A Singer Must Die:
Cohen, Keats and Lil Peep
John Keats, the English Romantic, died in 1821. That his now-famous sonnet, ‘When I Have Fears’, was published decades after the fact is of a grotesque class of ironies I’d much sooner forget. In its most bastardised form, it reads:
When I have fears that I may cease to be…
…then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
What’s most rending, I think, about the poem, isn’t so much its palpable fear of death. While it’s true the poet died in his twenties – having succumbed to a not so uncommon, and thus far more tragic bout of tuberculosis – one senses something far greater at stake. For it isn’t so much that John Keats, the English Romantic, died. It’s that he died penniless, alone, and with little claim to fame. It’s that, in spite of the concerns laid bare in the poem – of a “ceas[ing] to be”, of a sinking into “nothingness” – it took critics (and, to a lesser, though no less significant extent, the public) over three decades to see worth in his words. What’s most rending, then, is that viewed within this context, ‘When I Have Fears’ is an ode to a life unfulfilled. A life of love and passion, to be sure, but also one of disease, destitution and disparagement.
Speaking to Leonard Cohen in 1976 – at what is, in retrospect, the height of his artistic career (though, indeed, not his fame) – interviewer Mick Brown posed the question:
“To what extent should [art] have relevance throughout time? Or… [should it] sum up an episode, a moment, and preserve that on the page… forever?”
It’s a question that’s plagued artists for centuries. It’s what Keats romanticises in his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, and, indeed, what he laments in the tragic sonnet ‘When I Have Fears’. It is, moreover, a Romantic notion. One which seeks to promote the preservation of self through art. To elevate and designate it as vehicle through which artists might attain a kind of cultural posterity. A claim to eternity. It’s that which, I imagine, sparked Keats’ obsession with artefacts in the first place, what made him so anxious to print poems, to write letters, to imprint upon the world the sort of mark that could transcend mere existence. Cohen, on the other hand, blinks twice: “I don’t know, forever is a long time…”
This should be of no surprise. Cohen was a poet who, for the greater part of his career, advocated for the death of the ego. Despite its charm, the Romantic appeal to “forever” struck him, it seems, as a bit of a naïve one. It’s important to remember, though, that Cohen lived to the age of 82. In the months leading up to his death, the self-confessed “closet suicide” even joked of his readiness. Decades prior, however, well before the success of ‘Hallelujah’, the singer contemplated death in a far less charming manner. For ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’ (from 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate) is the kind of blood-stained depiction of suicide that – somehow – musters the fortitude to forego pretence, that whacks its veins at the slightest hint of romanticism and resists all temptation to aggrandise. It’s worth noting, then, that had Cohen ended it there, he would’ve died knowing little success. Debt-ridden, depressed, and with little claim to fame. And the song is well aware of this. As with Keats, recognition of his genius might’ve come in spite of— no, as a result of the artist’s death, but I wonder now whether that’s worth considering at all.
Was Keats aware of the impact he’d have? How about Lil Peep?
There must’ve been some indication. It would be inaccurate to claim, of either of these artists, that there had been no recognition whatsoever prior to their respective deaths. (At the time of his writing ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’, Cohen had published two novels and various collections of poems.) Keats hadn’t had the kind of cultural relevance that would follow his death, though did have some in his life who saw the genius of his work. Lil Peep, too, experienced the kind of success that most under the age of 21 couldn’t even begin to fathom.
I suppose, then, that what concerns me most about these cases isn’t so much that these artists (excluding, of course, Cohen) died prior to their success. It’s that, to some extent, their successes – their legacies – relied in large part on their deaths. What’s left of Lil Peep, to the wider public, isn’t so much his music: it’s his music as translated by those who purport knowledge of his intent: it’s an unwitted, ill-conceived collaboration with XXXTENTACION (an artist whom, no matter one’s opinion, Lil Peep had, in private, denounced); it’s a Genius article claiming a song the artist had no part in “unites him with his childhood idols [Fall Out Boy]”; it’s the second side of a double album (again, regardless of one’s opinion) sounding so little like the first. One might argue that both Keats and Lil Peep, in their deaths, achieved what had been intended with their music all along: the sort of relevance that could outlive their short-lived lives. But there’s something gross about this particular articulation of the Romantic ideal, the perverse notion that genius manifests itself upon the (literal) death of the artist.
Music matters. Art matters. But when, in its course, publications choose to sideline – denounce even – artists in life, only to celebrate them in death, there lies exposed a pretence in its wake.