He understood the darkness: on Leonard Cohen and depression


Author: Rama. Distributed under Creative Commons. Please follow hyperlink for more details

Depression is a very common illness yet very few people can convey what it is like. We just lost one of them.

Going to bed no longer frightens me. These days, I basically take that for granted. But when it first came about – after two years of not being true – it was the sweetest relief. The issue was not that I was afraid of the dark, nor was it that I was in physical pain. My tormentors were my own thoughts. During my waking hours they could sometimes be chased away with distractions. But when it came time to rest, I could no longer dodge their attacks. I just had to lie there and endure a beating from my own brain.

The thing about having depression is that it’s really hard to convey to anyone who’s not experienced the condition what it’s like. The underlying mechanics of the condition are poorly understood and the chains of causality that connects them to its symptoms are remote. Hence science does little to help. And relating depression to the things we all go through tends just to add to confusion. Not because it’s different but because it’s so similar. We all get sad and tired, so it seems almost silly to suggest that being sad and tired can destroy your life.

When my attempts to explain my illness would fall flat, I’d often wish I could just get out my phone, open up Spotify and play them some Leonard Cohen. If you’ve heard any of his songs, that won’t necessarily come as surprise. He could dramatise misery like a master, hence his songs are exactly the kind of thing that in ordinary language we call ‘depressing’. But it’s more than that. He wasn’t just writing sad songs. He was writing about a specific kind of sadness I recognised.

In a very deep interview with David Remnick, published in last month’s New Yorker, Cohen explains that:

I’ve dealt with depression ever since my adolescence…Moving into some periods, which were debilitating, when I found it hard to get off the couch, to periods when I was fully operative but the background noise of anguish still prevailed.

This comes through in his work. Sometimes his sadness is anchored to specific cause like a breakup or bereavement but more often it is free-floating and amorphous. And it blends, amplifies and is amplified by other emotions like desolation, jealousy and regret.

And it wasn’t just a general sense. While Cohen’s lyrics are notoriously cryptic, they contain very specific images that communicate the reality of depression with staggering clarity. An early song begins with the line:

Well I stepped into an avalanche,
it covered up my soul;

It is common for people with depression to talk about feeling like they are being ‘buried’. It captures a sense of being trapped and suffocated. But it could be mistaken for a calming process. The ground is quiet. It is where we lay bodies to rest. The image of an avalanche adds a sense of violence. You are simultaneously being interred and tossed about with such force that your lungs may explode.

[Note: Yes, avalanches causing lungs to explode is a(n alarmingly) real thing.]

However, the song that I really identified with was the Darkness from his 2012 album Old Ideas. That date is significant for my personal story because it meant its release coincided with my own period of depression.

In the first stanza we get a look at what Cohen had been dealing with during the composition of the album:

I caught the darkness
It was drinking from your cup
I caught the darkness
Drinking from your cup
I said is this contagious?
You said just drink it up

I take this to be addressed to his former manager, Kelley Lynch, who stole millions of dollars from Cohen embroiling him in a long and ultimately unsuccessful legal battle to recover it. She would eventually go to jail for harassing Cohen and his family.

Thereafter things move from being autobiographical to universal.

I got no future
I know my days are few
The present’s not that pleasant
Just a lot of things to do
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got that too

What I recognised in this is a sense of how remorselessly corrosive depression can be. Like the xenomorph from Alien’s acidic blood it wrecks everything it touches – memories, loves, achievements – and when it’s gone through one it hits the next one and starts doing it all over again. Thus it can rapidly hollow out you and your life.

I used to love the rainbow
And I used to love the view
Another early morning, I’d pretend that it was you
But I caught the darkness baby
And I got it worse than you

The darkness alienates you from your work, your passions and the people around you. That in turn pulls you further into the darkness and allows it to do further damage. Things that once brought you joy – like ‘rainbows’ and ‘views’ – come to seem like they don’t matter. You would previously have turned to them to restore your happiness but they no longer have that effect. Hence you wind up,  stuck there, in the darkness.

Lest this all seems a bit, well, depressing, let me add a coda. In his profile of Cohen, Remnick concludes that he did eventually escape his depression. The mammoth tour he was forced to embark on in order to rebuild his finances after Lynch’s theft seems to have become a moment of valediction. And while mortality seems to have been the theme of both Cohen’s interview with Remnick and his most recent album both point to an admirable acceptance:

For some odd reason,” he went on, “I have all my marbles, so far. I have many resources, some cultivated on a personal level, but circumstantial, too: my daughter and her children live downstairs, and my son lives two blocks down the street. So I am extremely blessed. I have an assistant who is devoted and skillful. I have a friend like Bob and another friend or two who make my life very rich. So in a certain sense I’ve never had it better. . . . At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.

And he leaves behind an incredible body of work. If you have not heard his songs before, I cannot recommend them highly enough. I am aware that I may have made them sound foreboding, and yes they are phenomenally dark and weird and unsettling, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but they are also staggeringly beautiful and sprinkled with mischievous humour. Above all they are unique and powerful. Cohen has influenced myriad songwriters yet there was still only cryptic prophet quite like Leonard Cohen. Rest in Peace.


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A few weeks ago, I made a case for Cohen winning the Nobel Prize instead of Dylan.

I’ve previously grappled with the difficulty of expressing what it is like to have depression in a post on comics that try to do just that.