Leonard Cohen and Me
Leonard Cohen has died. I was sorry to think that the last big world event this guru of chilled-out but vaguely sad-flavoured spiritual love had stuck around to witness was Trump’s victory. (More recent reports say he died on Monday, so at least he got to miss the election.)
There was always an element of kitsch to his profundities, and that probably applies to the music, too, which sometimes sounds like the shy campfire strummings of the guy at school who carries an untranslated Rimbaud in his jeans, the kid at camp in a weird hat who sits around playing guitar not because he has lots of friends but because he doesn’t. Even the backing vocals (soaring women’s choruses, on 'The Partisan', for example) remind me of those paper flames blowing in their own wind that hippies decorated their living-rooms with in 1980s sitcoms, or the illustrations in my 1982 edition of Gary Gygax’s Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook: women in scanty leather armour with long hair and flames behind them, kicking ass. That was the style.
Cohen was never as hip as Bob Dylan, the other great Jewish poet/singer/songwriter/novelist I grew up with, and the taste for him was connected in my mind not just with AD&D and Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft but other nerd-obsessions like Weird Al Yankovic. My girlfriend (she’s now my wife) used to make fun of me for liking Cohen. She couldn’t see past the cheesy backing vocals and the misery-guts guitar-work to the real genius of many of the lyrics. But she also had a reasonable appreciation for the fact that I liked him in part because I associated the desire for poetry and music with a (not particularly attractive) desire to access certain kinds of sadness. (There’s a great send-up of the unsexy male teenage maudlin tendency in Grosse Pointe Blank, where the violently insane high school classmate of the calmly insane professional killer and hero of the movie – played by John Cusack – get in a fight at their reunion. The violent guy tries to read Cusack a poem, which begins: ‘When I feel quiet, when I feel blue’.) The music my wife grew up liking is the stuff you could dance to. I couldn’t dance and didn’t want to.
As a nerdy kid in a nerd-themed household I used to make up words, one of which was a noun derived from 'lugubrious'. 'He’s a bit of a lugub,' I used to say – and Cohen was, at least in his songs. It’s why I liked him; so was I, mostly happily. The fact is, Dungeons and Dragons was great; Edgar Allan Poe was great; Leonard Cohen was great. I had a lot of fun, I felt things deeply, I liked my friends. And Cohen’s style – bookish, seriously but also ironically sentimental, self-consciously poetic, genuinely wisdom-seeking – came closer to something I could realistically aspire to than anything Dylan had to offer, with his experience-hungry, man-of-the-people, travelling-troubadour rough grace. When I heard that Cohen had died I texted an old friend I’ve been slowly drifting apart from, just from the usual vicissitudes of being grown-up, having kids: the bird on the wire has flown away. I’ve been playing his greatest hits all day. Sometimes I miss being a teenager.