For a While, Leonard Cohen was Mine...
By Jon Stone
I first encountered ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ as a Tori Amos cover version, downloaded from Napster. I first encountered ‘Hallelujah’ on a Jeff Buckley CD a friend had lent me (I did not take to Jeff). ‘Ain’t No Cure For Love’ was played by my parents on long midnight car journeys. ‘So Long, Marianne’ – I have no idea where I heard it first but it got lodged in my head, somehow.
At a particular point when I was 19, a revelation hit me: that these were all written by the same artist. Leonard Cohen’s songs are often characterised as being of a type: dark, doomy, amorous, smoky, aching, prayer-like. To know a handful is to know his oeuvre. But I could scarcely believe, as a school-leaver, that one artist could cover the emotional range implied by the above four titles. And as I uncovered more songs, they went on defying all the templates my mind proposed in order to keep him safely boxed in.
For a while, Leonard Cohen was mine. I had no idea, in the days before social media, that he was still widely loved and revered. My parents had a single cut-price ‘Best Of’ compact disc, as if he was just one of the artists who happened to be around during their formative years, worth remembering for a few good tunes. Those friends of mine whose taste in music I considered exemplary were not interested. People I met around that time messaged me yesterday because they remember me as the boy who was into Leonard Cohen.
So it was very strange to find, relatively suddenly, at around the time he came down from Mount Baldy, that the world at large considered him a legend and, to quote one headline, the prince of darkness. Strange in part because, for me, the thread that I picked up – the thing that made Cohen my companion of sorts – was not that he was a prophet, or a ladies’ man, or an exemplary dresser, or a towering and insightful genius, but that he wrote about being broken, about failure and defeat, relentlessly, without any implication that these states were temporary or that they were part of some greater plan for fulfilment. He was the songwriter who dared to say “Everybody knows the good guys lost”, who implored a father: “Please let me start again. I want a face that’s fair this time. I want a spirit that is calm.” In ‘One of Us Cannot Be Wrong’, the stricken narrator seeks comfort in professionals and spiritualists, only to find his own ruination is so complete it drags them down as well. At the end of ‘Let’s Sing Another Song, Boys’, Cohen doesn’t even need lyrics to convey a sense of brokenness – his ‘la, la, la’s are wretched but defiant, out of tune and out of time. He sounds like a flame going out.
So much in modern culture is predicated on success, but it’s failure that’s all but inevitable, that comes crashing down on you, and brings you and all your disciplines crashing down with it. Failure, defeat and death. Cohen’s admission and acceptance of defeat is still something I regularly cling to, like a raft in a storm. He was not so much a guide through the darkness as the only person in the party who would speak of it plainly. He knew we were all at the frontline of our own battles, and he knew that there was strength in speaking of how spectacularly we lose them. I needed that, I still need it, and it’s gratifying now to know just how many others feel the same way.