Dear Mr. Cohen,
Many years ago a friend of mine said that he thought “Famous Blue Raincoat” was a brilliant song, but that he didn’t think it was the kind of song one should listen to all by oneself on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Of course, at the next opportunity I did that very thing. I seem to have come through the experience undamaged.
I can’t be sure, though.
That’s one of the things about art, and music in particular. You can’t always know their longterm effects because, well, they’re longterm. For instance, I didn’t know until a few years ago that the line in “Raincoat” about “going clear” referred to Scientology. I had to quickly rearrange my so-called understanding.
Another thing that your songs have always done is what Annie Dillard once said is the whole point of writing: to give us additional information on what it feels like to be alive.
In your case, rascal that you were, the information tended to be ambiguous. Your record label called you the “master of erotic despair.” But, really, what help is that? None, although I confess I thought it was kind of a nice turn of phrase and that’s why I bring it up here.
In any case, I never particularly heard despair in in your songs. A certain endearing self-mockery, perhaps, but not despair.
I think some people were thrown off by the voice. It was, in round numbers, an octave lower than most male voices of the rock era (make that two octaves on your final album, You Want it Darker) and many listeners, unaccustomed to hearing men sing in that range, found it disconcerting, and possibly misleading. Low must mean despairing. In their defense, you did make even Dylan sound like, I don’t know, Michael Buble.
Now, the voice has gone silent. The news of your passing was strangely unshocking. I mean, you’ve been thoughtfully telegraphing this event for a while now, beginning with that touching letter to Marianne Ihlen a few months ago, and continuing up through the recent New Yorker profile and the new album.
Of course, just for laughs, you also said to somebody that maybe you would have a second wind. And that you were planning on living forever.
I don’t know about the second wind.
But as for the living forever piece: As long as there are listeners who are drawn to songs that gently lift them outside of themselves and deposit them somewhere else a good distance away, even when written and sung by men with deep, affectless voices accompanied on a nylon string guitar, I think you’re good.