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.