'I feel love never dies…' Leonard Cohen's letter to his muse on her death bed
Darragh McManus on Leonard Cohen's 'So Long Marianne' letter to his former lover and muse on her death bed
Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30
Considering he's also a poet and novelist of renown, it's unsurprising that Leonard Cohen's music is a little more profound than the norm. He's always explored the big themes - love and death and art, what it means to be human - one reason why the Canadian continues to inspire almost messianic devotion in his followers, well into his 81st year.
Cohen's lyrics are the subject of academic treatises and diverse interpretations. His concerts are as much religious experience as music gig, as witnessed on frequent visits here, including legendary shows at Dublin's IMMA and Lissadell House in Co Sligo.
This week it was revealed that Cohen had managed that most difficult of acts - to talk about death with, in the words of one columnist, "clarity, simplicity and beauty" - in a letter to Marianne Ihlen, his one-time muse and sweetheart.
The Norwegian, also 81, died of cancer on July 29. Her friend alerted Cohen to Marianne's impending death; he quickly sent a letter which read: "Well Marianne it's come to this time… our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon.
"I've always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don't need to say anything more because you know all that… Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road."
Marianne, the friend said, was "so happy that he had written something for her". She passed away two days later.
The letter, disclosed on Canadian radio, immediately went viral. People were deeply moved by the pair's courage and Cohen's honesty, a determination to face the inevitable endgame for all life.
And there was a sort of surprised delight in the fact that, yes, this was an octogenarian expressing romantic love and passion, as well as fond farewells. Elderly people are often dismissed as sexless and desiccated, almost post-human; Cohen's words showed the fires can still burn, close to 50 years after a relationship ends. (He once wrote, "Poetry is the evidence of your life. If your life is burning well, poetry is the ash.")
So who was Marianne Ihlen? And what was the story of their love affair, which inspired Cohen to write two all-time classics in 'So Long, Marianne' and 'Bird on a Wire'? (She once dryly remarked, "I hope I gave him a line or two.")
Marianne was born in Norway in 1935, reared by her grandmother for a time. Aged 22, having fought with her parents over attending drama school, she ran away to the Greek island of Hydra to live the bohemian lifestyle with her boyfriend, Norwegian author Axel Jensen.
Theirs was a complicated - for Marianne, tortured - relationship. Jensen was frequently unfaithful, and as his career took off, often left her alone in a ramshackle house, up the mountainside, on an island more-or-less lost in time - it only had electricity for one hour in the morning and one at night. Marianne later stated: "That story Axel (told) all the time, that Leonard Cohen took his wife - that wasn't how it was. All these other women entered our life…it was damned tough."
In 1958 she returned to Oslo; Jensen followed and persuaded Marianne to marry him. Two years later, she gave birth to their child, affectionately known as Little Axel.
Soon afterwards, Jensen left her again. But as fortune would decree, another man was waiting. Cohen, too, had moved to Greece in pursuit of freedom, artistic inspiration…maybe a muse. They met in a shop; he asked her to join his group outside.
Marianne recounted: "When my eyes met his eyes I felt it throughout my body… You know what that is? Utterly incredible."
He told her she was "the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen" - which she didn't believe - but there was more to it than sexual or aesthetic attraction. Marianne said that Cohen, from the start, had "enormous compassion for me and my child" (Axel was then four months old).
Their love bloomed gradually. Cohen and Marianne would have lunch at his house; he'd read poetry for her while the child slept. Eventually he moved home to Montreal, sending her a message: "Have house, all I need is my woman and her son. Love Leonard."
They settled into a life of domestic bliss and creative fecundity, dividing their time between Canada and Greece. Cohen wrote several songs for her, including 'So Long, Marianne' (from 1967's self-titled debut album) and 'Bird on a Wire' (from 1969's Songs from a Room).
A beautiful, intimate shot of Marianne featured on the latter's back cover. Cohen also dedicated his 1964 poetry collection Flowers for Hitler to her. He later wrote: "She gave me many songs, and she has given songs to others too. She is a Muse."
And, refuting Cyril Connolly's infamous adage that "the pram in the hall is the enemy of art", the presence of Little Axel proved no barrier to Cohen's work.
"I was terrified that Axel was going to disturb him, because he had to write," Marianne later said. "But what happened was Axel would lie on the floor drawing, and didn't say a word. He was a nightmare with me, but Leonard would open the door into his studio and say, 'Axel, I need your help'. And it would be silent in there for two hours. Axel drew and Leonard wrote."
She described those years together as "really good. It was absolutely fabulous."
By the late sixties, they had drifted apart - but it was a kind and organic end to things, with no rancour or regrets. Indeed, in a 2005 interview, Marianne said: "For the past 40 years I still dream about Leonard. Irrespective of whether he is with someone else or what the scene is around it, it's always a positive dream."
Cohen, meanwhile, said in 1992: "When I hear her voice on the telephone, I know something is completely intact even though our lives have separated. I feel that love never dies and when there is an emotion strong enough to gather a song around it, that something about that emotion is indestructible."
Now this sweet and inspirational love story has had a fitting conclusion. As you would expect, really, from a genius man of letters and the remarkable woman he loved.
Concert: Leonard Cohen at Lissadell
Laughing Lenny: how the world came to love the bard of the bedsit
In 1987, Jennifer Warnes recorded an album of Leonard Cohen songs, Famous Blue Raincoat. Nicknamed 'Jenny sings Lenny', it was well-received by critics… but didn't exactly break sales records, reaching No 72 in the US charts.
Cohen was quite a cult figure back then, after two decades as a musician and another as a poet and novelist. These days, while not exactly a commercial rival to Taylor Swift, he and his work are much better known. The smallish but fervent army of devotees remain loyal, and their ranks have been swelled by new fans.
One reason is 'Hallelujah'. This transcendentally lovely and moving song - Q magazine named it one of the 10 greatest tracks ever - has been covered by everyone from John Cale to kd lang, Bob Dylan to Susan Boyle.
Jeff Buckley recorded probably the definitive version in 1994. X Factor winner Alexandra Burke released the song at Christmas 2008, prompting a grassroots campaign to have Buckley's version beat her to the top. 'Hallelujah' was also heard on-screen in Shrek, Scrubs, Watchmen and elsewhere.
Cohen has had other music used in TV and cinema. As far back as 1971, gonzo avant-gardist Rainer Werner Fassbinder used several Cohen songs, including 'So Long, Marianne', on his film Beware of a Holy Whore. More recently Cohen's work has featured in Pump Up the Volume, Natural Born Killers, Wonder Boys, The Life of David Gale and Exotica. He's written a song for Season 3 of Cillian Murphy's Peaky Blinders, and 'Nevermind' was the theme tune to Season 2 of True Detective.
Born in Quebec in 1934, Cohen graduated with an arts degree in 1955 and began writing poetry and fiction. Let Us Compare Mythologies was published when he was 22; a further four poetry collections followed in the next decade.
And he's still producing in the form: Fifteen Poems was released in 2012. Two novels appeared in the sixties: The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losers (controversial for its sexual explicitness).But his fortune, in both senses of the word, lay in musical rather than literary creativity. In 1967, disappointed at the lack of financial success as a writer, Cohen moved to the US to become a singer-songwriter. His first album came out that year; there have been another dozen, right up to 2014's Popular Problems. The previous record, Old Ideas, was the best-selling of his career.
Off-stage, he's a bundle of contradictions. The devout Jew who's a Buddhist monk; the serious and sometimes gloomy artist who's famous as a ladies' man; the father-of-two and partner of many who never married; the poet-philosopher whose stage shows are playful and witty; the "Renaissance man who straddles elusive artistic borderlines".
When Kurt Cobain sang, on 'Pennyroyal Tea', about "a Leonard Cohen afterworld… so I can sigh eternally", he was presumably being at least slightly tongue-in-cheek. Cohen's oeuvre once had stereotypical associations with depressed people in depressing bedsits, but there's a lot more to the man and his music than gloom and doom. And nowadays, a lot more people are aware of that.