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Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld: 10 life lessons I learned from Leonard Cohen

[additional-authors]
January 10, 2017
The author with Leonard Cohen. Photo courtesy of Aaron Kemp

On December 10th, I was privileged to be able to attend Leonard Cohen’s official Los Angeles Memorial Service and afterwards share my favorite Leonard stories with his family and friends.

With the weight of his passing on my mind, I’d like to share 10 important Life Lessons that I learned from observing Leonard and his career…

1. IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO START

Leonard Cohen got a relatively late start as a musician. Already a published novelist and poet, he entered a musical world dominated by twenty-something wunderkinds like Bob Dylan and the Beatles in 1967 when he was almost 34 years old. That’s right, he was nearly 10 YEARS older than many of the leading, established rock stars of the era who had already become legends by the time Leonard was just starting out.

2. YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE AN ARROGANT A**H*** TO BE A BRILLIANT ROCK STAR AND ARTIST

Unlike many of his contemporaries, who hid behind shades and ‘cooler than thou’ affected attitudes, Leonard was always Leonard. He never changed his name.  He never changed personas. He never sneered out from behind raybans at the establishment, the press or the average man on the street. He never acted like he was cooler than everyone else in the room. By example, he taught the world that it was okay for a rock star and intellectual to be a humble, decent guy to virtually everyone and never, ever got caught up in his own hype or mythology.

3. NOT ALL GREAT SONGS COME IN AN INSTANT BURST OF DIVINE INSPIRATION

Rock and roll is full of mythological stories of classic songs being written in mere minutes, as if the artist had been chosen by the gods and struck by a divine bolt of creative lightning.

Leonard freely admitted to the enormous toiling and struggle that went into many of his greatest works. It took him 5 YEARS to write “Hallelujah” (arguably the world’s most covered song) and trim its 80 verses to 5. It took him 10 YEARS to write “Anthem”, a song whose insights on spirituality have been quoted by virtually every faith on the planet.

4. NOT ALL GREAT SONGS COME AT THE BEGINNING OF YOUR CAREER

Most rock stars record their most popular work near the beginning of their career when they are in the prime of their youth. Leonard did not release the classic song “Hallelujah” until he was 50 years old (an age when most rock stars are already considered “washed up” with their best work long behind them.) Hallelujuah, after being featured in the movie “Shrek”, has arguably gone on to become the most covered song in the entire world.  Like a musical swiss army knife with metaphysical transformative power, it applies equally well to virtually all of life’s momentous occasions. It has, is, and will be featured, now and forever, in an endless parade of weddings, births, funerals, religious services, TV shows, movies and even sporting events (not to mention the countless drunken renditions you’re likely to encounter in karaoke bars.) The version that started it all is Jeff Buckley’s classic cover, which created the groundswell that caused the Hallelujah phenomenon.

5. HUMILITY IS THE TRUE MARK OF GREATNESS

In his quest for truth and peace, Leonard Cohen joined a Zen Monastery in Los Angeles to enhance his spiritual focus. Even though he was already a legendary rock star and song writer, he regularly cooked and cleaned for others in the monastery as part of his spiritual practice. What other rock stars would do that? (unless it was as a stunt for their own reality show.)

6. OUR FLAWS & IMPERFECTIONS ARE NOT DEFECTS, THEY ARE A TOOL GIVEN TO US BY THE CREATOR

The song “Anthem” has a line that has resonated with millions across the globe and has become part of our spiritual lexicon.  It’s so often quoted, that many people probably don’t even realize it’s from a song:

“Forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”.

In two sentences, Leonard Cohen has defined the essence of man’s struggle to have a relationship with God and to make sense of the frailty of the human condition.

7. CHRONOLOGICAL AGE ISN’T REAL:  DEFY YOUR AGE LIKE YOU WOULD DEFY A DICTATOR

I saw Leonard perform a four-hour concert at age 75. He sang, chanted and performed some of the most physical musicality I’ve ever witnessed on a stage. He came up with a line during the concert that really put things in perspective:

“I’m 75 years old now and I haven’t toured in 15 years. Back then, I was just a crazy 60 YEAR OLD KID with a dream….”  That line reframed the entire reality of aging for me and has never left my thoughts.

8. LOSING YOUR VOICE AS A ROCK STAR ISN’T THE END, IT’S SIMPLY A NEW BEGINNING

Leonard didn’t actually “lose” his voice, however as he aged his voice became raspy and much, much lower. Unable or perhaps just unwilling to sing his songs in their original register, he changed his style from conventional singing to a “poetic chanting”.  Not only did this change not hurt him with audiences, he went on to enjoy the highest grossing tours of his entire career.

9. IT’S POSSIBLE TO MAKE INFINITE TRANSITIONS IN YOUR LIFE

Leonard started out as a Jewish novelist/poet, became a rock star and had tremendous financial and critical successes.  He was later ripped off by managers and endured career ending failures.  He turned his back on the business to work on himself and became a zen buddhist monk. He then returned to music and Judaism in his mid 70s, and after “losing his voice” went on to enjoy the greatest artistic and commercial successes of his career.

10. LIFE ISN’T ABOUT MAKING IT: IT’S A JOURNEY ABOUT LOSING IT AND FINDING IT OVER AND OVER AGAIN THROUGHOUT THE VOYAGE.

No other modern musician has so poetically wandered the landscape of failure, loss, struggle and spirituality and narrated it with such beauty and poignance. Leonard taught us that it wasn’t about what happened to you in your life, but how you rode the rising and falling crests of fate and who you became along the journey.

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