When I was sixteen years old I was in love with this boy in the way that you can only be at sixteen. He was older than me and always slightly unattainable — a heady mix — and we would talk on the phone late at night about music and writers.
He was the one who got me into Leonard Cohen, by holding the phone up to his tape player so I could hear it. It was hard to find Leonard Cohen’s music at the time, even in Canada; he was so unfashionable that my mother was surprised I was looking for it, wondering why I wanted to hear things that were out of style by the time the 70s had rolled through.
The winter of 1995 was hard and cold like a stone: Bleak, a tundra, everything smelling of snow. It was dark mornings and long bus rides to the school that sucked the marrow out of my bones. The radio stations only played boring shit so I listened to nothing but the Leonard tapes I’d managed to get my hands on. Famous Blue Raincoat had the wide dark quality of a sleepless night, an echo and throb of a city that I suspected was somewhere but I didn’t know where, a song with a mournfulness and a wryness that I was only just starting to get down with. I also began to suspect that whatever it was I wanted was somewhere else, and his warbling “It’s four in the morning, the end of December” plucked a thick wavering string in the very centre of my body. It was a song written from a warm, bad place in a hard winter. I understood.
That’s what I remember most: Pressing my ear up to a tape player and trying to hear more of his voice, some magical between-frequency subtlety I’d missed on the previous million listens. Listening to Leonard Cohen’s voice is like wandering through a room full of heavy curtains. I tried to divine the future, tried to find enlightenment by following the nasally wavering as it wrapped around those words, trying to figure out why this turned the tumblers of my heart like nothing else ever had.
I had my father’s old nylon string guitar and I learned to play every song on The Best of Leonard Cohen, mesmerised by the stories of him being a shitty guitar player because a boy had told me my guitar playing was shitty and I was looking for reasons that his opinion didn’t matter. On a quest to figure out a chord change in Suzanne I found my mother’s old Judy Collins song book. There was a picture of Judy and Lenny in the middle, their faces in profile as they walked together and talked, laughing, young, vibrant, with all the beautiful effortless genius that you can only have if you were young in 1968. I wanted that. How did a person even get to a place like that.
Where I grew up no one ever did anything drastic, and things like a career as an artist or a room in the big city or a life goal that wasn’t a baby and a mortgage were for people other than me. But Leonard Cohen, he came from Montreal, and no one he knew did anything like become a poet. He had made it out by making something beautiful from where he found himself. He wrote Marita on a cafe wall for fuck’s sake. “I’ve been where you’re hanging, I think I can see how you’re pinned” passed through me like a sharp knife. There was a call to action from someone on the other side.
That’s what Leonard Cohen means to me. He was the starting pistol, the teacher. Don’t wait to be somewhere else, to be given an opportunity, to get “good enough”. Just know who you are, start doing and through doing get better. Evolve. Explore. Make friends. Don’t take it all so seriously. Dress well. Ignore age. Be honest. Give in — which is usually the polar opposite of giving up.
Now, I greet you from the other side
Of sorrow and despair
With a love so vast and shattered
It will reach you everywhere
And I sing this for the captain
Whose ship has not been built
For the mother in confusion
Her cradle still unfilled
For the heart with no companion
For the soul without a king
For the prima ballerina
Who cannot dance to anything