Thanks for the Song

A few of my friends called me when Leonard Cohen died.  Even one or two who didn’t particularly like him.  I was an admirer, but I was surprised that I was the person that they thought of.  Maybe I shouldn’t have been.  While I had never gotten around to reading his first novel, I had read all of his other books and I know almost all of his songs by heart. I didn’t consider myself any kind of super-fan, just an appreciator.  But now I find myself critiquing his obituaries that seem to think that he only wrote one song and I am feeling like a bit of an evangelist.

I came to Cohen at a dark, unemployed place in my life ten summers ago.  Everyday I would walk down to the library to look for a job (I didn’t have a proper internet hook-up at home), but I was too dispirited to be very effective (I can’t imagine what I sounded like on the phone interviews I did).

That year the library was having a book-sale and, in a moment of extravagance, I decided to pick a few books up.  I only had 50¢ on me, but it met the suggested donation amount for two books.  One was a  novel by a famous writer of my youth — and it was a fine novel but not one that  really did anything for me.  The other was the The Selected Poems of Leonard Cohen.  I must have been the very last person on earth to be introduced to him through his poetry.  I think that I just picked the book up because I recognized the name and couldn’t place it.  In another age he perhaps could have been a great poet.  Sadly, his era was a bad one for poets.  They were constrained to writing nothing but safe, conservative free-verse with its bland (yet simultaneously embarrassing) bouts of self-expression. It was a minor art, practiced by dilettantes, for an audience of almost nobody.  When I read those poems I could feel him breaking out of those restraints.  It is hardly a surprise he became a song-writer.  Song was the great medium for anyone of his generation who had anything to say.

I took the book home and devoured it front and back several times.  It was by far the best two-bits I had ever spent. I soon realized who he was and that I knew some cheesy covers of a few of his great songs — Hallelujah, Bird on a Wire, Suzanne, and maybe a few others. Soon I was to discover songs that I loved much more than these — One of Us Cannot Be Wrong, Alexandra Leaving, Everybody Knows.

Discovering him made me incredible joyful.  I bought his greatest hits album. I got a job.  I may have even decided not to marry a girl when she called his voice ‘creepy.’ When I burned my old CDs recently  I made copies of many of them to listen to in the car (I didn’t want the originals to get scratched) I realized that I didn’t put his name — only the titles — on his albums.   He is the only musician for whom my enthusiasm hasn’t flagged.

I have been lucky enough to have never met my heroes (although I once walked passed Seamus Heaney on a subway platform).  But once, in a dream about something else entirely, I bought a drink for Cohen who was off at the bar with his girlfriend.  I asked the waitress to bring him a round and thank him for the song.  Not even in the dream did I look back to see how he reacted.  In his great songs, and in the Beautiful Losers, he constantly gave us a good example on walking way from good things when they ended.  To embrace the pain and exit as poised and graceful as possible.  There comes a time when we all have to pack up our regrets, straighten our ties, and walk off to wherever it is we have to go.

 

 

 

ON THE LATE SEAMUS HEANEY, POET

NOTE: This first appeared on my old blog on August 30th 2013.

Seamus Heaney died today, and the press immediately jumped on his Nobel Prize and his his writing about the The Troubles in Northern Ireland, proving definitively that no one in the press had read his work. The Nobel Prize is a fine thing when used to sell books but it says nothing of merit. At best it is an indicator that a person with solidly centrist political beliefs has reached a certain level of fame and a certain quality of writing, but it says nothing of greatness, or even interest. Heaney was defined by the politics of his time, but what of it? Everyone is. We don’t pretend that Chaucer is a spokesmen for the hundred-year-war generation (or generations as it may be), but certainly as a soldier and a statesman he was created by it.

Instead Heaney’s worth will be his ability to reach people and his ability to have his quirks and queernesses seem completely natural and correct. He was one of the most eccentric and provincial writers ever born but made us all feel as if we were of his tribe and his quirks and queernesses were ours and his province our own.

I have no right or even desire to speak for posterity but I hope he will be read in the future, without cumbersome foot notes or drawn out introductions (posterity I’m sure will have dictionaries if they want to know what a ‘bleb’ is) and just read for his immediacy warmth and miraculous sense of language.