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Leonard Cohen Was Our Heart Of Darkness

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Leave it to Leonard Cohen, popular music's prophet of dark poetics, to flee his mortal coil at the bleakest moment possible.

In a world where hate now stalks the highest corridors of power and roams high school hallways and social media side streets we are left here alone to mourn the loss of our man, the fedora-adorned intoner of pop parables that warned us this would happen:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

As a cultural presence that combined the sacred and profane, romance and cynicism, humanity and hopelessness for over five decades of towering songs, we all have our own Leonard Cohen entry point.

For older fans from my parent's generation it was maybe his muse odes like "Suzanne" and "So Long, Mariane" or perhaps poetic folk-pop tunes like "Bird on a Wire" and "Famous Blue Raincoat."

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For younger ones, it is most likely "Hallelujah," an once-forgotten obscurity from 1984 that somehow emerged from an album his record label rejected as unsellable to become one of pop's most covered.

It began with a mid-90s version by Jeff Buckley which gained resonance after his tragic death. From there it grew exponentially, fuelled ironically by the least Leonard Cohen-like avenue imaginable, "American Idol," though k.d. Lang at least rescued it during the Vancouver Olympics.

My parents had always played Cohen on the record player and my dad would tell stories of hanging out at the same Montreal coffee house as the older Cohen in the early 1960s before the local poet became an unlikely pop star at age 33 later in the decade.

Me, I have strong memories of their "I'm Your Man" cassette released two decades later, particularly "First We Take Manhattan," a spectral Cold War-era song about late-80s extremism and terrorism only slightly leavened by the Europop synths and backup vocals.

But it was the 1990 cult classic "Pump Up The Volume" that made Cohen mean everything to teenage me. The film featured Christian Slater as a young, cynical pirate radio DJ who started every broadcast with "Everybody Knows."

It is a song, also from "I'm Your Man," that pulses with pessimism of coming plagues and lying captains, perfectly capturing the shadow that threatens to engulf every era.

"Like David Bowie earlier in the year, Cohen knew his time was coming to an end."

The movie also features another song, though, the lesser known but just as heart-rending "If It Be Your Will," a song of contemplative resignation and romantic dedication played before the character, feeling responsible for a teen's suicide, goes from quitting ("stick a fork in me, I'm done") to railing against ennui and authority, sparking a teenage riot.

I performed the monologue in drama class, beginning by playing the entire Cohen song while I smoked a cigarette under a red light in the classroom. (What? It was the '90s.) It was a moment of fear, humanity and catharsis soundtracked by someone who trafficked in all of the above and I still think of it, more than 20 years later, whenever I hear any Cohen song.

He has that effect.

Like fellow Canadian Neil Young, Cohen became a patron saint of the alt-90s. There was the tribute album "I'm Your Fan" and placement of "Closing Time" and, especially, 1992's "The Future" in the film "Natural Born Killers," with his baritone painting a post-Soviet dystopian picture: "I've seen the future, brother. It is murder."

I'm surely not the only '90s kid who lugged around "Stranger Music," Cohen's 1993 collection of poetry and lyrics or who tried (and failed) to understand what his three million-selling novel "Beautiful Losers" was about.

He disappeared for years, literally going up a mountain in 1994 to the Mount Baldy Zen Centre where he became a Buddhist monk only to descend a half-decade later and discover that millions of his funds were pilfered by manager gone rogue.

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But that, too, proved to be a boon as it forced him back out into the world, nearly penniless he found redemption on the road, performing concerts that lasted upwards of three hours for about two years straight, including establishing his post-millennial hipster cred with a legendary Coachella headline slot.

But he hadn't returned from retirement to play us oldies. At age 77 in 2012, he released "Old Ideas" and topped the charts and year-end lists. Two years later he released "Popular Problems" and achieved a similar effect.

This year he did it again with "You Want It Darker," an album title that could not sum up 2016 any better. Like David Bowie earlier in the year, Cohen knew his time was coming to an end.

"The big change is the proximity to death," the 82-year-old told the New Yorker in an issue published just last month. "I am a tidy kind of guy. I like to tie up the strings if I can. If I can't, also, that's OK. But my natural thrust is to finish things that I've begun."

And so he made a final album because he always said it best in his lyrics.

The title track sums up his thoughts on his impending death (hineni means "Here I am" in the spiritual sense of speaking and dedicating yourself to God) as well as our impending doom as a vile orange billionaire straight out of one his darker songs slouched toward the White House.

They're lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn't know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I'm ready, my lord

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game
If you are the healer, I'm broken and lame
If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
Hineni, hineni
I'm ready, my lord

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Leave it to Leonard Cohen, popular music's prophet of dark poetics, to flee his mortal coil at the bleakest moment possible.