of modernist hymnal. Not songs to sing together, or in praise of any god, they are still warm, familiar songs that sing in praise — despite it all — of something, even if that something is merely the will to keep singing. For Cohen the music itself was always part of the message, the frustrated but meek insistence on singing more or less the same thing in more or less the same way. Cohen himself seemed to be well aware of this, singing in the self-referential closer to Popular Problems, “You Got Me Singing,”

You got me singin’
Even though it all looks grim
You got me singin’
The hallelujah hymn

Acknowledging that he’s been singing a half-hearted hallelujah into the grimness—surely that’s more stirring, and more eternal, than the hallelujah hymn itself.

When David Bowie died on January 10, 2016, no one was ready. He had kept his liver cancer private for over a year, telling only close collaborators, and prepared Blackstar, his 25th album, as a “parting gift,” in the words of producer Tony Visconti. He released the record on his 69th birthday, just two days before his death. A jazzy and innovative LP suddenly became a last musical testament, and lines like “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” took on a much more literal meanings. The pair of macabre music videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” suddenly became presages of death that we had all somehow misread, and even the name of the record was reread as a type of cancer lesion, a black hole variant, or the unreleased Elvis Presley track of the same name, where Presley sings:

Every man has a black star
A black star over his shoulder
And when a man
Sees his black star
He knows its time
His time has come

Charting the hidden constellations of symbols and in-jokes in Bowie’s last record is bewildering and entertaining (and impossible), with easter eggs stretching from occult rituals to Mos Def to Bowie’s own past personas. More important than interpreting the record correctly, though, is the simple fact that we’re all rushing to interpret it, that Bowie has essentially made his own death into another piece of theater, another metamorphosis to close out a lifetime of them. Whereas Cohen seemed to be on a modest, talmudic journey throughout his career, Bowie was in a constant state of reinvention, restlessly remaking his image into something new, bold, and transgressive. It’s fitting, then, that he’d go out as another character — this time as “Button Eyes,” a scarecrow-like figure with (you guessed it) buttons for eyes, a haggard man far less spectacular than the likes of Ziggy Stardust or The Thin White Duke.

divider

Both the difficulty and the genius of Bowie’s legacy is that the man is indistinguishable from the characters of his own creation; our perception of him is fractured by his many iterations (of which, we should remember, even “David Bowie” is one). The shapeshifting he’d been doing all his life—through musical genres, fashion trends, and gender roles—couldn’t find a more fitting end than Blackstar.

Bowie’s parting record and Cohen’s are both swan songs, and both were released shortly before the men passed away. Aside from that, and a general thematic bleakness, however, there are few similarities. The two records, in some ways, represent opposing ways of going—to quote Dylan Thomas for the millionth time—“into that good night.” Cohen’s confrontation with death is reluctant but calm, whereas Bowie’s is much like the saxophones scattered through the record: cryptic, uncertain, and unresolved. Bowie’s ah-ah-ah of the opening track is pained and almost sinister. “Lazarus” ends with the deranged irony of “Oh I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird.” In “Girl Loves Me” he asks “Where the fuck did Monday go?” In “Dollar Days,” he wails, “I’m trying to / I’m dying to” and “It’s nothing to me / It’s nothing to see.” The simplest explanation of Cohen’s calmness and Bowie’s agitation is that Cohen was an old man warming up to the idea of death while Bowie had death thrust upon him. Regardless, Cohen’s nihilistic nursery rhymes are intimate, while Bowie’s cosmic offering is incredibly evasive.

That evasion, in many ways, makes Blackstar a better album than You Want It Darker. Comparing music is a fickle business, but Blackstar is so boldly divergent from Bowie’s previous work, and so intricately designed to coincide with his death, that each track feels packed with signification: the motif of eyes and blindness, the references to Thelemic rituals, the prophesying of his own death. As he sings in “Blackstar,”

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place and bravely cried
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar

Knowing that he wouldn’t be around to answer questions, Bowie built a work that he could disappear into, a thing that could take his place, a way to eternally elude interpretation. The deep ambiguity of Bowie’s final effort echoes with the refrain of his closing song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” A wink at fans eagerly trying to decode his lyrics and album artwork, it’s also a coming to terms with the limits of his public persona and the end of his private one. We are left not knowing if he is reveling the ability to keep things secret or lamenting that he must cease to create. Do we smile or cry for Bowie? Both! Neither! Surely the dilemma would have delighted him.

Bowie, after all, was well-aware of his penchant for performance (and the dark places it could lead to), saying in an interview with The Telegraph that

when you’re using yourself as the image it’s never quite as simple as that. Because aspects of your own life get mixed into the image that you’re trying to project as a character, so it becomes a hybrid of reality and fantasy. And that is an extraordinary situation. Then the awareness that that’s not the real you, and you’re uncomfortable having to pretend that it is, makes you withdraw. And I withdrew, obviously through the use of drugs, as well, which didn’t help at all.

Blackstar seems to be an attempt to blur reality and fantasy in a way that offers itself to others rather than withdrawing from them, a final reckoning between the Bowie who lived and all the Bowies who strutted across stage and screen. Bowie was aware of the existence of his own mythology, and apparently happy to fuel it. Death can be a stale and static thing, and legacies of celebrities are quickly morphed by the purposes of the living. Blackstar, then, is an attempt to transcend all that, to make death yet another thing to groove to, to cry to, to wonder at. It’s the final flourish of a master showman as he leaves the stage.

There is, however, a lingering sadness to Bowie’s genius: if Blackstar is a eulogy, it’s less for himself than it is for the Bowie we all created, the amorphous Brit who lives in headlines and concert photos and liner notes. The death of Bowie is the death of an icon, which means we’re less bereaved by the death of a man than disappointed by the sudden absence of our shared fascination. We’ll never know if he wanted it that way, or how ready he really was to finally leave the planet, but it’s hard to imagine a more fascinating valediction than Blackstar.

For all their differences, Cohen and Bowie both gave us final records that we didn’t deserve, closing statements consistent with their careers: the troubadour whispering into the night and the Starman leaving us another riddle before blasting off for good. And while we still grieve their absence, it should allay some of the sadness to know that they hardly could have left on a better note. Bowie did not go gentle into that good night, and his legacy—and his estate—will likely benefit more from his last stroke of genius. But if Cohen’s final cut of earnest self-reflection tells us anything, it’s that sometimes gentle is the best way to go.