Leonard Cohen is a man who requires no introduction. He requires no introduction and yet, I am compelled to introduce him anyway: I’m gonna try to give all y’all a comprehensive introduction to a man who, without the slightest bit of exaggeration, is also an icon. I will undoubtedly fall short from the mission at hand, but here it goes: ladies and gentleman, Mr. Leonard Cohen!
I met Leonard just after I bought my very first record player. I had made it my mission to accumulate as much vinyl as possible, scavenging record stores, thrift stores, garage sales… even looking up the folk on Craig’s List (which, sadly was, more often than not, a vain pursuit—lots of Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand and Dionne Warwick, but not much else) who were trying to get rid of their old, ‘lugubrious’ recordings in favor of the newest commodity of musical dissemination, which was, at the time, Compact Discs. I wanted to build upon my small collection in spite of the inescapable reality of its ever-increasing mass and I succeeded (if you ever find yourself stuck in Calgary and have some time on yer hands, go to this place called “The Inner Sleave”… it’s on 33rd Ave. in a little district called Marda Loop. I was able to find many good records there).
Fortunately, very early on in my frantic, analog consumerism, I was lucky enough to stumble upon the “Songs of Leonard Cohen” (I bought it from an incredibly sweet, middle aged woman who not only sold me Cohen’s record (amongst many other gems, including a whole bunch of 1970’s era Tom Waits and some Thelonious Monk to boot), but welcomed me into her home for a glass of wine and an enlightening musical conversation). The Cohen album was scratched all to hell, but I played it over and over again anyway, captivated by the strange, poetic and, dare I say, prophetic voice I was incapable of even conceiving of, prior to meeting Leonard: since that day, I haven’t been tempted so much as to look back.
Leonard has always been there for me, blessing me at every stage in my adult life. He stood at the gates of my musical obsession, welcoming me with his raspy, depressing voice, full of wine and lust. But he was also there when I first dove into poetry: he, the lonesome Canadian bard, impossible to ignore in spite of the deadly and suffocating deluge of other, rarely published, desolate souls bold enough to call themselves a ‘poet’.
Cohen was also there when I took on my other backbreaking (literally, as I move a lot) habit of reading novels: my final ambition met his first. Though many of us seem to forget that, at an incredibly tender age; Cohen had the capacity to write two novels, both of which are indisputable classics, especially in the context of a rather barren Canadian literary canon. Yet, somehow, they inhabit a space far adrift from many a Cohen fan’s radar.
Let me repeat: Leonard Cohen wrote and published two fucking novels long before venturing into what would become a long and, in every conceivable way, extraordinary career in music (albeit, somewhat reluctantly. He once said that he took up music because there is no money in novels, a massive blow to the hopes of people such as me, who have written one or two of the things).
The subject of Cohen’s first book, The Favorite Game, was relatively predictable: he wrote about his own youth and young manhood. We meet “Breavman”, Cohen’s fictional self, who immediately sets out experimenting with hypnotism, trying desperately to sex his household help. We watch Breavman at work and at play in his summer camp. We cry with Breavman as his father dies, leaving his first born son to take over as head of his abandoned household.
The most memorable scene in the The Favourite Game, for me at least, is a scene in which of one of the kids at the Canadian summer camp (who, in modern terms, would probably be diagnosed as OCD) stands still at the very center of a mosquito infested field, looking on passively as a swarm of mosquitoes robs him of his blood, replacing it with belligerently invasice amounts of microscopic poison. Later, the child will count, compulsively, every single bite that the swarm has managed to inflict upon his young, innocent flesh so that, right before bed, he might record their incomprehensible count: powerful, powerful stuff, tragically ignored as it is.
The Favourite Game is classic bildungsroman: but Cohen masters the genre in a way that very few (the only names that come to mind are Thomas Wolfe (with Look Homeward, Angel) and (maybe) James Joyce (with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)) have: the novel, as good as it is, is a mere pretext, an appetizer, of sorts, for what would become Cohen’s literary masterpiece, Beautiful Losers, published just a couple of years after his first.
With Beautiful Losers, Leonard Cohen established himself as both the father of all that is good in Canadian Fiction (Michael Ondaatje being his first born son) and, arguably, an entire genre of “postmodern” literature (though the strange breed of literature seemed to emerge simultaneously on all eighteen corners of this blue globe). Cohen’s second offering is nothing short of genius. I have since committed several passages to memory, most notably:
God is alive…..Magic is afoot…God is alive….magic is afoot…
God is afoot…..Magic is alive…Alive is afoot..magic never died!
God never sickened. Many poor men lied. Many sick men lied.
Magic never weakened. Magic never hid. Magic always ruled. God is afoot.
God never died!
God was Ruler, though his funeral lengthened.
Though His mourners thickened, magic never fled.
Though His shrouds were hoisted the naked God did live;
Though His words were twisted the naked magic thrived;
Though His death was published round and round the world
The heart did not believe.
Many hurt men wondered. Many struck men bled.
Magic never faltered. Magic always led.
Many stones were rolled, but God would not lie down!
Many wild men lied.
Many fat men listened.
Though they offered stones, magic still was fed!
Though they locked their coffers, God was always served.
Magic is afoot….God is alive….
Alive is afoot….Alive is in command.
And then, quite suddenly, Leonard Cohen stopped writing novels. Thankfully, he kept writing and publishing his poems but he, as far as we know (though we hope the contrary is true), quit the longer of literary forms entirely, choosing to hang out with poets and musicians from Montreal and New York instead. He attended Columbia College (the same college which ‘produced’ most of the authoritative beats, including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac), became a part of Andy Warhol’s Factory and started to sing (Warhol claimed that Cohen learned much from Nico (of Velvet Underground fame (though her “Chelsea Girls” is almost as good), also part of that scene))). Thank God, Leonard Cohen started to sing; he was, after all, “cursed with the gift of a golden voice”. And things soon started to happen for him; finally, Cohen started making money for his golden words.
I once had the occasion to meet Martha Wainwright in prairie town, Calgary, Alberta. I was drunk and made an ass of myself, so I will leave the juiciest of details out. I will tell you this, however: Martha said (or, more accurately, screamed), to me that night, that “if someone writes a song as good as, or even half as good as ‘Hallelujah’ (Cohen’s most famous and covered song—notable renditions attempted, with various success, by artists so talented and diverse as Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and, more recently, Kd Lang), that he/she should never have to work another day in his/her entire life.” Bold statement, yes, but I must agree (though I played devil’s advocate, at the time).
Sadly for Cohen (maybe), but thankfully for us (fer sher), he has been forced back to his trade (more specifically, back to the road), thanks to the shady dealings of former manager. This story is well publicized, so I won’t go into it here, but Cohen’s reluctant tour has been as successful as lengthy: this being his second appearance in our town in less than a year.
I was unable to make Cohen’s first show, mostly due to my unshakeable poverty at the time and I am forever indebted to him for, amongst countless infinities of other things, coming back to our wee town to do a second show. He will be playing the Save-On Foods Memorial Center this Tuesday night. I’m not sure if the show has sold out yet but if not, you should make an eager dash to your nearest ticket outlet in order to treat yourself to what promises to be a performance, most amazing (I have had to endure, for the last several months, the excitement of several friends who had the opportunity to see him last time he came: one of them even got a t-shirt, which, swear to Gawd, she wears every time I see her: ). We will be lucky to hear Cohen’s golden voice live, for what may very well be (though hopefully not),his last concert on our island. Please, buy your tickets now.