The Sweetness of Death


It is becoming, this year, a sad retrospective: listening to the music of artists who have passed, those with whom one grew up, being influenced by their music – an influence that lasts forever as playing the albums at the time generates the memories of those significant teenage experiences, then feeling it again when older in that phenomenon of aural recall – and for so many of the singer-songwriters at that first moment in the late 60s and early 70s, also reading and absorbing the poetry of their lyrics.

Leonard Cohen’s passing yesterday makes him my current revisiting, and I listened to two compilations which contained old and newer songs, but it is today’s playing of his vinyl album The Songs of Leonard Cohen that has meant more because this, from 1966, is the music that most contains and transmits those memories.

And the album covers themselves printed the lyrics, on the back with the liner notes or on the inside sleeves, this an important part of the physical acquisition [I know lyrics are printed on cd cover inserts. I know]. It is fascinating to read on this album’s liner notes by David Sherman a quote attributed to Cohen: At times I can taste the sweetness of death. We know there is much reference to violence in Cohen’s poetry, and darkness in his lyrics, not least on his most recent [very recent] release You Want It Darker,

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker

but how wonderful to know that his quote presented in 1966 still had 50 years to mean whatever it meant.


It would be hopelessly naïve to think there will be less listening like this as 2016 is only an obvious timeframe, and certainly hasn’t been the beginning: so many of the artists who had the influences I am writing about were already adults as I was becoming a teenage listener and reader – Cohen himself in his 30s when he turned to music – and thus this ironic coming of age will continue. I don’t want to engage in some macabre prediction of selecting and listening to the future if relatively imminent losses, but I must start more celebrating now rather than recovering the past when it has passed.

As contrived as that last sentence sounds, I’m sure, I know this is linked to the other loss of friends too, and thus these realities cannot be separated. To anchor what I mean by this, I will close on the following poem by William Stafford:


How far friends are! They forget you,
most days. They have to, I know; but still,
it’s lonely just being far and a friend.
I put my hand out – this chair, this table –
so near: touch, that’s how to live.
Call up a friend? All right, but the phone
itself is what loves you, warm on your ear,
on your hand. Or, you lift a pen
to write – it’s not that far person
but this familiar pen that comforts.
Near things: Friend, here’s my hand.

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