1934 – 2016
Music is the emotional life of most people – Leonard Cohen
For various reasons I don’t remember very much about my teenage years, but I remember the very first time I ever heard Leonard Cohen. It’s 1992 and I’m seventeen years old. I’m sitting in the family room of the house I grew up in and I’m watching Much Music on the TV. The Monkees, which was a part of the channels weekly line up, has just ended and I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m too lazy to change the channel. By this point in my cultural experience I am way beyond listening to top 40 music and I spend little time watching music videos. But for some reason I let the television play on.
The video that comes on the television is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s in black and white and artistic, with a seedy cast of characters and a background chorus of artistic but beautiful girls and there is the distinct sound of a fiddle. Not a country fiddle, but a pulsating grinding fiddle like if it came from some sort of dark French brothel from hell. At the microphone is a man unlike what I was used to seeing in music videos. His face was rough, he wasn’t handsome, and he was old. Dressed in a turtleneck and a jacket, this man had distinct class, but seemed out of his element on music television. This was the era of Kurt Cobain and Axel Rose. Who was this old man?
And then he began to sing and that gravely rough voice hit my ears for the first time.
“We’re drinking and we’re dancing and the band is really happening and the Johnny Walker wisdoms running high
And my very close companion, she’s an angel of compassion. She’s rubbing half the world against her thigh….”
The moment I began to listen I was hooked forever on Leonard Cohen. From the moment I first saw the video to Closing Time, Leonard Cohen became a cultural hero, a role model, an artistic touch point, and the symbol of cool I aspired to be, but have never been able to achieve.
Sure, most people I know probably knew who Leonard Cohen was long before I did, but I caught up quickly. Less than 24 hours after I saw the video I was at Sam the Record Man draining my bank account on every single Leonard Cohen cassette tape or album they could sell me. The Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs of Love and Hate, I’m Your Man, Death of a Ladies Man, Various Positions, The Future, Best of Leonard Cohen…..I bought everything they had and ran home and sat for hours in my bedroom drinking up every note and lyric of this guy’s music. It was unlike anything I had ever listened to. Unlike anything anybody I knew was listening to. This was art, poetry, sex, death, guilt, war, religion, lust and hate all presented by a man with a flawed, but haunting, voice. It wasn’t for everybody but it spoke to me on more levels than I probably will ever realize. I was taken aback by the difference of his voice in the early recordings compared to the cigarette and liquor damaged tones of his later songs. I wasn’t sure what I liked better. Early Cohen? Later Cohen? It was all gold to me.
I remember that I couldn’t wait to play it for the girl I had a crush on. That’s what you do when you’re a teenager. You share the music you love with the people you love – making them mixed tapes or bringing albums to their rec rooms. I made her listen to I’m Your Man, thinking that it was sophisticated and erotic. She didn’t like it. She thought it was perverse. I really began to rethink if this girl was right for me.
But, man, you didn’t get lyrics better than this guy. They were dipped in darkness and sex….and as an often undersexed teenager the eroticism in Leonard Cohen’s music was a part of my own sexual awakening. This man from Montreal, who seemed far too cool and European to actually be Canadian, was what I thought sex was supposed to look like – dark, tragic, enigmatic and brooding. Maybe I was naïve and didn’t get sex yet. I mean, hell, I was still a virgin and terrified of girls. But I figured that somehow the secret of sex lay in Leonard Cohen’s music.
Soon I began to dress like him. Blazers and turtlenecks became part of my every day wardrobe. I learnt his songs on the guitar. I memorized his lyrics and his poetry and I bought and read Beautiful Losers – and learnt that anybody who ever says that Beautiful Losers is their favorite book of all time is a pretentious asshole. I may love Leonard Cohen, but not enough to tell you that that book is a terrible read. He was the ultimate in bohemian. The coolest of the cool. The perfect role model for a mixed up, undersexed, clinically depressed, self-alienated youth like I was. And at that time in my life, well, I couldn’t have had a better idol.
As the years went by I evolved as a man, and I really came into my own, leaving that awkward and often self-loathing young boy I was behind me. But Leonard Cohen’s music stayed with me. His lyrics are simply the best there is in modern music. When I list off my top favorite artists of all time, Leonard Cohen is always one of the five names that come immediately off of my lips. I’ve tracked down all of his lps on vinyl and sing his songs to myself during times of joy and times of sorrow. His music clings to my soul and his rough damaged voice sings in my ears. And to this day I still think he is the ultimate symbol of bohemian cool, and the older he got, the cooler he got. Nobody could do it like he did. Who, in his 70’s, could sing about sex and death and be more cutting edge than the coolest of pop stars. Only Leonard Cohen could.
I am still a man who works in the arts, puts words together and has maintained a level of bohemian eccentricness. This is the part of me that I owe to Leonard Cohen. And do you know what? Turtlenecks and blazers are still in my wardrobe. His voice still gives me shivers and his music is still so important to me. Leonard Cohen is still, and will forever be, a hero and a role model and the symbol of cool I’ll always archive to be.
But with that said, I really wish people would stop doing terrible covers of Halleluiah. Just because you can sing it, doesn’t mean you should.
So long Mr. Cohen. It’s time that we began to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.