People Who Died: Leonard Cohen by Howe Gelb

Leonard Cohen

Had I been following the wrong Canadian all these years?

After reading Sylvie Simmons' biography on Leonard Cohen, I'm Your Man, it would have appeared possibly so. She would email me while she was hot on the trail of Cohen, going back to the places where he grew up in Montreal and tracking down various friends from way back when to get the proper full picture. She even had his blessings along the way. In the end Cohen was pleased with her work, and so was everyone who picked up the book. 

Before I read her book, I had assumed he was a man who didn't care much about making albums since it seemed he made so relatively few compared to someone like Neil Young. Once I read Sylvie's book it was all revealed how much he cared. He cared way more than the average indie rocker. He would spend years finalizing his lyrics. This had intrigued me to the point where I began trying it too. 

Soon after that reading, I enjoyed a steady diet of Leonard Cohen and my heart had its own revolution. As if its polar caps became reversed and all the past came reeling in, jumbled up and was now colliding with itself. A great depression followed and would not leave. I was 55, then so maybe it could've been attributed to man-o-pause. But the only music that made sense to me then was everything by Leonard Cohen. I began with the album The Essential Leonard Cohen because that's what he'd become. His wit and wisdom were the only medicinal relief for an entire year. The production values of his songs, specifically from the '80s and early '90s, were of little consequence, but man, he really tested my patience with the sax intro for "There's No Cure for Love."

When I finally found "Alexandra Leaving," it was all over. That song is so dense I'd have to pause it every 30 seconds just to digest. I still do. It's the ultimate prize we all hope to one day craft, however unlikely. It takes a lot of "carrying the water and chopping the wood" to get there ... real Monk stuff, offering the time to figure it all out amongst the mundane hardship of daily chores and the allowance of a crappy plastic synthesizer nestled in the closet at the ready when any melody calls.

I got to see him one time. About four years ago. Hamburg, Germany. The night before we saw him, I played the usual Nazi bunker venue there, but this time on the roof of the five-story monstrosity. My kid was with me and so we sang a version of "Hallelujah," with my Talula. Somehow it had specific resonance on the roof of a five-story Nazi bunker. The next night we went to his concert with 5,000 other German folks. It was a truly remarkable set. Leonard was animated and endearing, spritely and sparked, the band completely grand. In the afterglow after the show I stopped at the merch booth and nabbed a pair of Leonard Cohen cuff links, which, in itself, pretty much sums up the nature of the fellow. Classy!

Leonard had a voice with the authority to soothe the journey of a treacherous landscape we insist on traversing. We, like small children skinning our knees on love, and he, the adult whispering in our ear that it's all going to be OK. Because it has to be OK. And with that, a way of taking your mind off the madness of your own isolated turmoil. A gift for revealing the mysterious outcomes of the provocative heart. He was a soldier amongst the many uniforms of love. The Zen survivor of self-torment's darkest hour. A lazy bastard in a suit.

With his passing, perhaps a particular sacred timing, when we were reeling from the heartache of the progressive world in collapse, the travesties amongst brothers and sisters being pitted against each other, and the ill-effects of a postelection sickness, he made it all seem momentarily moot by comparison to his leaving. Just like the gentleman he was, the healer, the sonic rabbi candle lighter, a most reverent disciple of the softened decibel, the beholder of a poet's murmur unlike any other. 

There in the end, a purr, a grace, a pause to steal our hearts away for a needed moment to ponder the bigger picture of existence, the grandness of ever being able to love at all, and the luck of being alive during the lifetime of such a man's available embrace within song.

— Howe Gelb

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