And so, in a year of musical losses, another mighty Totara has fallen. For me Leonard Cohen is the pinnacle, not by any measure of quality or greatness, although such an argument could be made, but by the more simple and important measure of what his work has meant to me. Only two weeks ago I used Anthem as the introductory music to my latest play, in doing so running the obvious risk of everything that followed being something of a disappointment (I once heard Lloyd Cole cover Famous Blue Raincoat in a Wellington bar and at it’s conclusion he offered, rather mournfully ‘the problem of covering a Cohen song in concert is you have to follow it with one of your own’).
My relationship with the music of Cohen dates back to 1985, which makes me something of a newcomer, I know. In an interview some years back Nick Cave spoke of first hearing Cohen’s music in his small Australian town, and thinking, I’m not alone. My first encounter, whilst less grand and fecund, had elements of the same, and I’m sure explains part of my obsession with the man’s work. Growing up in a house some 6kms south of Featherston counts as cultural isolation of sorts, and in the world before the internet it was only a Sunday evening fix of Karen Hay that gave any hint of a world more sophisticated than The Eagles or a secondary school reading list (when you’re a seventeen year old boy literary novels appear to have been written almost exclusively by self-absorbed malcontents who have trouble connecting – actually… ).
So, when it comes to Cohen, I really do remember my first time. Karen Hay introduced him as another artist making a comeback that year (the others on the list have faded – Graham Parker?) and so it was me, the television and Dance me to the End of Love. My response, I must admit, was a very adolescent one. Here was a beautiful song: musically simple, with lyrics not just crafted in their own right, but so perfectly matched to the demands of the song and the voice. And yet it was nothing like any of the music I listened to, and I was struck by that most ridiculous yet common of impulses – am I allowed to listen to this kind of music (enjoy this type of drink, wear these clothes, express this opinion, go out with this woman)? Happy to say, the pull of pack was weak on that evening, and the next week I scoured the bins of one of Masterton’s two record stores and Various Positions was mine.
I never knew the album was initially a flop, or that it would be many years before Jeff Buckley’s cover would take Hallelujah to the world. I just knew that a middle aged Canadian Poet in a suit was rocking my world in the way a hundred sneering punks in Docs had never quite managed to do. At some point I took the album to school and played in on the beaten turntable in our Seventh Form Common room. A teacher, perhaps the only original mind on the staff, paused outside and poked her head in the door. ‘What are you listening to?’ ‘Leonard Cohen’. She smiled, as if there was some hope left in the world after all, and left. This was my first glimpse of an underground network of ‘those who love Cohen’, a marker of so many predictable qualities that, along with an appreciation of The West Wing or a fascination with David Hume, is a reliable indicator of the quality of the conversation that might follow. (This particular teacher, how memories come up in a tangle, left us on the last day in her class with the memorable phrase ‘all I’ve ever wanted to do was unsettle every safe thought you’ve ever had.’) Twenty five years later, when Cohen undertook his famous tour(s), part of the magic was, I’m sure, the knowledge that we were most certainly not alone.
Seven years later, holed up in the small room we had claimed in a Tokyo Gaijin house, with only a cassette player rescued from a sidewalk throwout for entertainment, I was rescued by a chap who provided me with a copy of The Future, for me the one album that can challenge Various Positions for top spot (Yes, I know, people love I’m Your Man, but I’m assuming they skip Jazz Police every time, right?) So much did I love the man’s music that I even tried to enjoy Dear Heather. That, at eighty, he would produce another of his truly fine albums in Popular Problems offers hope to all who dare believe dreams need never die.
I’m something of a philistine when it comes to poetry, too much of it comes across as a confidence trick, but that is a flaw of mine, not of the poets. For Leonard though, I make an exception.