“You don't have to identify with every position they take… It's not necessary to identify. It's the energy, it's the resonance of truth, of person, of real experience. When we are exposed to someone's real experience, it resonates and it invigorates.”
'It's not necessary to identify'. These words are taken from a September 2014 interview with Leonard Cohen, accosted by Speakeasy magazine backstage following a listening party for his 13th studio album, entitled ‘Popular Problems’. Cohen gave this response after being asked whether he “followed” Kanye. Perhaps in his mind, ambivalent questions require ambivalent answers. Either way, it is now nearly two years since Cohen’s death, and popular problems seem to have taken over the world.
The two artists have recently occupied the same headlines, after Cohen’s poem ‘Kanye West is not Picasso’ was included in The Flame, a posthumous collection of poetry and lyrics. The immediate reaction, given Kanye’s controversial endorsement of Donald Trump and general outspokenness, was one of glee. Described as a “diss track” on social media, Cohen’s poem is bizarre and repetitive, featuring lines like “I am the Kanye West of Kanye West/The Kanye West” among references to Jay-Z, Tesla and Bob Dylan. The poem ends in a more typically Cohenesque way, quoting Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and referring darkly to a war we haven’t “had yet”. Unsurprisingly, the poem is pretty clearly more than a simple diss track. Yes, it seems to mock Ye’s arrogant on-stage antics, and yes, it comes from the pen of a legendary rock-poet, but these are some of the last words of an old man whose time was running out. These are the words of a man who had an uncanny eye for the darkness and beauty of all aspects of life, who was suffering from leukaemia, who had spent decades trying nearly every available spiritual or religious practice in order to find his own peace. The poem makes far more sense as a sort of wry, performative rage against the dying of the light, than it does as the tremulous anger of an out-of-touch old man.
We could very easily find parallels between West and Cohen: two men troubled by mental illness, whose well-documented relationships with women and with faith have often, if not overshadowed, informed our perception of their work, two men who use “arrogance as a steam to power their dreams”, in the words of West. Both artists are indescribably talented, yet never seem to be satisfied with their work – the list could go on.
Perhaps I am being delusional, giving the benefit of the doubt to Cohen as so many find themselves struggling to do with West. Yet to me, the clue is in the poem itself. The phrase “bullshit culture” is an odd one, bitter almost to the point of petulant, not at all the sort of wise, self-knowing transcendence we expect from Cohen. But between those who have been at the epicentre of the bullshit whirlwind, it probably makes perfect sense. Cohen recognises the transience of culture, moving as it does “from one boutique to another”, and is tipping his hat to West, who is if nothing else adept at staying relevant, staying informed, staying in the headlines.
Cohen described Dylan’s being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 as “like pinning a medal on Everest”, and he is on record admitting that “his work was beyond measure and my work was pretty good.” In this light, the line “I am the Dylan of anything” seems to be a parodic one, mocking the critics who seek to define through vague comparison, to grab two artists and pit them against each other.