Topic Leonard Cohen
11 Nov 2016 10:51
Written for another board I'm on, but I don't mind posting it here as well:
I’m not entirely sure where I first heard of Leonard Cohen, but there are two options, both in 1983 (hence my uncertainty as to which came first).
In 1983 I was taking Grade 13 English in high school and chose my school’s alternative “B” stream. Instead of studying “classics” like Shakespeare and Chaucer, we did film studies and an extended Canlit unit based off of Margaret Atwood’s Survival, a critical study of Canadian literature (and Robertson Davies’ novel Fifth Business, which launched another me into another favorite writer). One of the stories she analyzes in the book is Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers. I vaguely knew that name at the time, but didn’t know much about him beyond he was some kind of poet. I might have heard some of his songs as well, but nothing sticks in my memory. Reading about (and eventually reading) Beautiful Losers got me interested.
However, that same fall also saw the debut of “I Am a Hotel”, a short TV movie produced by CITY-TV’s Moses Znaimer. The movie consisted of dance pieces based on 4 classic Cohen songs telling the stories of imaginary denizens of an old hotel (the King Edward in Toronto was the shooting location) framed by Cohen himself as “The Resident”, a kind of ghostly Greek chorus watching and reflecting on the stories. It was beautifully shot and introduced me to songs like Chelsea Hotel No. 2 and Suzanne. What I’m not sure of is whether I saw it first, or whether I watched it out of interest after reading about Cohen in English class.
Either way, I quickly became a fan. The following year his magnificent collection Book of Mercy and the album Various Positions both came out, both cementing his appeal for me. While Various Positions is now best known for introducing “Hallelujah”, it also included some other wonderful Cohen tracks like “Dance Me to the End of Love”, “Coming Back to You” and “If it Be Your Will”, all of which are, in my book, in the same league as “Hallelujah”. Book of Mercy, a collection of “psalms”, remains a favorite collection of his writing and I’ve been known to crack it out in church from time to time.
Skip ahead to 1992 and the release of his brilliant album “The Future” which ranks as one of my favorite albums by anyone (“Closing Time” upthread is from it). At the time, I was a regular listener to Peter Gzowski (a habit I picked up from my mother). Since I was working by then, I usually just heard The Best of Morningside, a digest version of his show Morningside that ran at bedtime. Cohen had been on the show before and he and Peter had a good rapport. This time, Gzowski brought him on for a full hour to discuss his career and the new album. I lay in the dark listening to them talk and hearing songs like “Democracy” and “The Future” for the first time (“Closing Time” had already debuted as a video on TV). Magical.
What is it that I like about Cohen?
He’s a true wordsmith, a craftsman who makes stunningly beautiful art with words. Even without the music, his songs ring as true and powerful as his actual poetry. And much of his poetry can be set to music (Suzanne began as a poem, for instance) to create incredible songs. Best example to come to mind right now: Singer-songwriter Buffy Saint-Marie has set the “Magic is alive” passage from Beautiful Losers to music. Even the novel Beautiful Losers (I must hang my head in shame and admit that I have not read “The Favorite Game”, his other novel) reads like a prose poem in many places while still managing to tell a story in novelistic fashion.
I quite simply cannot think of many modern writers of any kind, let alone songwriters, who can produce beauty with words quite as well as Leonard Cohen. And that includes Bob Dylan who, Nobel Prize notwithstanding, is still not quite in Cohen’s league IMHO. Of living poets, the only one that comes immediately to mind is Mary Oliver and given that she is only a year younger than Cohen, I'm not sure she will be with us much longer.
The man is gone but the music still goes on. Farewell, Leonard. And I think your room in the Tower of Song is going to be a lot closer to Hank’s that you thought.
Footnotes for non-Canucks:
Yes, I said "Grade 13". When I was growing up, the province of Ontario was one of the last places on North America (if not Earth) to have five formal years of high school. That has since gone by the wayside, though some refer to taking an extra year of high school to boost one's marks as "Grade 13".
And Peter Gzowski was a popular radio (and occasionally TV) host here in Canada through the seventies, eighties, and nineties. Most of his career was spent with the CBC, our government-owned public broadcaster, hosting a three hour morning show called "Morningside". A hardcore smoker almost all his life, he died of emphysema in 2002.