Leonard Cohen taught me how to appreciate song lyrics as poetry

Leonard Cohen in 1988

Leonard Cohen in 1988 LA Times/Washington Post

There comes a time in the early lives of most music fans when the focus starts to shift. Singing along to anthemic choruses tends to come first, and then you begin studying the meaning of the verses that come before and after them.

Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-songwriter legend who died suddenly last week, played a major role in helping me discover the emotional potency and personal impact of a well-crafted lyric.

As a Midwestern kid raised on classic rock and vacuous ‘80s radio, discovering the moody, introspective world of Cohen was revelatory. His solemn music required patience, thought, and compassion -- traits that weren’t exactly nurtured by hearing “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” blasting all over the FM dial.

Cohen’s music caused me -- an anxious, testosterone-fueled teenager at the time -- to slow down. I immersed myself in the melancholy story he was gracious enough to share, while tuning out all other distractions in order to truly hear his brooding lyrical poetry. Mere words would not have had that effect on me.

But, as we all know, Cohen’s lyrics are not mere words. They are beacons of light that guide us through the darkness of our own personal storms, and help us make sense out of the thorny, convoluted affairs of the heart.

The first Cohen song I recall hearing is “Bird on the Wire,” and what a brilliant place to start. For a young man finding his way through the confusing initial throes of romantic relationships, hearing Leonard brokenly sing, “If I have been untrue / It’s just that I thought a lover had to be some kind of liar too” was both enlightening and unnerving.

These were heady, desolate words of advice from someone who made terrible mistakes and broke his share of hearts. Cohen advised listeners to choose a different path than the one his troubled subject walks in "Bird on a Wire." 

As a novice in the tricky machinations of love, the depth of meaning in those words escaped me until later in life. But I did learn that passion can be painful when it is misused, and love was not something to ever take lightly.

The beauty of discovering an artist with such a vast, prodigious catalog as Leonard Cohen is in unearthing the gems hidden within whatever record you pick up. I quickly submerged myself in his early Songs trilogy -- 1967's Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1969's Songs from a Room, and 1971's Songs of Love and Hate -- drawing both comfort and guidance from his smoky vocals that poignantly illuminated fractured relationships with others as well as himself.

Listening to Leonard Cohen was -- and is -- a solitary experience for me. I didn’t openly talk about my love of his music with friends. His songs certainly never soundtracked parties (what a downer that would have been), or got airplay on radio stations.

His music is best appreciated alone. That isolation helped his lyrics to resonate with me on an intensely personal level -- the raw, vulnerable emotions of his songs served as a shattered, secret guidebook to surviving my teenage years intact.

The impending grunge years of the early ‘90s brazenly tapped into the angst and unfocused frustration of my late teens. In turn, I temporarily left behind the tortured fragility of singer-songwriters in favor of guitar-fueled walls of discord and a more aggressive form of despondency.

But that initial discovery of Cohen -- along with his contemporaries Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Paul Simon -- imbued my love of music with a deep, unwavering connection to the lyrics themselves. I listen to songs in an entirely different way since first hearing Cohen’s music.

There’s no bigger compliment I can pay to Leonard Cohen than that.