Me and Leonard Cohen

On the morning of 11 November 2016, I woke up to the news of the death of Leonard Cohen. He was 82. For over a decade, Leonard has been an important and influential part of my life.

Leonard Cohen performs at the Glastonbury Festival, 2008. Used under Britannica ImageQuest Licence.

I only truly discovered Leonard Cohen in my early 40s. In February 2007 I was staying in Melbourne Australia during the early weeks of five months of travelling and transitioning into a new career in tourism. I had read about a film by Lian Lunson called ‘Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man’ and decided to walk to a cinema in the suburb of Carlton to see it. That evening I wrote in my journal:

“The film was a combination of interviews with LC, in conjunction with a concert of his music (at the Sydney Opera House) by a number of artists including Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Rufus and Martha Wainwright. . . . Overall it was a remarkable film about a very unusual but talented man. He’s primarily a poet and had some interesting things to say about writing. For example, how writing doesn’t happen as you want every day. Also, he writes very slowly, and songs can take up to a year. The music was beautiful. I hope there’s a soundtrack album.”

Nick Cave performs in the Lian Lunson film ‘Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man’ (2005). Used under Britannica ImageQuest Licence.

Sometime in the following weeks, probably just after I arrived in New Zealand, I bought the CD of the music from the film. This CD became the soundtrack to my long, solo drives around the South Island. I loved most of the songs on the album, particularly ‘Tower Of Song’, ‘If It Be Your Will’ and ‘Suzanne’ but, for some reason, ‘I Can’t Forget’ by Jarvis Cocker always seemed to irritate me and was often skipped.

On returning to the UK, I frequently played the CD or listened to it on my iPod. The words of Leonard Cohen, mainly sung by others, were around during an uncomfortable period as I attempted to establish myself in the travel business and commence my university studies. Through the work of Leonard Cohen I came upon artists such as Teddy Thompson and various members of the Wainwright/McGarrigle clan.  

In 2009 I noticed a large poster on the approach to a local roundabout advertising a Leonard Cohen concert at Mercedes-Benz World Brooklands near Weybridge. I bought tickets and on Saturday 11 July 2009, my wife Sarah and I attended one of the most magical musical evenings we’ve experienced. Things didn’t start well. Traffic through Addlestone and into Brooklands was heavy and we missed the support act, Suzanne Vega. It was also pouring with rain. Yet Leonard, then in his late 70s and backed by Sharon Robinson, the ‘sublime’ Webb Sisters and small band of talented musicians, put on a memorable show. Leonard looked dapper in a dark suit and trilby hat.

Poster for the Lian Lunson film ‘Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man’ (2005). Used under Britannica ImageQuest Licence.

We saw Leonard and his band for a second and final time at the O2 in London in September 2013. Whilst very good, the evening didn’t quite hit the heights of Weybridge for us. Perhaps this was due to the rather barn-like venue. More likely it was because the concert was just a month after my mother had her stroke and my mother-in-law was in the process of being diagnosed with dementia. Her physician called Sarah during the first half of the concert!    

I am not a Leonard Cohen purist. I struggle with his voice on the early recordings and prefer the deeper tones of his later years, perfectly captured on the ‘Live in London’ double CD. This album contains a lovely version of probably my favourite Leonard song, ‘So Long, Marianne’. I also enjoy many of the covers of his songs. For me, one of the highlights of our stay in Quebec City in 2015 was going into an old-fashioned record shop and finding the 1995 compilation ‘Tower Of Song’ featuring amongst others, Willie Nelson, Peter Gabriel and Suzanne Vega.  

As well as discovering wonderful music, I have learnt two important lessons through Leonard Cohen. The first is that every word is important and none should be wasted. I always try to follow this in my own writing. The second is that you really can stand out from the crowd by wearing a good suit.

I am extremely thankful that I took that walk to the cinema in Melbourne to begin my connection with the life and work of Leonard Cohen. I am fortunate to have seen him perform twice. I will eventually finish that tome of a biography by Sylvie Simmons that I’ve been reading from back to front for ages. With the passing of time I no longer have to skip ‘I Can’t Forget’ by Jarvis Cocker.

Suggested reading

‘I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen’ by Sylvie Simmons (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012)

This blog is a slightly amended version of a previously unpublished piece written a few days after Leonard Cohen’s death in November 2016.

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