Dear Leonard

Dear Leonard,

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

JB

17th November 2016

Some wandering thoughts on Lou Reed

As we hurtle towards the end of the year with no way of applying the brakes, life again shows its cruel hand by taking another artistic great.  I’m still taking in the grim news of Lou Reed’s passing at the end of October, but able to reflect on the legacy of the man and the mighty body of incredible recorded work he has left us.  Through albums ranging from The Velvet Underground & Nico to Transformer and onto later career classic, New York, he explored every facet of the urban human experience – melodies that stay with you and lyrics with humour, pathos and the darkest literary noir.

The many sides of Lou Reed - cover of the 1989 LP 'New York'

The many sides of Lou Reed – cover of the 1989 LP ‘New York’

I was lucky enough to catch him live twice at Glastonbury in the early nineties, once solo and once with the reformed Velvets.  This later reformation was criticised by many but I enjoyed their take on the classic line up.  I remember at the solo gig almost missing the start of his set as I wandered slowly from the tent area.  Luckily, being young and vaguely fit in those days, I was able to break into a sprint upon hearing the opening chords of Sweet Jane strike up from the Pyramid main stage.  The set was a mix of classics and cuts from New York and Magic and Loss and I bought a bootleg from the nearby stall which in those days (1992) was knocking out CASSETTES within the hour for fans to take away and relive their Glastonbury experience upon returning home.

Lou live at Glastonbury 1992 - Bootleg cassette cover

Lou live at Glastonbury 1992 – Bootleg cassette cover

A couple of years earlier in my final year at University in London somehow I was allowed to write about indie music, the Mad-chester scene and youth culture for my dissertation.  In the second chapter I wrote enthusiastically, if rather badly, about the ongoing influence and importance of The Velvet Underground in the development of the UK indie music scene of the eighties, reflected in the music, style and attitudes of bands such as The Jesus & Mary Chain, Echo & The Bunnymen and The House of Love.  On the strength of this hastily thrown together tome I was offered the chance to give a lecture the following year but ran away scared.  At that time I was using my degree to full advantage as a courier and pretended my van had broken down in Brighton the night before and was thus stranded there.  What a coward.  How different would my life be now if I’d taken the brave step to share my knowledge and appreciation of Lou et al.  Maybe I could have blossomed into the role of a Uni lecturer with my beard and cardigan elbow patches earning a legitimate position in the workplace. Somewhere in a parallel universe I’m leaning on my finger steeple discussing Lou’s Berlin song cycle with over keen wide eyed under grads.

Enthusiasm trumps quality. Anyone recognise the silhouette?

Lou Reed helped paint a picture of New York for me along with the likes of Woody Allen and Paul Simon.  The picture these very different artists painted still holds a huge cultural hold over me and I can’t help but lap up the tales of their city.

Lou made music to lose yourself in, to challenge you, to laugh with and to be moved by.  We will always need these attributes in our art and our lives and for these reasons his work will live on.

DS, Sheffield, December 2013