RIP Leonard Cohen – “I have tried, in my way, to be free.”

(A personal reflection from Nancy Clinton, Spend Matters Europe Publishing Director, on Leonard Cohen, who died this week).

I fell in love with the songs of Leonard Cohen when I was just 15 – as an emotional, angsty teenager, his words just resonated with every mixed-up feeling and answered all those dark, unsure questions to do with love, hatred, sex, relationships, and life.  I was secretly shocked at his candidness, but he taught you that, actually, it was OK to have all those contradictory feelings running around inside you. And that slow, melodic voice was just … therapeutic.

I bought The Best of Leonard Cohen, 1975 version, in 1979, on vinyl, with that amazing sepia-style trademark cover: him in a jaded hotel room, standing by some faded curtains, smoking a cigarette, shot through the bottom of a whisky glass. And I played it so often, I knew every single word of every song. After all, they were poems, and I loved poems.

I also loved the fact that, in one of my favourite songs, Famous Blue Raincoat (Songs of Love and Hate, 1971), he mentioned my name (I was only 15, and 15 was 15 then, not 18 like it is today!) “New York is cold, but I like where I'm living. There's music on Clinton Street all through the evening …”

It fascinated me! The song is cleverly written like a letter, all about a love triangle between the writer (him?), a woman named Jane, and the male recipient, identified later as "my brother, my killer." Cohen’s songs told stories you had to think about, with a plot you had to untangle.

Possibly the most chilling, yet sad and touching verses I have ever heard -  about adult love, despair and acceptance, are: “And you treated my woman to a flake of your life, And when she came back, she was nobody's wife … Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes, I thought it was there for good, so I never tried.”

He signs it verbally at the end – “sincerely L. Cohen”. It was one of his more heart-wrenching songs, but I never really understood it until I was much older.

I then began listening to more albums: the just-as-haunting, Songs from a Room, with the seductive Lady Midnight, and later, I’m Your Man, heralding a different, but equally genius, period of story-telling. But I drew the line at Death of a Ladies Man – too many choristers for me!

For years I loved his lyrics, it was my favourite late-night album when I got home from parties. But I never told my friends! A lot of them at the time were listening to Duran Duran, Bananarama and Kim Carnes, whereas I liked The Clash, Pink Floyd, Led Zep, The Eagles and .. Leonard Cohen. They would never understand.

It wasn’t until I sat in a friend’s flat in Acton (Nelson Mandela House to be exact – yes it really was where they filmed Only Fools and Horses), 10 years later, late at night after a few drinks, and I played him The Chelsea Hotel.

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel, you were famous, your heart was a legend. You told me again you preferred handsome men but for me you would make an exception. And clenching your fist for the ones like us who are oppressed by the figures of beauty, you fixed yourself, you said, ‘Well never mind, we are ugly but we have the music …’”

And he said: “my God, that’s brilliant. Why did you never tell me he was such a great musician and songwriter”? I remember feeling surprised, and slightly relieved, that this trendy, NME-reading, Clash-listening, 20-something year old, would get the soul-tugging prose of an old, cigarette-toking, crooner. But he has been listening to him ever since.

At a conference we attended this week in Berlin, Peter, my music-guru friend and colleague, asked me, after visiting a jamming session in a local pub over a glass or two of Pilsner, who my favourite and most influential musicians were. And, without hesitation, I said, Leonard Cohen. I think it took him by surprise. (I could just as easily have surprised him with Jacques Brel and the moving Dans le Port d ’Amsterdam, brilliantly covered by the late and equally brilliant David Bowie). So hearing of the great man’s death the next morning upon returning home, really did fill me with sadness.

50 years of studio and live recordings are a life well spent as far as I’m concerned. His haunting lyrics will forever resound in the hearts of many serious music lovers, musicians, poets and song-writers, and especially in that of a 15-year old girl, “… for you’ve touched her perfect body, with your mind.” (Suzanne, Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967).

RIP Leonard Cohen, 1934  - 2016

Voices (3)

  1. bitter and twisted even more bitter than usual:

    So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll
    I’m very sorry, baby, doesn’t look like me at all

  2. Keith Brace-John:

    I am, or rather was, the ‘trendy, NME-reading, Clash-listening, 20-something year old’ of whom Nancy speaks, although, I admit, I had to check with her to see if I had recognised myself correctly; many years have passed and time and age clouds the memory and perceptions of one’s younger self.

    The detail of my Damascene conversion to the works of Mr. Cohen may not be as clear in my recall as it is in Nancy’s mind but what I am certain of is that it is to her alone that I owe the thanks for the introduction.

    And I have, indeed, been listening to him ever since.

    I still marvel at the rich imagery and the deceptive simplicity (or is it deceptive complexity?) of his songs and all the aching humanity laid bare within them, all delivered in that unique, rich, gravel voice with a centred, soulful sagacity that reaches into you and grabs you by the heart every time.

    He is one of the far too many creative beacons that have been lost in recent months but, although L. Cohen may be gone we can comfort ourselves that ‘we have the music’.

  3. Martyn Gladman:

    Like Nancy I first heard Leonard Cohen in my early teens. After listening to the opening verse of Suzanne I was hooked for life.
    I recognised from the deep hypnotic voice and the rich melodic lyrics, that not only was I sharing a journey with a great song writer but I was about to commence a sojourn with a fellow poet. I was not to be disappointed.

    Over the years Mr Cohen has startled generations with words and music that reached the core of such a widespread audience and resonated in the hearts and minds of us all… with wisdom both sweet and sour.

    It would be thirty five years after being introduced to Suzanne and many albums later, that I would eventually see Leonard Cohen live at a modest gathering in Bournemouth, where my daughter and I shared “a flake of his life.” I will remember it with great fondness.
    I know that this is “no way to say goodbye old friend, but my eyes are sad with sorrow.”

    Sincerely M Gladman

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