An artist is never really gone.I have been listening to Leonard Cohen’s posthumous Thanks for the Dance.Haunting in the way of Bowie’s Blackstar, there’s a poignancy to listening hard to the dead.Especially when they saw it coming.Artists are never really gone, and we can forgive them because they’re oh so very human.Cohen was an exceptional poet and this album captures a man who knows the end is near.Still he sings of girls and sins and God.There’s an eternal soul there, and Cohen captures longing better than just about anyone.The artist knows longing and understands not knowing for what.The album struggles with religion and depression, a remarkably common combination.Memories of glories that linger even as the body ages.
Listening to someone else’s music is taking a stroll through her or his head.Someone once gave me a disc of songs built around a theme.Although the theme came through I feared a little of what I heard here.Some who know me primarily from my overly pious upbringing would be shocked to find Cohen on my favorites list.For me he has no pretense.Instead of ignoring religion, sexuality, or politics, he tried to make sense of them through song.For me—and listening to music is a very personal thing—I think I understand when I’m drawn into his lyrics.His experience of life was vastly different from what mine has been, yet he’d accurately mapped the direction my mind might wander, if given free rein.Religion will hold your imagination captive, if left to its own devices.
Those who reduce Leonard Cohen to his over-used “Hallelujah” catch only glimpses of this complex man.I once read an article about Bruce Springsteen in which a friend of his said that if he hadn’t succeeded in music he might’ve become a priest.There’s an authenticity to these artists who write probing songs that have deep spirituality yet allow themselves to be human.Cohen’s songs revealed he could see death with some ambivalence from afar.Even in albums recorded thirty years ago the hints were there.Instead of running and attempting to hide, Cohen’s lyrics, at least, indicated that he’d continue to try to live.Maybe these are just the reflections of a middle-aged man who’s only glimpsed a fleeting connection between an artist in perpetual motion and a one-time scholar sitting up alone at 3:00 a.m., seemingly stuck in one place.Whatever else they may be, such quiet moments will ones be haunted by Thanks for the Dance.
I don’t know much about the music industry, but I do know that as in publishing, labels make a difference. Who doesn’t conjure up a certain sound when they see Motown? Companies jealously sign artists to their label, with a close eye on the bottom line. Labels. Branding. Marking our territory. People like to give things labels to make them easier to understand. By now it’s no longer news that David Bowie has died. The tributes are coming thick and fast, and one recurring theme seems to be that nobody really knew how to label him. Bowie was an original, a creator. Like many truly creative people, he was seldom at the top of the charts, but his fan-base grew over decades and those who listened to him knew that he defied labels. Labels are for convenience, and life is, well, not convenient.
There’s been speculation about his final album, Blackstar, released an iconic two days before his death. The song “Lazarus” has flagged the attention of many, but here we are after the third day and he hasn’t come back. I think of my childhood and tween years in the 1970s, seeing Bowie’s album covers in my brother’s room and wondering if he was a man or woman. His transgressions frightened the young conservative that I was, accepting the label given to me by those who thought they knew me. I heard his songs coming through the open door. I couldn’t understand them, but somehow they remained with me until I was mature enough to learn to listen. Some sounds are too subtle to hear, except with experience. Here was a man telling the world “don’t label me.” And yet label we did.
“Lazarus” is a haunting song. I may be no music critic, but here is a piece by a man who knows he’s dying. The video shows him emerging from a tomb-like wardrobe (in itself significant) and simultaneously lying on his deathbed. He’s in Heaven, but in danger. Still, he knows he’s free. Like the biblical Lazarus from the Gospel of John, resurrection is only temporary. Lazarus has come back, but he must die again. As the frantic Bowie scribbles his final words on the final page, he backs up once again into the tomb from which he emerged. David Bowie may not have been a Bible scholar, but his song is prophetic. The three days have now gone past. He may not have come back, but it just may be that he never really left.