Leonard Cohen was one cool dude. I wrote some words on hearing of his death and I reproduce them here with added images.
Leonard and Me
I had to write something to mark the passing of Leonard Cohen and then it had to be posted. It’s got little to do with kink, though there are hints that Leonard might have indulged, certainly he understood a few things that were not vanilla. The simple reason for posting it here is that almost all the friends I’ve known from the kink world were fans of Leonard Cohen.
The death of popular icons is not something I normally take notice of. I suppose that’s largely because I’m rarely interested in popular culture. When it comes to music I’m more of a classical person, and lets face it the icons of classical music were dead before I heard their works. The one major exception here is Leonard Cohen.
It seems slightly strange to call Leonard a popular icon as he was never really mainstream. He arrived comparatively late to the music scene and can only be described as a slow burner in the public consciousness. For so long acknowledgement of his work often came through covers by better known artists. Only when he was forced back on the road, already aged over 70 did the world see just what a huge fan base he actually had.
I’m a bit embarrassed about my route to Leonard’s music. I’ve no idea why I was watching the Wogan show but it just happened that the musical act was Jennifer Warnes singing ‘First we Take Manattan’ and then ‘Bird on the Wire’ to promote the Famous Blue Raincoat album, which I went out and bought immediately. Yes, the days when you actually had to go down to the shop and buy it on vinyl. It took me a while to really twig that all the tracks on that album where written by Leonard. I think it was the duet with Leonard on Joan of Arc that made me want to explore Leonard’s work and I found “I’m Your Man” on which Jennifer had collaborated and had covered a few tracks, I was hooked.
I never subscribed to the view that Leonard’s work was gloomy and depressive. Exploring the works before I’m Your Man I found a lot of humour and a strange mix of cynicism mixed with a deep understanding of human nature that exposed hope in the depths of darkness. The artful turn of phrase and story telling showed an understanding of the human condition, a mixture of cynicism and awe at the human potential. An example here would be “The Story of Isaac”.
Obviously I followed and bought Leonard’s music since that time, no matter how long between album releases. I never expected to actually see him perform. It was another of life’s moments of synchronicity when I just happened to see a small article that Leonard was going to be touring. Scanning the ticket sites I had no trouble getting a ticket. So it was that I found myself at the small Manchester Opera House on the opening night.
No one there knew what the evening would be like. To a degree most were there to say that they’d seen a legend, even if he was in his dotage. What transpired that evening is one of the most remarkable events I’ve ever been to. Could he still sing ? Hell, yes. What would the set be like ? Perhaps a few old classics for a 50 minute set and leave a smiling audience behind. No way, we got the best part of 3 hours of classic after classic that had the whole place in raptures – especially during Tower of Song where he revelled in the irony of singing the line ‘I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice’. And the best bit, Leonard really seemed to enjoy being on stage. The famous bouts of stage fright looked to be a thing of the past, he was comfortable on stage and enjoying banter with the audience. It was one of the most uplifting events I’ve ever been witness to. How often do you come out of a 3 hour performance where each track is a classic and someone’s favourite and say to yourself “Yes, but he didn’t do this one, or that one” ?
The world now knew about the new phenomena of Leonard on tour, from that small theatre in Manchester suddenly the venues changed to arenas and a short tour extended out to 18 months. I went to about five or six concerts in that tour. The most memorable of those being taking a friend to the O2 in London. By now the word was out about Leonard and tickets were like gold dust, the general tickets for the O2 sold out while I was in the website queue. The exchanges were asking absurd prices. It was then that I found a link to VIP packages, the price of those was less than the exchanges were asking for a normal ticket. So my friend and I had quite a nice dinner backstage before the concert and front seats only about 15 rows from the stage. If you want to know what that concert was like, look at the Live in London DVD, it was shot there that night and I think I can spot my friend’s head in a couple of shots as she was boogeying like crazy in the aisle.
Despite vowing not to, I couldn’t resist seeing him on the following tour and I sort of wish I hadn’t. The 2008/9 tour had been a moment of magic, Leonard sprang from the shadows and surprised everyone. He looked fit and sprightly, his voice was – well, it was Leonard – and he was all over the stage. Seeing him a few years later you could see how much had changed. He looked beyond rugged, almost haggard. The voice had a much diminished range and power. To a degree this was compensated with a more poised stagecraft and the amazing harmonies of the backing singers, which meant that by and large you came away satisfied though acknowledging that the man was mortal.
I had some great times in Leonard’s company. I’ve had many many more times when I have simply been happy and grateful for Leonard’s words, music and wit. I’m not actually sad that he’s died, he was 82. He never had the “eternal life fantasy” as Bill Hicks called it and he’d never want to hang around unnecessarily.
I’ve been thinking through various songs, many of which can tug at me emotionally for different reasons, to find that one perfect moment where the crack appears and the light gets in. At this moment in time, possibly because I’m writing this on Remembrance Day, I would have to pick a live version of The Partisan. And perhaps aptly, it’s not a moment exclusive to Leonard, it’s the 2nd verse in French with the last line “il est mort sans surprise” and it’s the emotion put in to her voice by Sharon Robinson. It heavily reminds me of the Marseillaise scene from Casablanca with Madeline Lebeau’s tearful face.
It’s perhaps fitting that this image stands out, it was Leonard’s words, Leonard’s music but he was happy to share the stage and credits with his collaborators for the success of the bigger picture.
There’s forty odd years of Leonard’s music to dip in and out of when I feel the need to marvel at a supreme word smith, there’s inspiration to listen to and some very wry observations – I couldn’t help thinking of the song Democracy in the week that people are rioting because Trump won the election – ‘Democracy is coming to the USA’.
So long Leonard, the world will be a poorer place with no more contributions from you, but it is a hell of a better place for having had you in it.