Whilst sitting in Manchester Apollo last Thursday night waiting for Paul Simon to take the stage, my wife and I spoke of how lucky we were to be there to witness one of the songwriting greats performing. He did not disappoint, more vital and enthused than we had ever seen him, holding the audience in his thrall with his mighty gift of words and melody. We ended up talking about other great concerts and fondly remembered the time we able to see you perform live at Liverpool Arena in 2009 where you made the cavernous cold venue feel like a cosy intimate jazz club pulling the crowd into your world of wordplay, musical subtlety and wisdom. As we recalled these happy memories little did we know the news that was to break the next morning – you had left us behind to disappear into the place unknown.
After performing the song ‘America’ Paul Simon quietly mentioned that we were all looking harder for America after the news of recent days, alluding to the dire presidential result in the USA; no need to mention the devil by name… Your passing Leonard, as darkness falls, seems to me to mean that beauty will be even less easy to find as the world adjusts to its uncertain future. “It’s coming to America first, the cradle of the best and of the worst” (‘Democracy’ from The Future 1992).
I discovered you rather late in the day, but feel enriched that I did find you. With the obligatory greatest hits bought years ago, I used to lead a sing along version of ‘Suzanne’ at a day centre for adults with learning difficulties… “And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China” (‘Suzanne’ from Songs of Leonard Cohen 1967). I can still see and hear the enthusiasm of the raucously percussive version the Lewisham gathering produced on those afternoons together.
The first LP proper for me came in 2004, with ‘Dear Heather’ followed by the late flourish of ‘Old Ideas’ 2012, ‘Popular Problems’ 2014 and ‘You Want It Darker’ – just released and only just torn from its cellophane as I write – it has been on repeat since opening and it-is-stunning. Older LPs have been bought and dipped into over the intervening years. A collection of LPs that shines a light in the darkness, addressing love and longing, touching both the existential and sensual, with a sly sense of humour never far away… “Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey, I ache in the places where I used to play” (‘Tower of Song’ from I’m Your Man 1988).
I loved the way you decided to embark upon a career in music as a way of paying your bills when poetry and novels had failed to provide a decent enough living, both perilous professions with no guarantees, but the land you inhabited in your world of words described a life full of questions and uncertainty, so maybe you were just taking the only path you could to be true to yourself. I’m thankful that you did find a wider reach through music otherwise I may never have found you. Through your songs, along with those by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, I have learnt to fully appreciate the idea of a particular kind of poetry in music, of words rich with imagery and humanity entwined with melody.
Your life as a wandering minstrel is itself the stuff of novels, taking you from Montreal to the Greek island of Hydra, to Mount Baldy near Los Angeles where you spent time as a Zen Buddhist monk – a life’s quest drilling down to the nub of existence, all poured out in your finely honed lyrics.
Behind the sometimes simplistic beauty of your work I have read that, on occasion, you spent years whittling and refining your words til you deemed them worthy for the world. Such dedication and craft to creating beauty can only be admired. It is mind blowing to think Hallelujah was trimmed down from eighty verses…! “There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy or the broken Hallelujah”, (‘Hallelujah’, from Various Positions 1984).
You suffered from bouts of depression and, seen in that light your work also helps to shed some understanding towards, and some solace for, those who also suffer. I have read that your early years of touring were cripplingly difficult but, despite the forced reintroduction to the live arena in 2008 due to impropriety by a former business manager leaving your short of currency, you were able to find real enjoyment on stage in this late wandering of the globe. It certainly seemed as though you were in your element when we were in the audience in Liverpool, joking with the crowd and almost skipping on and off the stage.
Marianne Ihlen was your former muse from your sun kissed days in Greece and who you immortalised in song on such early classics as ‘So Long, Marianne’. Just recently when you heard that she was gravely ill, you wrote her the most touching letter which itself reads like a poem. In it you seem at peace with your next journey:
“Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road”.
There is no doubt your memory will live on; the songs you have left behind will resound for generations, some maybe forever. Your son Adam, a singer in his own right forges his own path while championing your work and your daughter Lorca has a daughter with the singer Rufus Wainwright. Long may fresh water be drawn from the Cohen well…
Thank you Leonard
Rest in peace
17th November 2016