The first time I heard of Leonard Cohen was when I was fifteen, back in 1985. Though strictly speaking, the first song I heard was neither written nor performed by him.
I had been sent to South London to stay with my uncle for a week or two, the summer after finishing my A-Levels. My uncle, however, had his own plans the night I arrived, and they clearly didn’t include me. So he gave me the addresses of a couple of his friends, whom he encouraged me to visit. Gamely, I set off to knock on the doors of these people I had never met, and who hadn’t a clue as to who I was. But I was quickly and enthusiastically welcomed in, nobody even batting an eye at the apparition of this slightly lost young boy from up north who announced he was Andrew the hairdresser’s nephew.
I soon found myself installed in a cluttered living room, lined with couches. People came and went. I was no doubt offered a beer or two. The air was hazy with smoke. There had been some kind of party the night before, and the floor was haphazardly piled high with LPs–some in their sleeves, some not. Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, Van Morrison, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. But rather than listening to the stereo, my host, Steve, was strumming his guitar. Older–my uncle’s age–bearded, somewhat grizzled, but with lively blue eyes, he seemed to emanate obscure knowledge like some sort of shaman. I asked him if he knew any songs about the Spanish Civil War. He played “The Partisan,” Cohen’s version of a song (in fact) originally about the French Resistance. It was more than close enough for me.
And Steve carried on playing Cohen songs: “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Perhaps “Bird on a Wire.” It turned out that, in this company at least, some of these tunes were made for singing along: “So Long, Marianne,” for instance. Cohen would prove to be the soundtrack, the shared memory and experience, for a whole new world I was stepping into. For this was just the first of many such informal, impromptu gatherings over the next decade or so, as I returned to South London and eventually came to live nearby. Parties, gatherings before or after going to the pub, Sunday afternoons, weekday evenings. Almost always a guitar, almost always Leonard Cohen.
So for me, however much Cohen’s image and even many of his lyrics suggest solitude and isolation, missed encounters and regret (“I said to Hank Williams: How lonely does it get?”), my experience of his music has almost always been as part of a crowd. Even when I think of what is surely his most devastating song, “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” what comes to mind is an extraordinary performance by my uncle himself at one of these late night get-togethers. More recently, I’ve joined such communal, cathartic sing-a-alongs here in British Columbia with people such as my friend Max and his family. Still, listening to Cohen takes me back to cluttered, crowded, smoky living rooms in South London, when it didn’t matter how badly you sang–it hardly seemed to matter to Leonard–but that you sang with (shared) feeling.
Cohen’s mantra was always that of the “beautiful loser.” His claim: that the damaged, the disfigured, the disappointed, the defeated also have a right to hope again, without ever denying their pain and hurt. That, even at the lowest points of life (Joan of Arc at the stake; Isaac on his sacrificial pyre), there is some solace to be found, some chance for redemption if not salvation. There might even perhaps be an opening on to an ecstasy that’s decidedly immanent, part of this world. “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” Moreover, Cohen’s view was that that it is only in these depths that true solidarity and empathy are to be found. Our tragedy is that we are all in fact losers, lost whether we know it yet or not. But this is also our triumph, so long as we remember to sing along when the time comes:
It may not be tonight, it may not be tomorrow, but one day you’ll be on your knees and I want you to know the words when the time comes. Because you’re going to have to sing it to yourself, or to another, or to your brother. You’re going to have to learn to sing this song, it goes:
“Please don’t pass me by,
Please don’t pass me by,
For I am blind, but you can see,
Yes, I’ve been blinded totally,
Oh please don’t pass me by.”
Cohen is gone now. He’d say that at best he was only ever passing through. But so are we all: “sometimes happy, sometimes blue.” The point in the meantime is to keep alive the spirit of hospitality that I associate with my first encounter with his songs. And to maintain the sense of commonality, the recognition that our fates are necessarily intertwined, too easily forgotten by those who happen not (right now) to find themselves in the gutter. No better way than to invite someone to sing with you. This is music for sharing.
“Then we’ll come from the shadows.”