Thoughts on Leonard Cohen
During the summer I spend time in my home town of Montreal, specifically, the Plateau, not far from the Main where Leonard Cohen is still ticking. That he continues to croon despite the pummelling and erosion that ageing provides—along with bankruptcy due to embezzlement and numerous love-gone-wrong affairs—is awe-inspiring. I was a little tyke when he first appeared on my parents’ record player and I couldn’t figure out what was so great about the little man hunched over his guitar.
Just like Leonard, my father started wearing turtlenecks, and grew his hair while my mother shortened her skirts and bought Go Go boots. They’d spawned six children, were bored with the child rearing gig and into “happenings”. Our home on Lincoln Avenue near the Guy métro station housed groovy artists, draft dodgers, Black Panthers, and Buckminster Fuller, who looked to me to be a hundred. Bucky insisted on steak and eggs for breakfast, slept little at night but took quick naps of his own free will during the day which, from my kindergarten perspective, made no sense at all.
The infamous Station 10 was a block from our house offering me an early education in police brutality as they roughed up hippies. Through all this Leonard sang “So long, Marianne” and “Suzanne,” helping to formulate my early skewed notions of romance. My mother’s name is Mari-Ann (Swedish spelling) so I figured Leonard had to be singing about someone like her. Why did they meet when they were almost young, and why did they have to kneel through the dark? And why was Marianne fastening his ankle to a stone with a spider’s web when he was as cold as a razor blade? She changed her name again, and he climbed a mountainside to wash his eyelids in the rain? Who does that? And why was it time to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again when it wasn’t funny in the first place? So many questions.
And yet I found myself humming Leonard’s tunes while spinning wheelies on my banana bike, and chasing rats in the back alley. And Suzanne, who didn’t want to be her with her house by the river where she served tea and oranges that came all the way from China? I couldn’t figure out why she wanted to travel blind but I loved it that she was half crazy and could get Leonard on her wave-length, and let him touch her perfect body with her mind. I wasn’t sure I wanted to wear rags and feathers, or that Jesus was a sailor in a lonely wooden tower, but it was pretty cool that Suzanne saw heroes in the seaweed and children in the morning. That she was holding the mirror meant she was in charge which was what I planned to be.
Years wore on, I did not feel in charge but had many love-gone-wrong affairs, never thinking I was some kind of gypsy before my lovers took me home, and acquiring no house by a river where I served tea and oranges that came all the way from China. Leonard’s tunes continued to pop through the miasma of my thoughts and I’d sing quietly to myself, wistful about an innocence long gone but content to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.
Meanwhile Leonard became a recluse at Mount Baldy, dodging the fame bullets and love-gone-wrong courtesy of Rebecca de Mornay. She was much younger and prettier than he was so I wasn’t surprised when she ditched him. Seemed to me becoming an ordained Buddhist monk was a good rebound plan. I envied Leonard’s ability to shut it all down while I was trapped in the making-a-living-as-a-writer grind, and fumbling around trying to find love-gone-right.
Leonard Cohen is now eighty, still writing and singing love ballads. His last world tour was 2012. I’m too jaded for love ballads now, and can’t imagine where my head will be at as an octogenarian. But I suspect in a few decades when I go for my daily walk (if I can still walk), Suzanne or Marianne will slip into my mind’s sound track and I’ll hum along, still not understanding why only drowning men could see Jesus, or why he said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them. But who says poetry has to be understood? Those tunes will forever evoke emotions in me, and memories of a Montreal sans big brand stores and Starbucking. A time when you could score great Hungarian food for six bucks at the Mazurka on Prince Arthur, wander over to the Saint Lawrence bakery and wolf down fresh cheese danishes, buy black Russian bread, waddle over to the local épicerie for olives, brie, and cheap wine, and meander back to your low rent apartment on Avenue des Pins above a pizza joint. That his songs from half a century ago continue to spark images in my weathered imagination attests to the resilience, tenacity and singularity of Leonard Cohen. And when my young daughter pulls out her guitar to sing “Hallelujah”, his 21st century hit that has been covered by many outstanding artists including The Canadian Tenors and KD Lang, I know that Leonard Cohen’s songs will live on for as long as we can sing—or hum—them.
To learn more about Leonard Cohen, please visit his official website.
Cordelia Strube is an accomplished playwright and the author of nine critically acclaimed novels, including Alex & Zee, Teaching Pigs to Sing, and Lemon. Winner of the CBC literary competition and a Toronto Arts Foundation Award, she has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Book Award, the WH Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Prix Italia, and long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. A two time finalist for ACTRA’s Nellie Award celebrating excellence in Canadian broadcasting, she is also a three-time nominee for the ReLit Award. Here is her website.