Laughing Len

So the world seems determined to ensure that not one source of joy or pleasure remains in existence.

While I’m in no doubt as to which is empirically worse, I have to say that from my own personal, limited, perspective, it’s just much easier for me to comprehend, in totality, what it means that Leonard Cohen has died than it is to comprehend the Trump presidency. An eighty-two-year-old man who said he was ready for death dying is a comprehensible thing, even if, like any death, it’s an obscenity.

And so I’ve been crying today, off and on, for pretty much the whole day.

I can’t do the sort of seemingly-objective career overview thing I do with some artists with Cohen. I’m a fan of his, but have never been part of the fandom — never sought out biographical information. Most of what I know of him comes from a couple of articles in Mojo in the 90s and his interview in Songwriters on Songwriting by Paul Zollo. I can’t do a broad sweep narrative thing here. Maybe I could have, any other week. But not this week.

So just a few thoughts, with no real narrative thread to them.

My favourite story about Cohen — he used to be friendly with Iggy Pop in the seventies. One day they happened to be together and saw a personal ad from a woman looking for “a man with the body of Iggy Pop and the mind of Leonard Cohen”. They sent her a letter, suggesting that the three of them could work something out. She never replied.

I’ve always loved Cohen’s work, but what I loved about it changed a lot over the years. When I was a kid growing up, my parents were fans, but only liked the first few albums — the narrative around him was that Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs From a Room were his best work, and it was all downhill from there, and I had no reason to doubt my parents, so didn’t investigate past those two and the first “best of” album (the one with the yellow-brown cover). So the Leonard Cohen I loved growing up was the one in his mid thirties, the Cohen of “The Stranger Song”, “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”, and “So Long, Marianne”.

Now that I am around the same age he was when he made those records, I find they sound a little callow, the work of a young man trying to sound old (he was thirty-four when he made his first album, which I think makes him the oldest ever person to achieve rock stardom, but still seems like “only thirty-four” now to me at the horribly advanced age of thirty-eight). The nasal folkie made some good records, but what really appeals to me now is Cohen the older man, the gravel-voiced chansonnier with the style of Tony Bennett, singing music that owed more to cabaret than to Dylan. “Everybody Knows”, “I’m Your Man”, or “Dance Me To The End Of Love”, those patter songs that seem almost formulaic until you try to write one yourself, but which are written with the skill of a Beat Cole Porter.

I remember reading in the Zollo book about how Cohen would take literally years over a song, drafting and redrafting, writing hundreds of verses and throwing them away. As someone whose work, in whatever medium, is always spontaneous — I find the inspiration draining out of my work with every pass, turning it into something mechanical and joyless for the reader or listener — I found it very hard to understand how he could do this. Then I listened to the recording of him playing live in Israel in 1972, playing his newly-written song “Chelsea Hotel #1” (the song that after much rewriting became the much better-known “Chelsea Hotel #2”). And I understood. At that point, that was a *dreadful* song — trite, hackneyed, and quite offensively bad. The rewriting process, for him, took him closer to what he intended to say, rather than further from it.

I remember as well that Cohen was the first person I ever learned the word “chops”, in the context of musicianship, from — watching him being interviewed on “Later… With Jools Holland” in the early 90s, promoting “The Future”, and talking about how he actually only had one chop on the guitar, just one thing he could do well. It was an important lesson in playing to one’s artistic strengths, which I have so far signally failed to learn.

I was lucky enough to see Cohen live three times — each time with him doing the same show, each time with me a little further from the stage. The latter two were in the MEN Arena or whatever it’s called this week (I still think of it as the Nynex, truth be told) — the enormodome in Manchester where massive bands play. They were good shows, and I’m glad I saw them, but I’ll remember him best from the first live show I saw him do, in the intimate surroundings of the Manchester Opera House in 2008.

The Opera House is a smallish theatre, and its intimate setting was perfect for Cohen and his band. It was a very, very odd evening. My wife’s parents, farmers from rural Minnesota, were visiting us, and they’d never heard of Cohen before but came along because it was the only time they’d be over here for two years and they didn’t want to miss spending time with Holly. Holly is even more of a Cohen fan than I am, but spent much of the time cringing in anticipation that he’d sing the line “give me crack and anal sex” and her parents would be outraged. As it happens, he changed it to “unsafe sex”, and Holly’s dad now regularly plays his DVD of the London show from that tour.

(Holly’s parents both voted for Clinton, incidentally, though their family on both sides voted for Trump. I like to think that them having their minds broadened by visiting us in the UK has contributed a tiny bit to that.)

My parents were there too — they’d also grown to enjoy Cohen’s later music — but it was an odd evening for them. A close friend of my dad had been found dead at a ridiculously young age earlier that day, and my dad got quite drunk (alcohol and Leonard Cohen is possibly not the best combination for dealing with bereavement). We found ourselves in the queue for the bar in front of Jeremy Paxman, and my dad kept talking to Paxman about me (I’d been on University Challenge eight years earlier, so my dad in his drunk state assumed Paxman must know exactly who I was).

So it was an odd gig, but a wonderful one. Cohen was in his mid seventies at the time, and seemed a good decade older than that in most ways, but his voice was stronger than ever, and every song was good (even “Hallelujah”, which like “Imagine” really doesn’t deserve what’s been done to it as it’s become culturally ubiquitous).

So yeah. Not much coherent to say about this. Just that I’m sad that someone whose music meant a lot to me has died, and at a horrible time. I don’t mean to say that I loved him the best. I remember him well at the Opera House, that’s all. I don’t even think of him that often.

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3 Responses to Laughing Len

  1. S Fred L says:

    Thank you for writing this.

  2. Pete says:

    This has been a not so good day. But we got the music.

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    I fear the best we can hope from 2016 is that Joni Mitchell makes it into 2017 alive.

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