Leonard Cohen: He’s our man
Writers, poets, friends and fans reflect on Leonard Cohen’s words, music and work
“Dear Vona Groarke, I’m happy you exist.” July 18, 2000. Signed (in blue ink), ‘Leonard Cohen’.
We were two poets trying to make a go of it in the hinterlands of Dundalk, a town that boasted an impressive Town Hall and a lack of events to fill it. So, we thought we’d put on some, myself and Conor O’Callaghan. We wrote around to several poets: I wrote to Leonard Cohen. If he was ever doing a gig in Ireland, would he maybe do a reading too, just him and his poems in a room in an Irish border town, no razzmatazz? I sent him a book of poems of mine to show I was a poet too, not a promoter, not a wheeler-dealer; just a poet and a fan.
I didn’t say this in the letter, but I’d been listening to him for decades already, since I was thirteen on a midlands farm, beginning to suspect that words were a truer currency than any other certain good. Once I gotten over ABBA and The Brotherhood of Man, there was no song I liked better or found more surprising and comforting than a Leonard Cohen song.
I remember Sr. Imelda catching me writing the lyrics of “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” in my third year religion copybook. We were supposed to be responding to the crucifixion, (in which she took a hearty interest), but I was thinking of Mr. Cohen, who seemed to have another kind of truth up his sleeve. “I heard of a saint who had loved you, / so I studied all night in his school. / He taught that the duty of lovers/ is to tarnish the golden rule.”
It was all in the tone, in that mix of wry and raw. I wrote out whole songs time and again, to try to gauge the slippage of the two. I learned from him. Ever the stylist, he knew about understatement and could burrow into personality with forensic precision and get more purchase from narrative than most novelists or poets.
My favourite? Probably “Joan of Arc” from Songs of Love and Hate, (1971) but in the 1987 re-release as a duet with Jennifer Warnes. She kicks off, he comes in at the second verse, a bare-boned, somewhat gawky voice underpinning the colour and full body of hers. He keeps the song honest, as he always does, and part of how he manages it is to range from the tiniest ironic gesture to universal truth.
“Myself, I long for love and light. But must it come so cruel, must it be so bright?”
That’s a fearsome journey. But he was always one for a new departure (though he never made it as far as Dundalk). No new work from him is a lonely prospect, but I’m very glad his songs exist. I still learn from them.
Vona Groarke is a poet. Her latest work is non-fiction: Four Sides Full (Gallery Press)
Leonard Cohen at Imma
Through a break in the clouds, the moon
was naked and, for the occasion,
the summer night put on its fragrance.
They came to hear this poet sing
songs of love and lamentation.
Three roses for the backing chorus
he picked from the roses at his feet.
He went down on his knees for a hymn to Eros,
an ode to the beauty of his soul-sisters.
That tune of his with the marching beat
and his epic Hallelujahs still echo
in the neighbourhood with the anthem
and the waltz we kept humming when he was gone
back to Boogie Street and his Tower of Song.
Gerard Smyth is Irish Times Poetry Editor. He has published eight collections of poetry including A Song of Elsewhere (Dedalus Press, 2015). A new book of poems, The Yellow River, with images by artist Sean McSweeney, was published by Solstice Arts Centre (Navan) in 2017.
Our father, who art in heaven.
If you grew up as someone who aspired to be a writer or a musician or an artist, Leonard was a code of honour. He was an example of how you should comport yourself in your discipline and devotion to your craft. How to dress. How to speak. A sense of chivalry. His life was an epic poem. He was a master and a teacher and a friend, and he made all of us feel less alone.
Peter Murphy is author of John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River
What can be said about Leonard Cohen? Well, the first thing we can say is that he’s funny. I mean, hilariously funny. All too often, tributes to Leonard are very sombre affairs, and they reinforce this notion that his music is only listened to by lovelorn philosophy students in dingy bedsits. He’s not the “Prince of Doom” or any of the other epithets that have been lazily applied to him over the years by people who haven’t taken the time to listen to him. Take, for example:
“Well my friends are gone and my hair is gray
I ache in the places where I used to play”
“So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll
I’m very sorry, baby, doesn’t look like me at all”
(Tower of Song)
“You told me again you preferred handsome men
But for me you would make an exception”
(Chelsea Hotel No. 2)
"Take the only tree that’s left, stuff it up the hole in your culture”
“I showed my heart to the doctor, he said I’d just have to quit,
Then he wrote himself a prescription, your name was mentioned in it”
(One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong)
Lou Reed read out that last quote when he inducted Leonard into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After reading it, Reed threw his arms in the air and said, “He could have stopped there!” I’m inclined to agree. Although I’m glad he didn’t.
The first Leonard Cohen album I bought was a “Best-Of” album. On the front cover, there was a photograph of Leonard in front of a mirror, looking sharp in a dark fitted suit. Leonard the lothario, the man with the voice like silk being dragged across gravel, and the face like a lost ‘50s movie star. The Casanova figure, with album titles like Death of a Ladies Man, and photographs of him with beautiful young women in varying states of undress. Leonard, apparently, disliked that image and often rubbished it. As a young man listening to his music, though, I believed it. And with lines like, “Giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limousines wait in the street,” you can understand my confusion.
Leonard knew how to capture the sense of a moment in time. For years, I was convinced that he’d written an actual song about two people trapped in a hot room arguing. When I went to look for it, I couldn’t find it. That’s because he never did. He wrote many songs about couples, about couples arguing or falling out of love, and his descriptions brought to life such vivid images for me that I thought he’d actually written those images himself.
Likewise, I’d always imagined that there were numerous album covers with photographs of women in rooms. There aren’t. There’s just one: a black and white photograph of a beautiful blonde woman, sitting at a desk in a room. The woman is Marianne, his muse, and the subject of a number of songs. The album is called Songs from a Room. This is how the crafty bastard gets you.
I remember listening to that “Best-Of” album as a teenager – poring over the lyrics and the liner notes – and wondering how a human being could be so wise about the workings of the heart and the mind. I thought it was a gift of age. I was wrong. It was the gift of the universe – to us – the gift of a gentle soul with the heart of a poet and the mind of a genius. A gift that would never be repeated.
Interestingly, one of his – now – most famous songs, Hallelujah wasn’t included on that “Best-Of” album. (No doubt, because it hadn’t been crucified to death at that point by a succession of unworthy singers.) If there is one song that captures the essence of what Leonard Cohen is about, that is surely it. It is one of the greatest pieces of work on humanity, on human (and spiritual and physical) longing.
“Well there was a time when you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show that to me do ya
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
Maybe there's a God above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
And it's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah”
Of course, Leonard – gentleman that he was – would probably demure and say he was no expert on relationships. Another album – Death of a Ladies Man – features a photograph of Cohen seated between two beautiful women, with him staring nonchalantly at the camera. The album notes credit the shot to “Anonymous Roving Photographer at a Forgotten Polynesian Restaurant.” This nonchalance is what makes you fall in love with Cohen. Because, of course, he’s not nonchalant at all. In his lyrics, he’s yearning and lustful and world-weary. But at the same time, he seems like the kind of guy who might lose a woman as easily as he might lose an umbrella.
I’ll finish with one of my favourite Leonard Cohen quotes, which could easily be read as his epitaph. It’s taken from “Tower of Song”, his rumination on – amongst other things – what it means to be a songwriter (or as he so beautifully puts it, “paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song”):
“I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back
They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you’ll be hearing from me, baby, long after I’m gone
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song”
Derek Flynn runs Writing.ie's SongBook blog
When I was a teenager with ludicrous notions of starting a poetry magazine I wrote to Leonard Cohen asking for some poems. He wrote back, apologising for having nothing new to show to me and wishing me the best. It was an exciting moment – a letter from Leonard slipping through a letterbox in Enniskillen.
What’s more, the letterhead contained his address and phone number – the latter immediately added to the back page of my school diary where it joined the other three numbers that signified the extent of my uneventful life.
And so for years I carried Leonard Cohen’s number in my back pocket and more than once I was tempted, usually on dark nights at discos at the Killyhevlin Hotel, to call the great man for badly needed advice on life and on love – or rather the lack of it. I never made that call but even so – the possibility of it was a comfort and a lifeline.
My last memory of Leonard is of a wise, humble and very funny man literally skipping off the stage. Wherever he is now I hope that he’s still skipping. And part of me is wondering if perhaps he’s still at that number. I would dearly love to ring him up and say a simple thank you. For everything.
John Kelly’s novel From Out of the City is published by Dalkey Archive Press
I don't know if I can find the words to express how his poetry and music makes me feel. As a writer, he absolutely inspires me to keep on pushing until the song is singing all by itself. As a man, his warmth and openness gives me a constant reminder that you can stare into the abyss without losing yourself to it. I'll always love him and the energy he brought into this world.
Conor O'Brien's latest album with Villagers is Where Have You Been All My Life?
“It’s coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin’
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA”
I don’t know how to choose just one lyric, one quote, to sum up or remember Leonard Cohen. Democracy is one of my favourite of his songs, in great part for that line about the kitchen – that clever take on an ordinary domestic situation that means so much more. It’s a song I heard live twice and it left me feeling hopeful – a thing we need right now, when “democracy” has elected a lunatic across the waters.
But there are so many. The obvious one to quote is Anthem – “there is a crack, a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”. It’s a depressive’s mantra, but it doesn’t sum up Cohen for me. He was earnest, yes, but also playful. In both his lyrics and his poetry – and the lines are so blurred between the two – he was wry and just a little bit filthy and I loved it. He wrote passionately about his time being zen at Mount Baldy but kept his sense of humour, never reaching that tiresome point of being so enlightened he needed to lecture everyone else about it.
I saw him twice in concert, both times when he was an “old man” with the gravelly voice that suited him and his work so much more than his youthful attempt at warbling. He was either an impressive actor or just genuinely thrilled to be up on the stage, singing for an audience that loved him, in that way that older artists often are once the pretensions of youth have passed. He skipped on and off the stage. Touring late in life may have been primarily financially motivated but I’d like to believe it brought him even half as much joy as he brought to his audiences.
There are so many songs. Closing Time is mesmerising. Hallelujah is an obvious classic. His work with Sharon Robinson was haunting; his earlier odes to Marianne and Suzanne still resonate. But let me finish with The Tower of Song, because it features this gorgeous line: “I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
The last time I saw him perform, he growled it self-deprecatingly and people laughed. It’s always been his lyrics rather than delivery that were praised. People laughed and he grinned. Delighted. Delighted and knowing he was doing the job right – entertaining and wowing his audience.
But he did have a golden voice. An astonishing voice. A kind, hopeful, clever, amused, lyrical, thought-provoking voice that will be deeply, deeply missed.
Claire Hennessey’s latest book is Like Other Girls
When I was a kid, I was interested in art, and so my mother would bring me, whenever possible, all the way up to Dublin on the train to visit the Irish Museum of Modern Art. In 2009, I managed to somewhat repay her when I got hold of two tickets at short notice for one of Cohen’s comeback gigs in the museum grounds.
To be fair, this was not much of a sacrifice on my behalf; I’d listened to his music as a moody student in the same was as she had 30 years before. Though I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, I was raised on the music of the 1960s and 1970s because it was my mother who played it to me. This morning, I phoned her as soon as I heard the news and we recalled the night of that sublime concert, the clear sky and seagulls gliding up the river in the gathering dark.
“It was known then as music-to-slit-your-wrists-to,” she said, “but if you wanted to be considered in any way interesting or artistically-inclined in college, you read Hermann Hesse and listened to Leonard Cohen.”
Musicians didn’t tour then the way they do now, and 2009 was the first time she had a chance to see him in concert. “As a student, it was the misery that appealed to me, but as an adult, I came to appreciate the humour and beauty in everything he wrote, the grace and humility with which he performed.” I asked her for a lyric, a line or two which have continued to resonate, and she quoted, without hesitation, from the chorus of Anthem: “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
Sara Baume is the author of Spill Simmer Falter Wither
“Here is the basement where young poets
Cuffed each other with sheathed claws,
The attics where we rehearsed our lives
As Songs by Leonard Cohen.”
- Parnell Street
For us tyro poets of the 1970s, you were our man. Your redemptive voice found us on the windswept suburban streets and late night parties. You were the wicked agony uncle. You were like us, full of contradictions: tuneless songster, romantic ladies man, cool Canadian, shy rocker, pop star poet, Jewish Buddhist, gloomy optimist.
You saw the future and it was murder.
The muse stretched out her hand and you took it. You danced on medical marijuana to the end of time, you slipped out through the crack in things to meet the light of the Shekinath.
And now King David has played for you the secret chord which restores the broken vessels.
You don’t know me from the wind
You never will, you never did
I’m the little Jew
Who wrote the Bible
I’ve seen the nations rise and fall
I’ve heard their stories, heard them all
But love’s the only engine of survival.
- The Future
Michael O’Loughlin is a poet and critic
Back in 2001 I lived in Bombay for two years and was friends with Leonard Cohen. He lived across the road from my yoga studio and apartment in Kemps Corner South Bombay. We attended the same spiritual meetings with the his teacher at the time, Ramaesh Balsikar, and hung out in the same Breach Candy Club, an oasis in that crazy beautiful city which overlooked the Arabian Sea.
I have been reading and singing Leonard songs for over 30 years. I loved his music and lyrics before I met him and I loved the man after I knew him. Leonard is a deeply spiritual being and at the same time was a very worldly man. But most of all he was authentic and the most loving and kind person I have ever met a true gentleman.
I remember one time I rang him up on my birthday. This is how the conversation went:
Me: “Leonard, it’s my birthday today and I’m having a few friends around would love you to come over for a drink.”
Leonard: “It’s 7 o’clock I have just had my dinner and I am going to bed.”
Me: “But you’re Leonard Cohen.”
Leonard: “Brian, that’s why I am Leonard Cohen.”
I feel the same love and connection with him even today. He touched so many people with his love and his words and I know if there is life after death his next life will be his best one. Thank you Mr Cohen.
What I love about Leonard Cohen’s lyrics is their use of archaic, biblical language, so different from the slangy demotic of most popular music and indeed of much contemporary literature, often desperate to be your street buddy. Not that there’s anything wrong with demotic but it’s a refreshing surprise to hear something as resonant and eloquent as Dance Me to the End of Love, with its consoling timelessness:
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin.
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in.
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove.
Dance me to the end of love.
No other songwriter would use a phrase like “gathered safely in” or describe a violin as “burning”. Many of Cohen’s phrases are so deeply imprinted on my mind that they come out in everyday speech. When my wife asks, “Would you mind putting the rubbish out?”, I’m likely to sing back, in a deep, sonorous tone, full of wise though sorrowful understanding and acceptance, “If it be your will, love, on this broken hill”.
But Cohen was a great respecter of many kinds of tradition:
I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
Oh a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song.
Leonard was being unduly modest. He deserves the penthouse suite in the Tower of Song.
Michael Foley’s latest book is Isn’t This Fun?: Investigating the Serious Business of Enjoying Ourselves (Simon & Schuster)
Leonard Cohen is the only one of the big 1960s singer-songwriters I’m a fan of. Bob Dylan is too American for me, too straightforwardly political; Cohen’s in-turned gaze, literary allusiveness, poetic abstruseness, black humour and leering dirty-old-man mind is more to my liking. You can’t get away from the prairie and the highway with the likes of Dylan or Neil Young; when you listen to Cohen, you think of candles jammed into empty wine bottles and rain on cobbles.
It’s as much to do with his taste as an arranger as with his lyrics; it’s the way the music complements the other. I have a magic memory of walking one clear dark night, many years ago, through the canyon-like lane between Grosvenor Square and Leinster Road in Rathmines while listening to Sisters of Mercy on my Walkman. As the dulcimer tinkled and accordion swelled under the line “You who must leave everything that you cannot control”, the heavens glittered between the tall gables and Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night came alive above my head. It was one of those rare moments when music and environment matched perfectly to generate a mystical experience. And this for a song about cunnilingus.
I have two favourite Leonard Cohen songs. Jazz Police, from his Casio keyboard era, features another inspired piece of arranging: the female vocals that burst in with the line “Jazz police, I hear you calling”. The melody is eerie, but the timing his hilarious; I love Cohen’s absurdist sense.
My other favourite is Dress Rehearsal Rag, a song that was important to me in my early twenties when I’d just written my lousy first novel and was struggling to write a second. It simultaneously valorises and takes the mick out of bedsit romantics. The line “If you can manage to get your trembling fingers to behave/ why don’t you try unwrapping a stainless steel razorblade?” – the “stainless steel” stretched by Cohen’s nasal voice to ear-stabbing intensity, and underpinned with guitar chords not so much strummed as thumped – used to seem either terrifying or funny depending on my mood.
I still get comfort from that song for its magnificent plainness. Now it’s the line “Santa Claus comes forward/ that’s a razor in his mitt/ and he puts on his dark glasses/ and he shows you where to hit” that I’m drawn to. Thomas Kinsella eat your heart out.
Gavin Corbett’s latest novel is Green Glowing Skull (Fourth Estate). He is the 2016 Arts Council Irish Writer Fellow for Trinity College Dublin.
Like a line from a Leonard Cohen song, lately, it’s one disastrous morning after another. When I heard the news of Leonard’s death, the first two people I thought of were my friend the poet Jacqueline Saphra, and my brother Greg, who is, like Cohen, a poet and a Buddhist. On our MPhil course, it was Jacqueline, with her constant references to Cohen’s greatness as a poet, that reminded me of the spell he had weaved over Greg and me in the 1960s. I knew how sad Jacqueline would be this morning. This was her response: “Since I was a child, I’ve felt as if Leonard the poet has been walking beside me. Even during the times I didn’t like him, he was there. He didn’t care about that. He gave me my first lessons in metaphor and prosody. He was a giant amongst poets. He was my hero.”
I remember listening with Greg to Suzanne, in 1967, both of us lying on the sitting-room floor. We played it over and over and over again; my poor dad despairing in his failure to raise real men. This is Greg’s poem on this morning’s sad news:
Song for Leonard Cohen
You touched me with your singing
In my heart your voice stays ringing like a bell
Your voice it had a history in trying to solve the mystery
It rang out loud from a deep and broken well
What was hidden in your voice, the liquid and the spice
All the beautiful imperfect flawed ghosts
That you were trying to sell
There is a stream that flows with sorrow and it brings you to tomorrow
To a new and darker gospel of farewell
Though your journey today is finished and your light it seems diminished
Every word of yours we can now retell
Though you clothed yourself in suffering
And sang the fragile heart that feels like giving in
Every note you sang is buried where it fell
Though you were living in a darkened room
That you said you’re leaving soon
You were always searching for another cheap hotel
All the desperate and the lost the dear departed know the cost
Of what is written in the book is just farewell
The sacred sorrow of your voice in which we have rejoiced
Brought blessings love and grace
In the deepest darkness of the night your words they were a light
Crumpled inside an old suit-case
We have been stripped down to the bone
By your words and haunting tone
You showed how the darkness deep inside could make the lyrics glide
And comfort all the broken souls who felt alone.
Leonard Cohen, not Bob Dylan, was nearer my idea of someone who should win the Noble Prize for Literature. He was a poet first and a great one at that. In some old videos of him reading poetry and cracking jokes, he looks a little like a taller version of Dustin Hoffman with Woody Allen’s sense of humour. But when he combined his poetry with music he reached everyone.
In these scary times, we should be grateful that we had such a wonderful human being to lift us above ourselves and help us strive to be more. As Cohen said about his longtime friend and teacher, Mount Baldy’s roshi, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, who died at the age of 107, His love was liberating love – that’s the kind of friend we should be to each other.
Ron Carey’s latest collection of poetry is Distance (Lagan Press)
Shhh. He said he’d live for ever – and he will.
I’ve never been alive without the Field Commander. It feels like being orphaned again.
He elevated his art, a man born – as he’d smile – with the gift of a golden voice.
Lovers must know what to do to mark this moment.
Peter Fallon’s collection of poems, Strong, My Love, appeared in 2014. He has recently completed Deeds and Their Days (after Hesiod)
Suddenly the night has grown colder.
The god of love preparing to depart.
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
They slip between the sentries of the heart.
- Alexandra Leaving
I’m not sure what’s happening here but I do have my own little scenario playing out, and I think that’s the ingenious thing about his writing: he gives you choices of your own. The Story Of Isaac is another early song of his that had a huge impact on me with its ingenious chord sequences and its allegorical message. In fact this song, coupled with the biblical story of Isaac, directly inspired me to write my play Amphibians, which has the same sacrificial theme running through it. Thankfully, I did get to see him a few times in the latter years and, without sounding too sanctimonious, it did feel like a gentle pilgrimage to a holy shrine. So yes, count me in: anyone that lasts so long and writes so well deserves a little adoration, and so – on the day that’s in it – I bow my head to him.
Billy Roche is a playwright and actor
Dear Leonard, perfect timing as always.
Evelyn Conlon is a novelist
I lit a green, green candle, to make you jealous of me. “See,” said my mum to my eight-year-old self, as we sat in my parents’ upstairs sitting-room listening to a strange-voiced man sing about candles and Eskimos and golden storms and tea all the way from China, “that’s a metaphor”.
Last night, I heard Anne Enright speak about poetry. The good stuff brings you to that other place, she said, in a way fiction just can’t. I knew what she meant but I can’t really explain it. Because the point of that other place is that it’s between words. It might be this: listening to my mum sing along to Suzanne in the 1970s, watching actor Liam Heffernan strut his way through I’m Your Man at a dream workshop. Hearing – really hearing – Who by Fire in 1995, the week after my grandmother died. Or it might be this: the unknowable place where Leonard finally catches up with Marianne and takes the hand he described as “reaching back” for him after her death, earlier this year. “I’ve decided I’m going to be immortal,” he said during the same interview. Straight-faced, but for a hint of a sly grin. What a way to say goodbye. Fuck it, that gifted, wry soul will be missed.
Mia Gallagher’s latest novel is Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (New Island, 2016). She is guest editor of the Stinging Fly’s special Fear & Fantasy issue, out now
The Troubador’s Departure
When the long, pale riders come down from the hills,
down from the edge of the forest on their tall horses,
coming easy and slow with all the time in the world,
relaxed and looking about them as they always do,
a cold wind will come on ahead of them,
bending the heavy grasses up through the valley.
This is what happens the day they come for a singer,
always a wind when they come for one of their own.
The old people say, the singers are always at home
the day the riders come steadily up through the valley,
relaxed and looking about them as they always do,
the fair huntress, the three dark brothers.
When they come for a singer, they’re coming to bring him home,
that’s what they say, the old people who know.
Leonard has lately been singing us songs of the road,
this is what happens before they come down from the hills.
The women will bare their breasts down in the harvest,
the men will come in from the hunt, solemn and silent,
the children too will be silent, gathering to the singer,
and the oldest woman among us will sing the farewell.
The tall huntress will lead up the strong black horse,
the saddle crested with silver - stars and a moon.
This is what happens, the day they come for a singer,
they lead up a riderless horse to bring him away.
Gracias, Senora, gracias for the loan of Leonard,
let him speak kindly of us when he goes home.
Gracias, Senora, gracias for the gift of Leonard,
let him speak kindly of this place when he comes home.
Theo Dorgan’s latest book is Nine Bright Shiners, published by Dedalus Press
(I’m) Your Man
Banished to earth-bound Nazareth
dormitory, in the Convent
of Mercy, Dolores and I never
entered the heights of Regina Caeli
separate attic bedrooms with
golden wood sloping ceilings
for the good Leaving Certs.
Down among the second years -
under the eye of Sister Mary Lelia,
who woke us early as she ran
to her prayers before Mass,
Say your morning offerings girls -
I was stirred
by my cream and brown cassette
Leonard’s Greatest Hits from 1975
Bird on a Wire and Marianne.
My cloven feet tripped around the
narrow cubicle, watching out for
Sister Mary Lelia’s sudden
appearances and announcements
about her own Padre Pio
whose picture she kissed daily
so that he was always ready
to grant her prayers.
At nine pm the dormitory
filled with noises, taps opening
teeth brushing, rustling, undressing
and deodorant spraying
with the odd heavy thump
from sisters sharing bunks.
I stealthily turned
up the red plastic volume button
on my white cassette player,
when Sister Mary Lelia slid
the cubicle door open
silently startling me with
her supernatural powers -
her brown eyes bulged
like a Yorkshire Terrier
as she asked if I had someone
with me because she was sure
that she had just heard
Martina Evans’s latest collection The Windows of Graceland, is published by Carcanet
In 1967, I spent much of my time sitting on the floor of a third-story room in Herne Hill, south London, inhaling with intent and digging groovy sounds. Money had a habit of running out in mid-week, and one Wednesday night when all I or my house-mates had were the dregs of a Watney’s Party Four, we heard this voice coming from one of the flats next door.
The street we were on was not all that busy, and the voice seemed to hang in the space between the houses, a voice as dark as a bat, neither musical nor without music, neither singing nor without song, a lot slower than the West Coast stuff our speakers usually blaring from our speakers, and on first hearing, a bit batty. But what the hell, back then the unheard of was always worth hearing, and whoever was hovering in the dusk that evening was definitely doing his own thing, and you couldn’t say fairer than that, for everything alien was human to us. So, naturally and logically, one Friday not long after we had a whip-around and The Songs of Leonard Cohen came into our lives, and very soon after that, though in fact it wasn’t, Songs from a Room. Neither ever went away.
These are real time-and-place albums, vibe not only personified by preserved by that mesmeric timbre. As with every other original performer of the day, that was what came first for me: a sound, a mode of address, a register that bridged a gap. Only later did the poetry, and the intelligence, percolate through, often through cover versions: Fairport Convention’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ (Sandy Denny’s, really), Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’, John Cale and Susanna Vega, ‘So Long, Marianne’. With that last song in mind, it’s been a week in which, it seems, ‘the angels forgot to pray for us’. And it’s a reminder that in Leonard Cohen at least we had a performer who gave us something of value and to whom we could tip our hat with pleasure and respect.
Leonard Cohen shaped the way I listen to the words in music.
I remember being bathed in the kitchen sink on the eve of my 5th birthday, my mother teaching me
the lyrics of Bird On The Wire, lifting the needle over and over to replace it back near a lyric I couldn't quite grasp: "Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free". This became my favorite line. The song was a prayer, simple and honest, and something in that naked truth transcended everything.
Fast forward eight years and I am listening to "Famous Blue Raincoat" in the living room, a thirteen-year-old with a guitar somehow figuring out the basic chords and playing along over and over trying to find the finger-style and never quite getting it. "New York is cold / But I like where I'm living". When I first visited New York 10 years later I looked for Clinton St. It was summer, but I still felt the chill of that November night of the song.
When touring "Various Positions" in 1985, Leonard came to Dublin. He played two shows at the National Stadium, both on the same day, of which for my cousin and I had tickets for the 5pm matinee show. We were both very excited, getting on the queue as early as possible. By the time Leonard and the band entered the stage we were soaring with the feeling and during "Famous Blue Raincoat" my older cousin, who had been hit by a car the year before and developed severe epilepsy, had a seizure. It caused some disturbance in the crowd and we could hear Leonard's voice from the stage, asking "is that boy ok?". As we were being led to the exit by John's Ambulance a kind man with a tour pass told us that if my cousin was declared "ok" at the hospital, we were welcome to return as guests to the evening show. This was the most exciting news by far and we literally ran down to the hospital where my cousin quickly swallowed the pill given by a nurse, and we ran back to join the queue once more.
Leonard's set was incredible: the generosity of his storytelling, the amazing musicians. Songs we well knew had different arrangements and we were all taken on ride through them that we will never forget.
The highlight of the night for me was a story about Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. She was looking for Kris Kristofferson and Leonard who was sharing the elevator with her had said "My dear, I am Kris Kristofferson" after which they were brief lovers. Of course he then played Chelsea Hotel No. 2.
By the time the show ended we'd been transported, we loved him more than ever. As we got up to leave the man with the tour pass came to us and asked us to wait just a few minutes more. Just as the stadium had emptied and we were fretting after the last bus home, Leonard appeared from the sidelines and came to say a brief hello. We couldn't believe this! He shook my cousins hand and asked him how he felt, then turned and shook mine. I'll never forget that soft firm hand, his humanity. I knew in that moment clearer than any other that this was the road I wanted to follow, to write songs to sing them in rooms around the world and to always recall and pass on that generosity however and wherever I could. We missed the bus and floated all the way home singing his songs.
Thank you, Leonard, for so many nights alone in my head with your songs and lovers, your Joan of arcs, your thin green candles, Nancy long ago, your stories of the street, your immaculate poetry... and most of all your lessons of humanity. Thank you for making the loneliness sexy somehow.
As long as I’ve been conscious that music exists, Leonard Cohen has been there. My mother would play his first two albums to us when we were children. Those were the first records I brought down from the attic as an early teen. Before we got together, my wife Christiana used a poem of mine named after his album Death of a Ladies’ Man as the epigraph to her book of the same name. I’ve sang his songs to our infant son literally since the day he was born. Every love, every loss, every discovery, disaster and joy has been soundtracked by Cohen in the spaces in between.
There’s no writer, artist or musician who’s meant more to me than Leonard Cohen. You’ll hear others extol his virtues better than I can: his literary qualities, his charm, his wicked sense of humour despite his misplaced reputation for being depressing (“the grocer of despair” he called himself), his humility and generosity, which seem rare in his business or any other.
There are two reasons though why I love his work. One is atmosphere. Part of the poetry of his songs is not just the exquisite language but his sound; the minimalism of it. Almost everyone else was reaching for musical fireworks but Cohen instead kept, in his early work, an austere approach that became incredibly evocative. Sometimes just a voice, an acoustic guitar, occasionally a jew’s harp or a fiddle in the background. It affords the listener space to dream. And the simplicity of that, combined with his lyrics, led me to place him not necessarily in the ‘60s counterculture or amidst the ‘70s folk musicians he’s always compared to but outside of his time and ours. It filled my head full of images of his beloved poet Lorca in Republican Spain, the French Resistance, the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, the bohemia of his days on the island of Hydra. It’s the kind of mysterious imagery that sends you off wandering.
The other reason I love Leonard Cohen is his experience. He’s been there. All the love affairs and heartaches, the long dark nights of the soul and long dark nights of debauchery, you go through, he was already there and he articulated the chaos you have in your head and made sense, even poetry, of the wreckage of the heart. He was profoundly romantic, the greatest poet of love in my eyes, but he knew that could mean many things; it could be terrible, in terms of betrayal or longing, as well as transcendent. There are many lines of his that continually spring to mind but one that stays with me is from ‘So Long, Marianne’, “You held on to me like I was a crucifix, as we went kneeling through the dark.” There are always moments when you’re finally alone with turbulent thoughts and memories and, unable to believe in anything more celestial, I held onto his songs and hold onto them still. He had been through it all and been burned, burning himself at times no doubt, and he still chose, right to the very end and in spite of the darkness, to nevertheless be intoxicated by it all.
It wasn’t until the mid-nineties, a decade into the study of Tibetan Buddhism, that I began to listen to the music of Leonard Cohen. A beautiful Chinese artist friend would have no other soundtrack as she painted. She said he transported her to a richer place than the blank, cold studio she was working in. I only began to hear Cohen with her, then after she moved away I heard him more clearly by myself on a Buddhist retreat in Vermont. Along pathways between pinewood trees and incensed shrine rooms, I played him constantly – in defiance of the strict rules of the monastery (no “entertainment”). The experience was intensified by my fascination at Cohen himself having just retreated from the craziness of the music business to a Buddhist monastery in California.
Such respite from the turbulence and uncertainty of daily living in today’s world is always ephemeral. Even Cohen came back into the spotlight when he began to tour again in recent years. But his music is, in a way, is like a retreat. It takes you out of the fray and into aural balm and wit and darkness that even while dark, is calming and sensual.
At the moment, there are quite a few of us on the planet desirous of retreat. He beat us to it; right in the midst of the worst fray of recent history. Today all day I listened to his music again, revisiting pinewoods and places of refuge. There could hardly be a more apt moment to head home. Thinking that maybe his death will ripple a little calm through the horror and confusion. Let people take time to reflect on a human who inspired others, whose music and words soothed and brought solace in times when no other music could be listened to. Who celebrated love and gentleness but who was never sentimental and didn't indulge delusion. Thinking that if the universe is so disposed today, let it somehow grant, in the words of a Buddhist prayer he may have known in his Dharma years, “that confusion may dawn as wisdom".
But then again, this was a poet who told us he had seen the future and that it is murder. And he may be right.
Helena Mulkerns is the author of Ferenji