Leonard Cohen died last Thursday. So I’m writing this. I want you to know what he gave me and how much potential there is in his work–-enough to move the heart and the hand, and the world, if it wanted to hear. This isn’t a biographical article, and it isn’t about music or poetry. I don’t know anything about music.
I know a bit about poetry.
I am writing to say two things, which are “Goodbye” and “Thank you”. If you want anything else, best fire up a record player or visit your friendly neighborhood Wikipedia.
Musicians weighed in to help craft our playlist.
- “Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” – Greg
- “Famous Blue Raincoat” – Matthew from Fast Romantics
- “Bird on a Wire” – Dan Blakeslee
- “Love Itself” – T.W. Walsh
- “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” – Shana from La Luz
- “Winter Lady” – Brian from Riverhorse
- “So Long Marianne” – Chicago Farmer
- “Tonight Will Be Fine” – Gabe of Wilder Maker
- “Story of Isaac” – Shana from La Luz
- “Dance Me to the End of Love” – Dan Blakeslee
- “I Can’t Forget” – Daniel Bonespur
- “Nightingale” – Greg
I was fifteen years old the first time I really heard Leonard Cohen’s music. After a long, dramatic, passionate and empty night, my teacher, a lonely man, shared Leonard’s song with me, “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.” “I know that my love goes with you as your love goes with me, it’s just the way it changes like the shoreline and the sea.” It was a song about the morning after and love and loss and living alone in a world so full of and yet devoid of connection.
I was hooked–commiserating immediately with that depth of poetic voice. I listened to all his albums, I read his books of poems, and I sang his songs on darkened streets all the times I walked home alone. He was the veteran of love, my captain who’d seen a thousand scented candles flicker in the darkening light while he laid down alone again. What a reputation as ladies’ man he had garnered!
Leonard was not a born musician or performer. He struggled with instruments and froze in fear with an audience–to the point where he’d place a full length mirror in front of the stage so he could play to himself or he’d drink three bottles of wine before a performance to get into the mood. He felt “like a chained parrot in front of a crowd.”
He knew poetry though. He knew how to take love and loss or loneliness and throw it into verse. He knew when a poem he’d written had potential as a song and he’d shape it thusly. “Hallelujah “ has seventy or so verses inked, only those he thought fitting made it into song (and re-chosen by John Cale for the version Jeff Buckley would popularize and re-chosen again by the writers of SNL for the post-election version). Book of Longing, a collection of his poetry, opens with a written version of one of his songs, “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” It was never meant for music:
You came to me this morning and you handled me like meat.
You’d have to be a man to know how good that feels, how sweet.
My mirrored twin, my next of kin, I’d know you in my sleep
and who but you would take me in, a thousand kisses deep.
Something about his thrumming baritone made words like those resonate. He spoke to the soul. When he was at his most crass, the words had the most power:
A man never got a woman back, not by begging on his knees,
or I’d crawl to you darling and I’d fall at your feet
and I’d howl at your beauty like a dog in heat
and I’d claw at your heart and I’d tear at your sheet…
I’d say “please – I’m your man.”
Leonard showed me the face of God too. I casually dismissed my Sunday school God–-a being of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, specious salvation, and holy crackers… But I read the poems of Venantius Fortunatus–-a wandering monk of early Christianity who found God in the smallest things: in good food, wine, and lying carnally with pretty nuns. He was so convinced of the purity of his Earthly lusts that to him the most holy word was a soft and heartfelt “hello.” God is there in every little bit of suffering turned into poetry… God is our shortest and cruelest of monosyllables and yet He is there in our smallest waking and breathing and our longing.
That’s how I think Leonard saw God. His prose and poetry and songs drew unslakingly on the Old Testament and the psalms:
You who stand above them now,
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father’s hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word.
And yet he downed acid tablets like Tylenol, dragged on women like cigarettes. For him the divine was not something vast and incomprehensible, but something small and very dear, found in every act of amorous devotion. There He was in the thirty-year-old whiskey the Roshi shared with him. In his “Book of Mercy” the lowest of human trials is yanked into poetic eloquence. Constipation is –
The lonely sitting man in the porcelain machine. What did I do wrong yesterday? What unassailable bank in my psyche needs shit? How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me?… I will eat only lettuce… I’ll use science against you. I’ll drop in pills like depth charges. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
I can see God in that lack of shit and I can feel at ease in that mortal coil. God is there in every little bit of suffering turned into poetry. His Joan of Arc waits desperately for the warm and loving embrace of the fire, which alone knows her solitude. Love in his “Master Song” is “some dust in an old man’s cough / Who is tapping his foot to a tune.” In “Ballad of the Absent Mare” he takes from the Old Testament’s Book of Ruth to describe the love for a cowboy and his horse:
And he leans on her neck
and he whispers low
“Whither thou goest
I will go”
Leonard saw God in small things and in beauty and in pleasure and in sorrow and he shared it in his incomparable way. He showed me the torture of loneliness and I can feel it, but I can feel his God moving in me too. So for a while there was someone alive who could sing to me and make me realize the presence of God on Earth and also make me feel how vast and empty and old we all are, and that was something very special.
We are all the more lonely without him here singing, but his word written indelibly on the hearts of those he’s touched and those are words that will never smudge.