“I’m not yet ready to hang my hat but I sure can see the peg.”
Leonard Cohen, 15th September, 2013.
At 15, I was innocent in almost every aspect of male-female relationships, except rejection, in which I had gained a wealth of experience.
Around this time, I was given a ragged book of poems by Leonard Cohen, and, bored one day, I opened it randomly, to find these perfect lines:
“I heard of a man
who says words so beautifully
that if he only speaks their name
women give themselves to him.
If I am dumb beside your body
while silence blossoms like tumors on our lips.
it is because I hear a man climb the stairs and clear his throat outside the door.”
My love of Leonard Cohen started at the end of those lines, in 1978, before I had heard any of his records. I knew the feelings he described and loved the way he wrote them.
The first Cohen record I heard was his 1967 debut The Songs Of Leonard Cohen.
Like many other people, I was initially entranced by Suzanne, with its slow beat romance, hypnotic vocal delivery, genre-defying musical landscape and memorable imagery:
Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror.
(from Suzanne, 1967)
Some of the pictures on that LP were startling – men with golden arms dispatching cards, highways that were curling like smoke above his shoulder, Sisters Of Mercy with dew on their hems – the whole record was just gorgeously written and it sounded, to me, in 1978, as though it was hundreds of years old.
The Stranger Song, in particular, had a very strong effect on me. I didn’t understand it entirely, but I recognized a certain dislocation, a sense of emotional slavery, of chasing an ideal at the detriment of what is before me.
Both Of Us Cannot Be Wrong made me laugh out loud and I still think it is one of the most brutally humourous comments on male jealousy, desire and ridiculousness ever written. I have been the drunken, anguished plea at the end of that record, many, many times.
I also enjoyed the Religious undertones. I had been brought up by a rabid Atheist and a secretly devout Catholic, so had a very odd relationship with the Divine – and I liked the references in his songs, as they seemed mysteriously linked to sex, which was very appealing.
It was intoxicating stuff.
The whole LP shepherded me into a little pen called ‘Fan’. I have lived there ever since.
I remember watching a VHS tape, sometime in the mid-1980s, that my friend James had compiled – just clips of Leonard Cohen over the years – and being utterly enthralled by this strange old man, so witty and graceful, weeping when disgruntled fans wanted their money back after a disrupted concert or singing drunkenly among friends on his Greek island getaway. He seemed like the kind of human being I longed to be.
On the 15th September 2013, I took my seat in London’s o2 arena with a very nervous stomach and plenty of tissues. I was asked by a friend to meet up, but I simply couldn’t do it. I was absolutely mute.
To me, Leonard Cohen is a holy man, a high priest, a cardinal in my cathedral of music and I would crawl through a hundred sewers to light his cigarette.
When I read that he had been ripped off and was almost broke, I actually re-bought his records to help generate an income. That is how much I like the guy.
That said, there are albums I don’t listen to much – Dear Heather and The Future leave me cold, despite repeated attempts to stoke a fire within, and even the superb I’m Your Man and Various Positions don’t sound good to me now – but I treasure them all the same.
In fact, the last Cohen album I liked the sound of (apart from the brilliant Old Ideas), was 1979’s Recent Songs.
Vocally and lyrically, though, he has never failed to impress, amuse and inspire me. My world has been greatly enriched by Leonard Cohen’s presence, and I have been deeply affected by his witty, respectful, romantic and masculine attitude towards women in his writing.
His portrayal of men and women’s romantic entanglements have been a source of great admiration, laughter and comfort throughout my life and I am extremely grateful for that.
I have never had a relationship with a woman who did not like Leonard Cohen and most have admitted that they would love to be ‘won’ by the kind of ‘courting’ he describes in his songs.
So, when he walked onto the stage, I was unable to think, speak or move. I just stared.
Slowly, I surfaced from my catatonic state and began to hear the music his brilliant band were making and listened to his delivery of old and new songs.
He was as graceful, charming and witty as I had always imagined he might be and I was impressed at how much he seemed to love his songs, relishing some of the lines as if hearing them anew. He also made the ageing process seem appealing – which is a miracle in itself.
It was a beautiful evening and I will treasure it for the rest of my days.
Hallelujah is, for me, the most beautiful song ever written (and John Cale does a magical version). It is merely great on Various Positions, but to see and hear him perform it on stage that night was simply transcendental.
Did I weep? Yes. Did I care? No.
I wept for all that I have lost, for all I have found and for all the hope I see in my 8 year-old daughter’s eyes. I also wept because I was so happy to be hearing this great man singing his songs.
I left feeling uplifted, amused, exhausted and entertained.
Leonard Cohen, in my Tower Of Song, is up there already, at the top, smoking and coughing with Hank.