I was four years old the first time I heard Leonard Cohen's music.
One Saturday morning I came downstairs to 'So Long Marianne' playing from the speakers in the empty living room.
I went over to the hearth of our long disused fireplace, and half-standing, half-hanging with my hands on the mantelpiece, I listened to the song with a furrowed brow and tried to work out just how destitute this man was.
If he wasn't homeless he was at least hungry, and possibly an alcoholic.
Up to that time my understanding of homeless people had been that they were always sad and you could do nothing for them but frown until you felt similarly sad, give them some pennies to put towards the house they were going to buy, or ask your parents to buy them an ice cream if it was a really hot day.
Life wasn't simply a vale of tears and you could be happy and sad at the same time. There was something sphinx-like about it that stayed with me.
My parents played that album on loop for a few years, but aside from some brief exposure to 'I'm Your Man' during my dad's minidisc phase, I didn't hear any more of Cohen´s music until I was eighteen, when a friend of my brother played a few chords of One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong on the guitar one day. The memories came flooding back. I began to teach myself the guitar immediately.
Twenty-three years from that initial morning and Leonard feels like a fundamental part of me still. When I started to travel alone he was a great comfort.
"Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control. It begins with your family but soon it comes round to your soul. I've been where you're heading, I think I can see how you're pinned. When you're not feeling holy/wholly, your loneliness says that you've sinned."After the travel and into work, a brief university attempt and bouts of young-man's-depression he stuck around. 'Dress rehearsal rag' functioned as the litmus test for suicide at one point. Sitting here I'm now glad we both failed that one, and it took the edge of shame off to know someone else who was compelled to pull out of the nosedive...even if levelling out still just meant clipping the shrubs with one´s wing-tips.
His music has been a map for me that played strangely well into the territory I came to experience, and anything of his that gave some solace I've generally internalized without thinking about it.
There is something elemental about the poetry in his work that I think allows it to be embodied so readily, specifically in his first three albums. I see him as something between a sculptor and a glacier, bearing upon his words gradually until they are few, and worn smooth. An ineluctable force working in hope of ineluctable language. The result for me is almost gnostic. The language gave me either permission or reassurance when wandering and experimenting. It made it feel alright to grow in hope of a light as yet unseen.
Right now I am processing his death from the perspective of someone who owes no small part of their thinking to the man. So much of his work offers itself to help in remembering, celebrating and mourning him, but what has struck out for me at the moment is 'The Old Revolution'. I'd overlooked this song until last week. It is difficult to comment on the significance of this song for me at the moment without giving it chapter and verse and pulling a few psychological threads to the point of unravelling, so I'll try to keep it short.
What I feel I took that first day, from the man who laughs and cries and intends to continue doing both, was that you can tolerate and, moreover, survive apparent ambiguities and contrasts. What seemed to be in very simple terms, something of a mission to remain happy in sad times.
Twenty three years and a lot of ambiguity and contrast later, and I can say that that the odd sense of continuity in my own life would affirm this, and that it probably helped to have had this model to work with from the start.There is a reframing of this point in a staggering line from the first verse of 'The Old Revolution' that says what to me is the same message about tolerance of contrast, from an inverted angle that fits my own cycles of fevered searching and resignation:
"Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows."
The gyroscope of resignation rebalances from either side. When you are desperate to remain happy despite life´s sadness, you can do so. Some years later when depression and cynicism begin to show signs of leisurely use, it can be alarming to remember that moments of happiness are inevitable, whether you like it or not.Your new challenge might be to remain aloof and stoic whilst stepping around the puddles of joy.
This is almost like a permission slip to come back off pseudo-intellectual Heraclitic world-weary holy mountain and have a slice of cake with the other idiots, of whom you are of course one, in case you´d forgotten.
And then in the last verse I am hit by a line that contrasts this. After permission to put your picnic blanket down in the shit and enjoy the atmospheric phenomena of a life in gruel, there comes a line that gives me restlessness.
"The hand of your beggar is burdened down with money. The hand of your lover is clay."
Having spent perhaps enough time the last year foregoing intellectual perseverance for comfort, this makes me want to scoff my cake and get back on the search. Joy in sadness, yes. Sadness in joy, yes. Stopping at either one for too long? Not really possible. You may be figure of eighting between the two nuclei for the rest of your days, and that might be pointless, but so what? You can´t just stop here in the land of relative financial comfort and untold cynicism, enjoying your sandwich whilst batting the flies away. You have to take another shot at something meaningful to you, even if it just ends up being the return journey.
I imagine life will continue to be a constant tacking between the two, and perhaps the searching-stopping cycle is the furnace he speaks of, in the last line of the song. In some way these words embody the golden breadcrumbs he left for me as I came through innocence to experience and grew up with him; acceptance and love of the human carnival in its glory and its weariness.
I would like to echo his words back to him as he embarks on his voyage into the place where real ambiguity begins:
"Into this furnace I ask you now to venture,
You whom I cannot betray."