Second thing. A skinny Amazon envelope. I hadn’t ordered anything. I opened it, slowly, with a slight frown. Leonard Cohen’s new album. Old Ideas. I didn’t even need to look at the note to know who it was from. ‘Lots of love, Horace.’ My oldest dearest friend, Jane. Horace? Well, that’s another story.
What can I say? I love Leonard Cohen. Deeply. Passionately. Always have. Suspect I always will.
I love music, hate to be without it, but most of my musical loves wax and wane. But Cohen has been a constant in my life since I was, what? Eight or nine maybe? My brother came home with Songs of Leonard Cohen one day and we all fell in love, instantly. Well, not my father perhaps.
There was always music in our house when I was a child. All sorts. Shedload of classical in the living room. Meanwhile, up in our shared room, my teenage sister played singles obsessively as she shimmied from one love to another; a string of boyfriends breaking her heart (rarely) but mainly having theirs broken. The soundtrack to all this longing: Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, The Beatles, Marianne Faithfull, the Stones. Then she met a guitarist and it was all Hendrix and Clapton, Cream and Yes. And I danced behind, entranced. But throughout, Cohen’s mesmerising guitar and his poetry always plucked at our hearts.
Songs from a Room followed by Songs of Love and Hate. And I wasn’t even out of junior school. Nobody suggested it wasn’t suitable listening for a child. Was it?
Jane and I met in 1971 but we didn’t become friends until quite some years later. After the release of New Skin for the Old Ceremony for sure and in time to be appalled by the radical shift of Death of a Lady’s Man. What was he thinking? He’d wanted a spare sparse sound for Songs of Leonard Cohen – yes, even more sparse than it already was. So how did he come to be seduced by Spector? Apparently he (Cohen) called the end result ‘grotesque’. Yeah, right. It’s a shame as the songs themselves are beautiful – but the arrangements are overblown, barbaric. I tried listening again today – and couldn’t bear it. Had to find later arrangements on YouTube.
I took Leonard with me to college; played him in my tiny coffin-shaped attic room, letting his growl of a voice stream out over my balcony into the streets below. Listened to him as I looked across the houses into other people’s lives, the students and the prostitutes. And went to see him live in Manchester, at the Apollo. My first ‘grown-up’ gig, the first time I’d seen people sit in their seats for a whole set. The first time I’d seen people strike matches or hold up lighters and sway to the music. The audience felt old too – middle-aged women, not students like me. I didn’t care – I still loved him.
He came back to London with me and was there, not played so often maybe, but still a friend for the dark nights of the soul, when the drink and drugs and clubbing didn’t take me far enough away from myself.
We weren’t such close companions during my time in America because, really, there were so many other, new sounds to hear and somehow he didn’t feel right in those big wide open spaces of sea and endless roads and desert and canyon and prairie. But then, every so often, I’d sit by the fire late at night and pull out an album and let his chords pull me back home.
And yes, back to London we went and by now people laughed. ‘Gloomy old Leonard Cohen’ they said. But no, no, no. Not gloomy. Not really. Just so beautiful. I didn’t buy any more albums though, not after the travesty of DoaLM. My mother stayed faithful though – bought each and every one. But I wouldn’t listen. I stayed with the old. Until, not so many years ago, when I heard Hallelujah and found myself in floods of tears. Who the hell sang that, I wondered and found out it was Jeff Buckley. Raced out and bought more of his stuff only to find that, no, he hadn’t written it – the cheater – it was Leonard’s. Well, of course it was.
I saw him live again, a few years ago, at the O2 stadium, the old Millennium Dome. Jane again. ‘Come and stay, I’ve got tickets for Leonard Cohen,’ she said. In Manchester I’d been right near the front, close enough to watch his fingers flicker over the frets. But the only tickets left this time were pitched up so high I felt dizzy. Incredible musicians. Amazing man. He’d lost the lot by this point, been ripped off, gone bankrupt, had to sing for his supper once more.
Funny thing, I never knew much about his actual life. I don’t read biographies. I rarely read interviews. I don’t even really like music vids (except the most vague and atmospheric) as they colour the music for me. I like to make my own relationship with music; to weave my own stories around it.
And so here I am, all those years on, sitting in a cold room, once again, listening to Cohen. Today I have been through all his albums, one by one. Some songs wash over me; some catch me in the throat, in the solar plexus, in the heart. Who needs words when you’ve got Cohen, eh?
Favourite album? The new one is growing on me. Ah hell. Songs of Leonard Cohen has some of my all-time favourite songs. It’s tight. Between that and New Skin for the Old Ceremony. Both just plain agonisingly beautiful. Songs? We could be here a long time. Here are just two. One from the first, one from the last. Which would be my middle one? My second thing? Ah, I wonder.