Oh like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
I am sure many people feel about Leonard the way I do, so to many, these thoughts and words will be nothing new. Yet, every Leonard Cohen fan has his or her own memories of the songs, his stories and of the man himself, and everyone feels strongly that those memories are their own to hold and no one else can adequately understand the depth and significance of those. This is what Leonard did, he made everyone feel that he was sharing his stories and his sentiments with each individual. And so it should be. That is the undeniable power a poet, writer, singer, artist possesses, he or she makes you become part of them.
My memories go back to the early 70s when Leonard became part of my university life; his records in the Sydney University library, available to those who booked a seat with headphones, were a welcome break, long or short, from going to lectures and studying. Suzanne, So long Marianne and That’s no way to say goodbye were particular favourites at times of unrequited love episodes, stress due to assignments to be done and exam study left to the last minute. Leonard was there to tell me I wasn’t the only one feeling sad. A fill of his beautiful poetry and soothing melody made me feel better despite the lingering sadness of the sentiments of his songs.
After university, Leonard’s songs and music took somewhat of a back seat in my life; there were other songs, other music, other countries, different people, life took its own meandering ways and stops. For many years I found his music quite depressing, despite the loveliness and strength of his poetry. I wanted more upbeat music and so for a while Leonard was relegated to a group of CDs at the back of the cupboard, to be listened to sometime in the future. Little did I know then that I would come back to his music with renewed passion. His life too, although I would never be so presumptuous to compare it in any way to mine, took him on many different paths, journeys and changed his writing, music and ways of being. Yet, the essence of his words never changed – there was love, goodbyes, redemption, hurt and even politics, often represented as human failings and the power of hope.
I fought in the old revolution
on the side of the ghost and the King.
Of course I was very young
and I thought that we were winning;
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
as they carry the bodies away.
You got me singing
Even tho’ the news is bad
You got me singing
The only song I ever had
Sometime in the early years of the new century a friend said to me he had seen Leonard perform in concert and what a magnificent performance it had been. The words stayed with me and then another friend gave me a CD and DVD of his live performance in London and I fell in love with this man, his music, his words, his life and what he had gone through. His voice was now much deeper, more mature and in lots of ways more appealing, with both velvety and gravelly nuances woven through it, perhaps the effect of drink and cigarettes, it has been said. The words to many of his songs were familiar but the voice and his appearance had changed. There were new songs too, or at least songs I had not heard during my hiatus from his music. I listened to the CD and watched the DVD over and over. And then in 2008 an announcement in the newspaper had me booking tickets the day they were released. I couldn’t wait for the concert.
Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
From the moment he stepped onto the stage in his dark suit, wearing his signature hat until the time he sang the last encore I was mesmerised. I now understood what my friend meant by his performance being magnificent. Here he was at the age of 74, playing , singing, getting down to his knees and back up again with the energy of a 34 year old. His songs, the newer ones and the old favourites, all sung as if he were singing to each individual in that audience. His band and supporting singers, all consummate professionals, totally in tune with their master. And a master he was. The emotion portrayed, the notes, the words, the in-between songs talk, they were all perfect. I had tears in my eyes more than once. And then it hit me, there was so much similarity, not just his face but also in his body language, between him and my father. Once I realised this, everything Leonard did brought back memories of my dad. The similarity was most prominent in the gentle voice when he spoke to the audience, the gentlemanly demeanour and the way his face lit up when he smiled.
Les Allemands étaient chez moi
ils m’ont dit “Résigne-toi”
mais je n’ai pas pu
j’ai repris mon arme
Following the concert, I downloaded many of the songs I had not heard before and he became a favourite walking and travelling companion. I never got tired of listening to that voice. In 2010 I couldn’t believe my luck when another concert was announced for Melbourne and so of course, bought tickets. This time I would take my grown children to see if he could weave the same magic for them. Yes, Leonard was a favourite with the whole family. My daughter, who was 20 at the time, tells me he was actually a favourite before the concert.
The doctor’s working day and night
But they’ll never ever find that cure,
That cure for love
Even though I knew now what to expect from Leonard Cohen concert, his performance was beyond expectation. Two more years had not made any difference to his voice or physicality, he was still able to perform with the same energy and passion, including yet again getting down to his knees and back up. The audience, made up of young, older and old, loved him of course. Many of the younger members of the audience, sang along with him, something which annoyed me immensely. I was there to listen to him and only him and didn’t want this experience marred by others. But perhaps that’s an unavoidable sign of the times and perhaps my age and selfishness. I am sure at other festivals and concerts they go to this is very common but on this night I just wanted Leonard all by himself .
Wasn’t hard to love you
Didn’t have to try
Wasn’t hard to love you
Didn’t have to try
Held you for a little while
My Oh My Oh My
In the last interview he gave about his You want it darker album, Leonard did seem a lot frailer and I knew then there would be no more concerts, despite my fervent wish for another chance to see him perform. His message to his Marianne, two days before her death, seemed a premonition, but one I did not take seriously, after all he was not ill. So his death came as a shock to me and the millions of his world wide fans. It made a horrible week even worse and perhaps he and his gentleness and love of the world as he knew it, could no longer face an uncertain and seemingly changed world. Or perhaps he was just following Marianne. RIP Leonard – you will not be forgotten.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.