Hallelujah: Rediscovering Leonard Cohen
"That's how the light gets in."
(This is a short reflection about poet and musician Leonard Cohen that I wrote a few years ago. I offer it in his memory upon hearing of his recent death. Usually I am writing about more local arts, but thought that Leonard Cohen crossed all borders. Rest in peace, Leonard, and if it had been up to me, the Nobel Prize for Literature would have been yours.)
My earliest memory of Leonard Cohen is this: Inexplicably, when I was a young Catholic school girl, a copy of Leonard Cohen’s novel, Beautiful Losers, found its way into my hands. My friends and I found it fascinating, and ultimately, appalling, filled with endless and maybe mindless explicit sex that at the time we had no understanding of, much less any appetite for. In our school girl uniforms (knife-pleated. mid-calf grey and blue plaid skirts, crisp-ironed white blouses, gray wool blazers), my friend Sharon and I signaled our disapproval. We set fire to Leonard’s novel before dumping it, ablaze, into the river at Pittsburgh's Point Park. Take that, Leonard.
A few years later, in college, I began to learn Leonard Cohen songs in my fledgling run at playing the guitar. The more chaste variety: Suzanne and That’s No Way to Say Goodbye. Post-college, my guitar having been stolen from the dump of an apartment I inhabited while in law school, and my being without any musical talent, guitar-playing or singing-wise, Leonard eventually moved out of my consciousness.
Thirty-five years later (at age 60), I have rediscovered Leonard Cohen (at age 78). All because Leonard, who had been living as a Buddhist monk, was defrauded of his life’s savings, and had to go back on the road to support himself. Even in his 70s, Leonard still had it, or maybe had even more of it, because his tours were so successful that the recording of one ended up on my local PBS station–during the fundraising season, no less. Leonard was talented, and maybe sexy.
It inspired me to read Leonard’s bio by Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man. Filled with interesting facts that helped one to understand the context of Leonard’s songs. Like the identity of Suzanne, like the comedy/tragedy of the Chelsea Hotel. The history of what sure seemed like Leonard’s mental illness, and relationships aplenty, but none that seemed to stick. Throughout my reading of this biography, I had one recurring thought, that Leonard is the kind of man that your mother warned you about. Talented, tormented, charming, and utterly without the commitment gene.
I thought that somewhere in between the time of my Catholic school girl book-burning and my 60 year old self, there would have been plenty of years when the Leonards of the world would have held great appeal, and actually, did. How much wiser I feel now, to see through all of that. Again, how much wiser I feel now, to see through all of that. Life cannot just be about making love (I use a euphemism; Leonard didn’t) in unmade beds. Especially not at 60.
Then I bought one of Leonard’s recent CDs. Voice gravelly, sometimes more speaking than singing. Great instrumentation. I listened to it sailing along the interstate. Leonard appears to have learned some lessons about life and love and sex and loss. What words! The first time I heard Closing Time I almost had to stop the car and make sure of what I was hearing, a portrait simultaneously raw and nuanced. Geez, Leonard, how complicated this stuff of life and love and sex can be. Still. At 60, and I guess, at 78.
Susan B. Apel, blogger, ArtfulEdge