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Leonard Cohen 1934-2016

Falling for a songwriter

I barely even acknowledged the existence of Leonard Cohen before 2008. I’d known, and liked, Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah cover, and I suppose I knew the Cohen name, but I’d never lingered or thought about it any further. I’d coasted through an intensive musical education during my time at university, but it was shamefully Brit-centric and didn’t take in septuagenarian songwriters from Montreal.

My parents went to a concert at Greenwich O2 in July ‘08, a concert captured for posterity in the excellent ‘Live in London’ album and DVD. I remember them raving about how extraordinary they found it at the time, but wasn’t really paying much attention and nodded along in a generally vague fashion.

It made a bigger impact when they bought four tickets for the return gigs in November, insisting Anna and I come along to ‘experience’ Cohen live. I was tempted to ignore the texts at first – offers of freebies to London events were in no short supply – but something about their passionate insistence, and the desire to make something of my post-Hayes autumn pushed me into accepting.

I’d almost completely forgotten until a couple of weeks before the event, stealing a copy of the piss-coloured first Greatest Hits from the parents’ collection and sticking it on my iPod. The mid-seventies 12 track only covers the first four albums, never hitting the middle aged growl, and exclusively exploring the biggest ‘hits’ of Cohen’s softer voice. I was fascinated and enchanted, surprised to never have listened before and immediately narrowing in on ‘Suzanne’ and ‘So Long Marianne’ as album highpoints.

Anna bailed out in favour of a Razorlight ticket clash at Brixton Academy, regrettably preferring an evening of shirtless Johnny Borrell to LC. I’ve never really forgiven her, though the extra seat proved useful for bag and coat storage.

We were in the back row, north left of stage, hidden away in the upper tier. There were over 10,000 people in the venue that night, our seats at such steepness that I thought we’d topple out into the void and crash down onto stage as flesh confetti. During the interval, sandwiched between ‘Anthem’ and ‘Tower of Song’ – both heard for the first time in that room – I was convinced I was watching the best concert of my life. There were also chips! Surprisingly good concert chips! And beer. You’d think O2 would mangle the catering, but chips/beer/Cohen proved an irresistible mix. It was as though management knew the night was special and upped their game.

Cohen blasted through over 25 songs in total, taking in over forty years of career. The times outside were strange ones, with an unpopular government in office, the world mired in financial collapse and a disappointing James Bond film on general release. In that room though, never usually good for live music, Cohen crushed the despair out of the audience. An artist unfairly smeared as being downcast and grey brought a crowd to its feet.

We left a song or two before the end of the encore, keen to miss the crush on the way to Greenwich North. It seems peculiar behaviour on retrospect, as half the crowd had waited a lifetime to see this artist, and we’re strolling out of the door early. I suppose I didn’t feel compelled to stay until the last clap. I’d been radicalised into a guerrilla fighter of the Montreal militia, planning a lifetime of summers on Hydra and Jewish occupation of the ear drum. The sooner we got out of that building, the sooner I could head home and start the real work.

2008, of course, was not a year of fantastic resource. I’d just moved house, I was still broke from the previous place, and my only luxury was a short holiday booked for the following spring with the proceeds of a utility rebate. Old habits persisted, so I chose the way of the animal and downloaded Cohen’s entire back catalogue illegally. I got the works, the full eleven studio albums that existed at that point, some live records, anything I could get my hands on. Usually when making a commitment to an artist with history I’d start slowly, falling hard for the Greatest Hits and then delicately probe onward with the supposed ‘best’ albums. With Cohen I threw caution to the wind, racking up some hundred plus songs in chronological order. Starting with ‘Suzanne’ on 1967’s ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’ and marching forth, I ploughed through that back catalogue with militant dedication. Obsessing, learning, memorising, it was the most instant and intense musical connection of my life being lived out decades after most of the work had been born.

Anna took convincing. I tried to play albums, to her general disinterest, leaping on tickets for Cohen’s show the following summer at Weybridge, Mercedes Benz world and hoping her baring witness would make a second believer. I mean, she chose to go and see Razorlight over him the first time around. Fucking Razorlight!

There was a little improvement before the date itself, until one night a couple of weeks out where she demanded, to my surprise, for the iPod to be docked and some of those delicate early tracks to float over sleeptime. I remember laying in the bed as ‘Last Year’s Man’ played, knowing I’d come close to succeeding in my desire to force Cohen into the relationship next to Pete Doherty. Perhaps they could light each others cigarettes?

The concert in Weybridge was, in many ways, a disaster. No fault of Cohen or his exemplary band, but the outdoor location, atrocious weather, and non-existent infrastructure made for a miserable day. It was the sort of concert we still invoke when wallowing in gallows humour, its failings shining through the ages and always there when pondering how well or badly an event is going. ‘It could be worse; it could be Mercedes Benz world’. Many memories rise up, from the crappy disposable ponchos we bought, to the sheepish attendant who mopped dry our seats, the mushroom crepe and granule coffee I tried to feed Anna and the relentless, unyielding onslaught of rain. Cohen shone out through the hell, winning Anna’s affection even if his presence couldn’t quite make up for the shitty afternoon itself. Hundreds of cups of tea were required to correct the damage.

As my interest deepened to novels and biographies, my playlists took on more colourful flavours, splitting apart the songs into strange, personalised categories based on mood and association. New artists were in the mix again, I needed people in my life who were still producing. Cohen was like a blanket, but the tracks that existed were locked in place. There wouldn’t be any more. There had been a successful world tour, debts had been paid, life would return to normal. I suspected I’d seen him for the last time.

*

January 2012. A new album. ‘Old Ideas’ was certainly his most technically accomplished and interesting release since 1992’s ‘The Future’, the 10 tracks gently sliding by with Cohen’s spoken voice layered over his touring bands expert play. I love the recordings on the post-resurrection releases. His songwriting is always reliably brilliant, but the backing singers and arrangement accompanies the older, lower-energy vocal so beautifully that it feels like the ultimate realisation of what he’s been striving for since his voice deepened out in the early eighties.

The new tour went on for ages. I’m still questioning why we never tried to go to one of the earlier European dates, but we finally attended again in September 2013. By this time, his songs had spent several years in stereo circulation, as loved by Anna as myself. Tickets in the basket. No flood of rain this time, no stupid fucking poncho. Prime seats, with an album to back the whole thing, experienced in real-time with the hardcore. Of course, my interest appeared mild alongside the lifers, the enthusiasts and crazies that followed the band around the continent – around the world, but we were just pleased to see him again in a better environment.

I remember very little of that third, and probably final, concert. It’s as though my feelings were so intense and detailed at both Greenwich ’08 and Weybridge ’09 my brain, knowing this might be the last time, wanted to just preserve the moment in the moment and not extend itself to filling my somewhat unreliable long term memory bank. We had uninterrupted, direct line-of-sight, close to stage. It was obviously too much for my brain to handle!

*

The story wasn’t over, further albums would emerge unexpectedly and at short notice with 2014’s ‘Popular Problems’ (incredible) and 2016’s recent ‘You Want it Darker’ (great). Both were much the same breed as ‘Old Ideas’ and dominated my listening habits for weeks. Both slot in with the previous work, an organic part of a life’s music and a worthy continuation of expression demonstrated throughout a career stretching through six decades.

And now he’s gone, of course, as all things are. I don’t know how I feel about it. On one hand, Leonard Cohen as a man is uniquely suited to that final rite of passage; on the other hand those of us left behind have to deal with the floods of feelings accompanying that end. I hoped he could cling on for the same 107 years his Buddhist master-bro Kyozan Joshu Sasaki achieved in the Mount Baldy monastery where Cohen spent most of the 1990s.

One last tour. The hundredth birthday spectacle in Autumn 2034. Book my ticket! But not now. It’s over.

My favourite ten Leonard Cohen songs

I should caveat this list with the insistence that it would shift and change on a daily basis and that it’s shitty to choose favourites, because I love pretty much every song on every album. Except for ‘Jazz Police’.

In age order…

Suzanne (Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967)

Sisters of Mercy (Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967)

So Long Marianne (Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967)

Famous Blue Raincoat (Songs of Love and Hate, 1971)

Is This What You Wanted (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974)

Memories (Death of a Ladies’ Man, 1977)

Take This Waltz (I’m Your Man, 1988)

Closing Time (The Future, 1992)

Going Home (Old Ideas, 2012)

A Street (Popular Problems, 2014)

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