So long Marianne; it’s time that we began, to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.
Tonight we think of Leonard Cohen.
I still have the songbook I purchased in the music store in West Point Grey where I took my first guitar lessons all those years ago: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. With a picture of Cohen’s Greek visa - if that’s what it was - on the back cover. I wanted to learn how to play Suzanne, because everyone else could. (It sounded so simple, though it wasn't.) Instead, I learned Bird on a Wire and So Long, Marianne. But really hardly ever played them. There was something impenetrably, ineffably unreachable in his unique juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. And I could never shake this feeling that they weren’t really songs; they were more like poetry barely set to music. He was, I think, simply too adult for my 14 or 15 year old self. It was far easier to set sail on the more approachable, or at least tuneful seas - flying machines and broken heartships - of Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor and Neil Young.
Oddly enough, I returned to Leonard Cohen a few years later through a side door: Jennifer Warnes’ completely perfect record, Famous Blue Raincoat. That punching drumbeat in First We Take Manhattan cracks across your mind like some kind of weapon. Her duet with the man himself on Joan of Arc is a wild tour into the unknowable, unresolvable mystery of mysteries. Song of Bernadette, which I played so often the grooves wore out on the vinyl and still today can bring me close to tears: ‘so many hearts I find, broke like yours and mine, torn by what we’ve done and can’t undo’ - well, isn’t that life in a dozen words? And anyway, I was just old enough by then to be entranced by the idea of a Jewish poet from Montreal who couldn’t leave all these Christian icons alone. Jennifer Warnes helped me see the music that completed the poetry.
And then again, a long interruption, until the album The Future, and its Closing Time, which I played and played and played again, not just because it really is hell to pay when the fiddler stops, but by then I guess I was maybe old enough to start thinking about closing time. But young enough still to think that the answer was simply to party on, and hope the fiddler would never stop.
If you will forgive me a moment of excess, I think I can say that the first twenty thousand times I heard Hallelujah - including as k d laing sang it at the 2010 Olympics opening ceremony (we were there for rehearsal night) it meant something to me, but eventually all good things - even really, really good songs, wear out their welcome. Not Cohen’s fault, I know, but there it is. It’s a curious song. I’ve always thought it’s a lot like Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA: there’s something superficially compelling about it that allows you to disregard the true darkness that lies within it. Sometimes I hear people sing it and I say to myself, are you actually listening to what he’s saying?
Pico Iyer’s writings about Leonard Cohen’s life with Buddhists brought the man into focus in ways that could only cause you to rethink your own way of living, or at least it did that for me, and I give them both credit for doing that.
Leonard Cohen is a special treasure to Canadians, of course. A Montrealer who made it big in the larger world and never completely let go of his roots. Someone whose muse also never quite let go, and drove him to create, to mystify and enlighten and even entertain us into his 80’s; well, that’s a powerful inspiration in his own right. He’s thought of as an icon of the 60’s, one of the greats of a long ago era who managed to reinvent himself into relevance again and again for six decades. I think his work will last. Context always matters; the time and place in which creation happens is always at least relevant. But the art that truly endures can stand outside its time and place. That is a right reserved to very few creators. Leonard Cohen is surely one of them, an immortal. Few people prepare so publicly for their own demise, but I always thought that he was preparing us for his departure as much as he was preparing himself. He’s gone now, but the words and the songs will live on.