I’ve just read in the news that the great Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen has passed away. With Donald Trump newly elected to the White House, I suspect Cohen decided it was time to check out because the world had reached a point where it was even more depressing than one of his songs.
Cohen produced many tunes that were marvellous because of their very sadness. Their melancholia was delicious. No wonder his most recent album, released only last month, was called You Want It Darker – he knew what his audience expected of him.
I’m not a great fan of 1984’s Hallelujah (1984), perhaps his most famous song, which for me has just been covered (and X-Factored) to death. But I love The Stranger Song, Winter Lady and Sisters of Mercy from his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), all of which featured on the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s classic western movie McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971).
© Warner Bros
Indeed, the beginning of McCabe and Mrs Miller where Warren Beatty and his horses plod across a bleak, windswept mountainside to reach the muddy, back-of-beyond frontier town that’s the setting for the film’s action, to the strains of The Stranger Song, is my all-time-favourite opening sequence in a western. Though I have to admit that starting the film with a Leonard Cohen song gives the game away somewhat. The moment Cohen starts singing, you just know there’s going to be an unhappy ending. Warren Beatty is going to die.
Incidentally, the other day, I was watching Taika Waititi’s amusing comedy-drama Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) when, suddenly and unexpectedly, Cohen started playing on the soundtrack. This was during a bleak-looking sequence where Sam Neil and Julian Dennison struggle across some wintry New Zealand mountains. Of course, this was an affectionate nod by Waititi towards McCabe and Mrs Miller, though the song played here wasn’t The Stranger Song. It was The Partisan, a 1969 cover Cohen did of La Complainte du Partisan, written in 1943 by Emmanuel D’Astier de la Vigerie and Anna Marly.
© Defender Films / Piki Films / Curious
Two other Cohen songs I’m fond of that also have a strong cinematic connection are Waiting for a Miracle and The Future, both off the 1992 album The Future. These book-end Oliver Stone’s ferocious 1994 movie about the American media’s adulation of two mass-murderers, Natural Born Killers. The slow, gruffly-intoned and doom-laden Waiting for a Miracle plays at the film’s opening, which sees Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis arrive in a fly-ridden, redneck-infested diner in the New Mexico desert. The song warns you that something horrible is about to happen. And yes, since this is an Oliver Stone movie, something horrible soon does happen.
Played at the close of Natural Born Killers, The Future is a jauntier affair, but it contains the worrying refrain, “I’ve seen the future, brother – it is murder.” Actually, I rather hope that Cohen has arranged for that to be played at his funeral service. Then the joke really will be on us.
© Regency Enterprises / Warner Bros