A book of Leonard Cohen’s famous last words

by Diana Wichtel / 06 February, 2019
Leonard Cohen. Photo/Getty Images

Leonard Cohen. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Leonard Cohen the flame book

In The Flame, Leonard Cohen reminds us of the humour beneath his melancholy.

“Google despair and melancholy,” Leonard Cohen once joked, “and my name comes up.”

He could also look on the bright side. In a New Yorker interview not long before his death in 2016, he spoke of his “predicament” – age, illness – offering a certain freedom from distraction. “You have a chance to put your house in order.”

 He was working on poems that would end up in The Flame, a collection of poetry, lyrics from his last four albums, prose and “scraps”. The book is not so much a house in order as a work in progress, a box of mementos, a bag of tricks to sort through.

It’s also a reminder that his music, in his later years a gravelly road to transcendence for even his least-religious admirers, brought him fame, but it was as a writer that he started and stopped.

“It was what he was staying alive to do, his sole breathing purpose at the end,” writes his son, Adam Cohen, in the foreword. He recalls a father always scribbling. Once, Cohen Jr was looking for tequila. “I was directed to the freezer, where I found a frosty, misplaced notebook.”

Pen-and-ink drawings, mostly unsparing self-portraits from over the years, reveal that Leonard Cohen was never really a young man. A chance to linger over his words reveals he wasn’t really that melancholy. The lyrics of Almost Like the Blues, published as a poem in the New Yorker in 2014, show his eye for the absurdity of his situation as a singer with something to say: “There’s torture and there’s killing/ And there’s all my bad reviews/ The war, the children missing/ Lord, it’s almost like the blues.”

The Flame, a title chosen by his son, sounds a little reverential. The voice captured in this terrific last volume is always on guard against that. One particularly flayed-looking portrait is captioned with this summation of Canadian humour and, possibly, the human condition: “This is no joke that’s what makes it funny.”

THE FLAME, by Leonard Cohen, (Allen & Unwin, $45)

This article was first published in the January 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Mapping the second brain: The latest science on the effect of your gut bacteria
104884 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Health

Mapping the second brain: The latest science on th…

by Donna Chisholm

Most of us have heard the five-plus-a-day message for fruit and vegetables. But new research into gut health suggests that advice may need tweaking.

Read more
How a mother and daughter changed their diet to manage irritable bowel syndrome
104896 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Nutrition

How a mother and daughter changed their diet to ma…

by Donna Chisholm

A mother and daughter with irritable bowel syndrome say that diet was the missing ingredient in controlling the condition.

Read more
Lack of humility is Simon Bridges' fatal flaw
104881 2019-04-23 00:00:00Z Politics

Lack of humility is Simon Bridges' fatal flaw

by Graham Adams

After low polling and even louder caucus rumblings, you’d expect to see at least a flicker of fear in the eyes of someone threatened with an axe.

Read more
Sri Lankan government's social media ban wrong move after terror attacks
104949 2019-04-23 00:00:00Z World

Sri Lankan government's social media ban wrong mov…

by Meera Selva

Sri Lanka has temporarily banned social media and messaging apps in the wake of the coordinated Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels.

Read more
Why do some dramas require the female protagonists to be total idiots?
104764 2019-04-23 00:00:00Z Television

Why do some dramas require the female protagonists…

by Diana Wichtel

Diana Wichtel reviews SoHo 2’s Cheat and Lightbox’s BBC thriller Trust Me.

Read more
Why the typical NZ household is undergoing a revolution
104877 2019-04-23 00:00:00Z Property

Why the typical NZ household is undergoing a revol…

by Shamubeel Eaqub

We’re living in different places, having fewer kids, living longer and getting older, perhaps lonelier, and the idea of a family has become more fluid

Read more
Detour off E Street: Steven Van Zandt’s solo excursion to NZ
104828 2019-04-22 00:00:00Z Profiles

Detour off E Street: Steven Van Zandt’s solo excur…

by Russell Baillie

The Springsteen sideman and ‘Sopranos’ star is reviving his own music career.

Read more
Rethinking the Kiwi dream: How New Zealanders live now
104848 2019-04-22 00:00:00Z Property

Rethinking the Kiwi dream: How New Zealanders live…

by Sharon Stephenson

Would you live with your ex? New Zealanders increasingly live alone or find creative ways to house themselves.

Read more