I loved Leonard Cohen most when he had fallen into neglect. The time at the turn of the century when he was still out of fashion. The men behind the counters of vinyl shops in Perth met his name with derision. “What would you want to listen to that for?” demanded the owner at the underground one in Fremantle who always checked what you were looking for as you came in. “Music to slit your wrists to!” For a time, I played Cohen’s albums obsessively. The artists who mean the most to me always make me feel we share a special understanding. Of course, any sense of reciprocity in that is an illusion.
One of his verses gave me comfort in a break-up, even if the sentiments were aspirational rather than true.
I don’t mean to suggest
That I loved you the best
I can’t keep track of each fallen robin
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
That’s all, I don’t think of you that often
I ordered his novel The Favourite Game, then only in print in Canada, and thought it a brilliant novel. I’ve been meaning to re-read, but I hesitate, because it’s no longer the right season to be reading it.
I wrote my second (failed) novel in thrall to him, calling my main character “Leo” in tribute. For a time, it was titled “The Revolution’s Pride” from a line in “Diamonds in the Mine.” His song “Famous Blue Raincoat” shaped the plot and the feel of that novel. It was the song I listened to more than any, and it seemed so perfectly sad and beautiful.
Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear
Did you ever go clear?
When I married a musician, she told me he didn’t sing in tune. I couldn’t really tell, but I wasn’t surprised. His songs were poetry, and they were a mood, and perhaps even a mode.
I never thought I’d see him play, but I did. It was at the Sandalford Winery on 7 February 2009. Just before I was due to leave – I was going alone – a parcel arrived. The courier must have been working overtime. It was my publisher, returning the manuscript of that failed second novel. It was, actually, the moment its failure became apparent after working with them on it for five years of back and forth. I felt like I’d been punched in the guts and I was miserable as I listened to Leonard Cohen on the grassy bank in the heat.
He was in fashion again – which I’m glad of, for his sake – and all the baby boomers of Perth were there to hear him. They were all big fans, they all knew the words to “Hallelujah.” I’d always imagined that I’d see Cohen in a dingy bar strumming his guitar solo, an intimate performance to a gathering of hardcore fans. This concert was the opposite of that, a huge line-up of musicians and dancers on stage transforming his sound.
Stuck in a traffic jam trying to leave in the hot dark, the radio had rolling coverage of massive bushfires in Victoria. I couldn’t believe the things they were saying there in the dark, whole towns burnt, so many people dead. It felt the world was coming to an end. Cohen’s contemporary, John Updike, had just died too. Updike and Cohen were always on this list in my head of heroes whose demise I await with dread. But Cohen lived on and I lived on and incredibly he even gave us three more albums. It’s only now that day has finally come and he joins that long list of celebrities who didn’t survive 2016. Perhaps it will always be remarked that the news of his death came as the world reeled from Trump’s election win. “Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.” But it was. In public terms, he died as well as a man could. Thank you Leonard Cohen for all you gave us.