What We Talk About When We Talk About Leonard Cohen’s Legacy

As if last week—and 2016 in general—weren’t already difficult enough, we lost another beloved musical great, Leonard Cohen. The Canadian-born singer-songwriter, a prolific poet and novelist as well, leaves behind a huge body of work. What will become of it all? It made no difference to Cohen. Two years ago, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Cohen said he didn’t care.

A few months later, in January of 2015, writer Kevin Mandel responded to that interview with an essay on The Millions in which he tried to understand why Cohen’s legacy matters more to him, a fan, than to the artist himself.

In an interview timed to coincide with the release of Mr. Cohen’s 13th studio album, an event in turn coinciding with his 80th birthday, the man says essentially that he cares not at all what becomes of his work after he dies, nor what his legacy will be. The music? The poems? The novels? The life? He could give a damn.

Ouch, a Cohen believer might predictably reply.

They who tend to be a mite sensitive to begin with. And remember also the bad old days, before the present éminence grise phase of the career. When to speak too lovingly about Leonard Cohen was a sure way to get one’s emotional stability called into question. So now might be excused for getting their backs up. Certain that a blasphemy has gone down, in an “et tu, Brute” kind of way.

At least that’s what I feel, but why? What is it about Leonard Cohen that not only commands my interest but can also set off no small burst of emotion? Something else, too: what exactly is my legitimate stake in someone else’s posterity? Even as a fan. Somewhere in my bones I hear my late grandmother putting it this way: if Leonard Cohen doesn’t care what becomes of his work and legacy after he dies — what’s that your business?

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