Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Love Letter to Leonard

This past summer, the legendary poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen, hit the tour and interview circuit. I heard 2 poignant interviews with him: one on NPR and the other on CBC. Unfortunately, it wasn't entirely by choice: the aging artist was forced to leave his Montreal home, hit the road, and sing for his supper. Cohen had been swindled out of fortune by a nefarious manager.

Hearing the interviews stirred up many memories and emotions. Here are some:

The Era of Ignorance and Growth

When I was first introduced to Cohen, as a university student, I didn't get it. He had weird Zen lyrics that I couldn't appreciate. Many of the arrangements were too simple.

Over time, I began to understand the point. Leonard's songs weren't simple stories: they were open to interpretation, and often, mirror-like, reflected more of what we brought to them than what they offered outright.

The Concerts

In the early 1990s, I saw Leonard twice. One show in Kitchener, Ontario, was spell-binding. The audience was entralled by his smoky baritone, beautiful melodies, and showmanship. I believe I have blogged before that he returned from an intermission to announce the score of the Montreal-LA Stanley Cup playoff game (Montreal led 4-1).


Some friends and I looked out at the Pacific while playing a cover of Hallelujah. The Jeff Buckley version is much better known, but I had heard the song well before and always thought it beautiful. It is a treasured memory.


In July 2006, BryGuy, Matt, and I went to see a documentary about Leonard. Though the doc was mostly boring, I'll never forget a few details:
  • Near 2005, Leonard went to a Zen monastery in California. Matt was at the same monastery at the same time! I can't remember if he met Leonard, but he knew LC was there.
  • The monastic experience was the same time that Leonard was being truly ripped off by his management. (Not in the film, but this summer's interviews).
  • Within the 2-hour span of the documentary, a vicious windstorm decimated St Louis. We emerged from the Tivoli to find serious tree damage. The lights had flickered a bit during the film, but we had no idea it had stormed so badly.

And so, this summer, I heard the podcasts with the old songsmith. The interviews were a mix of his legacy, and his new chapter (chapter 13?).

Terri Gross (NPR) really probed his psyche, about his lyrics, which deal with sensuality and love, but in a way that is never easy. A modern-day Hamlet, he loves romance but can never seem to capture it -- or doesn't want to capture it. Interestingly, his lyrics are deeply personal: the song Chelsea Hotel famously describes a tryst between him and a woman who "usually prefers handsome man, but for me would make an exception". (The woman was later revealed to be Janis Joplin). His contradictions are real, not an act.

Where Terri really hit home though, was with an unoriginal but fitting point: Leonard is brilliant and insightful about his own lot in life, and the human condition, but at the same time seems utterly powerless to change his circumstances.

It was an electric moment for me. I don't compare to King Leonard, but I think it is an apt description of this blog, and especially the recent Saturday Night posts. Not with respect to love, per se, but the general sentiment of watching one's life from the outside in, capturing it in song and verse, and yet being unable to do anything about it.

Good luck, Leonard. Thanks for everything.

No comments: