I first heard the music of Leonard Cohen when I was 15. I had one of those “The Essential…” CDs I ordered from the last gasp of Columbia house, which was a delicious source of “free” CDs for me back then. Being a teenage girl is like being insane. Everything that I was felt tenuous, everything so close to the surface and ready to burst into a cacophony of exquisite pain or ecstatic joy. I didn’t understand what was happening to me – only that my world was an endless source of disappointment, but dusted with mystery and boundless possibility.
I used to listen to music on my bedroom floor with the reverence of the sacred. Stretched out on the scratchy grey carpet and divining meaning from every breath, a shitty little boom box my alter. I used it to record my own songs on tape, anxiously rewinding and playing back only to record again, nothing ever perfect enough.
I’d had that Cohen CD for awhile, and I didn’t know him yet. I picked a song at random, Sisters of Mercy, and sat, cross-legged, in front of my boom box. I don’t remember what else happened that day, or what time of year it was. I remember only that Cohen’s voice floated towards me like a warm, brown suede coat, still damp with drizzle, and worn by the man I’d been waiting for all my life. It was the most beautiful song I had ever heard, and, in all my teenaged sadness and longing, wept.
My favourite album of his has always been Songs of Love & Hate. I listened to Joan of Arc hundreds of times – like her plight had anything to do with mine, like I believed in anything. Avalanche, Last Year’s Man, & Dress Rehearsal Rag seemed to articulate everything I never had the poetic instinct to say with any clarity. Whereas my maudlin writing seemed overwrought and ridiculous, Cohen had the rarely seen ability to write dark, emotionally laden songs that sounded true. Inviting us all into the dark hole of depression from which those songs were born.
I learned Famous Blue Raincoat on guitar, pleased by the easy chords, the tune fitting my singing voice. Taken, then as now, with Cohen’s virtuosic turns of phrase. ….and Jane came by with a lock of your hair, she said that you gave it to her still gives me chills.
When I found out that Leonard Cohen had died, I was a little shocked by my reaction. I had not cried upon the death of a famous person since Princess Diana in 1997. But then I was 9 years old and my mother was crying so it made more sense. It was an innocuous mention on my forum, it didn’t explicitly state he had died, so I googled him. The news made me feel reckless and tragic. I put on one of his records and turned the stereo volume up to maximum. Damn the neighbours, a great man is gone. I drank a glass of red wine in one go and stood in the shower for half an hour, transported back in time to my teenaged self. Every song laden even deeper inside me.
One of my favourite Canadian films is Take This Waltz. Which has I think, the most perfect use of a Cohen song in a film. The title track plays over a montage of the newly formed couple, deeply in lust, fucking and painting, and rearranging furniture in a mad, bohemian frenzy until the song ends and they are stuck sitting in front of the television, watching the news, as if they have forgotten who they are. Their love making and wild imaginings a dream they have woken up from, and forgotten.
Oh, I want you, I want you, I want you
On a chair with a dead magazine
In the cave at the tip of the lilly
In some hallway where love’s never been
On a bed where the moon has been sweating
In a cry filled with footsteps and sand
Polly saw her film within this song about a person in lust, begging to go on with this woman but knowing that their love is dying even as it is beginning. Decay evident moment to moment, just waiting to be acknowledged.
Cohen’s music always feels like a warm embrace. Even when he’s talking about suicide, wasted love or beautiful things that can never be. It’s his surety, the way he can make the most prosaic sadness into a poetic marvel. In every word, he is inviting you to join him, to stand next to him, and feel something
Leonard Cohen’s last recorded performance in 2013
So Long, Leonard.