Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash Grow Old
After an English teacher decided to “warm up” his class for a test by playing a few tracks from Leonard Cohen’s Cohen Live, one of my brother’s friends, knowing that I was a Cohen fan, let me know that he actually kind of liked the guy. “He sounds kind of like a Jewish Johnny Cash,” he told me.
In thinking about Cohen’s newest album—new is a relative term here; it was released seven months ago—this comparison comes to mind. I’m not talking about their gravelly, cigarette-scarred voices but the respective late-life turns in their music. Cash, after three successful American albums with Rick Rubin in the previous ten years, recorded the vocal tracks for three albums in the last eighteen months of his life. These are very much deathbed albums, all pondering the end of life, the Apocalypse, the Judgment, and, perhaps, an afterlife. As I wrote about American IV some years ago, but which could apply fairly well to all three albums:
“It’s not an album about death, but death as an element of love and life. Somehow, it’s optimistic — due in no small part to the closing harmonies of “We’ll Meet Again,” the whole family singing together.”
Cohen isn’t on his deathbed and has aged, by all accounts, with more good fortune and physical grace than Cash did. He has also recorded less—but a decade between albums has been the story of his career. Still, after 2001’s Ten New Songs proclaimed him “back on Boogie Street,” 2004’s Dear Heather gave a starker vision of aging: the singer is an old man surrounded by nurses, not lovers; he can only watch youthful women from the other side of the street; opening with an arrangement of Byron’s “Go No More A-Roving,” it shifts, quickly, into Cohen reciting poems by or dedicated to recently deceased friends and teachers.
The title of Old Ideas doesn’t just refer, as Liel Liebowitz has claimed, to the fact that Cohen’s ideas have consistently felt radically old when compared to those of rock-and-roll and his always younger contemporaries (“To see Cohen play was to gawk at an aging Jew telling you that life was hard and laced with sorrow”). In a simpler way, they’re simply the ideas of an old man. The bed-ridden, almost self-pitying old man of Dear Heather has hoisted himself up and gone out to open-mic night at the world’s goofiest blues bar—because he might be frail and his friends might be dying, but he’s still alive, so why the hell not?
Where Cash sees the End Times and God’s bosom (or wrath), Cohen just seems to smirk at himself. The ideas on this album aren’t, of course, the same ideas from his earliest or mid-career: he can’t take himself so seriously any more. His late-life realizations are anything but world-historical: the world will continue after him, just like it will continue after you and me. And that’s the joke, isn’t it? The one that’s been on him and his listeners the whole time? The album’s one love song, “Crazy to Love You,” is wistful; elsewhere he delights in the mundane—“a broken banjo bobbing on the dark infested sea”—and writing less than profound lyrics about the mundane.
It’s a charming but merely decent album; there’s plenty of better music out there. But maybe looking only for greatness in late-life works is to miss what’s new in their contribution. Substitute “books” for “music” and this is precisely what I would say of Philip Roth’s works of the last ten years. It’s what Martin Amis saw in the last works of John Updike and Saul Bellow:
[T]he writer in decline is a contribution of medical science—it didn’t used to come up, because they’re all dead. Dickens at 58, Shakespeare at 52, Jane Austen at 41. Didn’t used to come up. But now you have 80-year-old novelists. And it’s self-evident that the grasp and the gift erodes—you can see it in various ways. In Updike it was the ear that went. Those reliably melodious sentences just dried up—schoolboy inadvertencies crept into his later prose that just wouldn’t have been there earlier on. I don’t see many exceptions to that rule.
You loved Bellow’s last book, no?
And I respected Mailer’s last book, too. But no one would seriously compare either of those novels to Humboldt’s Gift or Harlot’s Ghost. I thought Ravelstein was a beautiful last gesture. But it had that mutedness. That incredible unstoppable energy had gone. That’s something new to worry about.
But I don’t think we should be so quick to simply lament the late-life decline of prominent writers—Bellow and now Roth took up aging and decline as their subjects at precisely this moment. The ability to contrast the young author’s view of decline with his view of it a half-century later, to examine the variety of responses among aging novelists.
That we live longer than ever means that there are more aging writers with declining powers, but it also means that the talent pool among aging writers has never been so deep. We have, perhaps, stumbled into a broader, more lasting examination of the end of human life by those nearing their own.
The same goes for musicians and songwriters. While the Rolling Stones sing half century-old songs and Bruce Springsteen keeps pushing the same themes—and all wear jeans tighter than they should—Cohen and Cash let their gaze shift with age. That’s why Cohen’s new songs remain interesting despite a weaker pen—and why Cash’s late-life albums managed to capture something at least as great as what came before.