Leonard Cohen: Ten Old Memories

I first heard Leonard Cohen on Christmas Day 1994. My grandmother had bought me the cassette soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s recently released Natural Born Killers. I had yet to see the movie, but my grandmother — ever the boundary breaker — was insistent, and she gave me the soundtrack as a Christmas present partly to spur me on. I can remember, very vividly, popping the cassette into the crappy little alarm-clock-tape-player-radio hybrid on my dresser, and being immediately greeted with a doom-laden hall of noise at once threatening and seductive. A rough, centuries old voice began to intone and invoke over the music. “Baby, I’ve been waiting,” he sandpaper-crooned, “I’ve been waiting night and day . . .” I’d never heard anything so desperate, so apocalyptic, and yet so weirdly gentle.

I had just been exposed to the voice of Leonard Cohen, and I would never be the same.

Cohen had three songs featured in Natural Born Killers (oh, and my grandmother was right; it would go on to become one of my favorite films), which encouraged me to actually buy the album from which they all originated, The Future. I’d never bought any music that wasn’t a soundtrack before, so this CD would be my first experience exploring a musical artist. I can be painfully behind on things like that, so while other kids my age were listening to Nirvana and Soundgarden, I was checking out a semi-known Canadian poet turned melancholy troubadour now in his 60s. It wasn’t an attempt to rebel or be cool on my part; I just didn’t know what I was supposed to be listening to. Anyway, I got the CD on Memorial Day weekend, 1995, right as eighth grade came to a close. This was a formative age for me, so well over half the album is now bound into so many of my memories, major and minor, from this period of my life.

When I initially heard Cohen’s voice, and given the Fall of Babylon feel of the songs used in NBK, I pictured this shirtless, dirty old man sporting a ZZ Top beard and living in a shack in the middle of some immense desert, singing about the end of the world to his pet vulture. Imagine my surprise when he turned out to be this incredibly handsome, quite dapper Jewish man, like some super elegant Dustin Hoffman. It would be the first of many surprises and revelations about Cohen over the years, as I slowly collected his albums and his voice and words became a friend to me through both the light and the dark.

As virtually everyone is now aware, Leonard Cohen passed away a few days ago. In a tribute to him that will no doubt prove incredibly feeble and flawed, here are ten memories of when Leonard Cohen’s art and my life were fortunate enough to collide. He never knew of these moments, but I will never forget.

#1. In July of 1997, my family took a trip to Southern California to visit relatives. During our stay, I picked up the albums I’m Your Man and Various Positions in an attempt to branch out my Cohen collection. I fell in love with I’m Your Man the second I saw the cover, featuring a slick black & white photo of Cohen wearing a suit jacket while eating a banana. It captured the sardonic, self-deprecating humor which is often overlooked in his music amidst the sadness and the sincerity. The photo goes right along with the hysterically funny moment in the album’s closer “Tower of Song,” where Cohen delivers the line “I was born with the gift of a golden voice” in his trademarked gruff and partially flat baritone, a line which just gets funnier as his voice gets worse over the years. During this trip, I will listen to both albums on my Discman as my family drives along the sunny highways and freeways of San Diego and Los Angeles, providing a weirdly perfect soundtrack to our visit. I demand that we take a detour to Death Valley so I can finally see the desert, and I insist on listening to The Future on my headphones as we do so.* That particular outing ultimately ends with me walking into a cactus and pulling down my pants in the middle of the desert so I can remove needles from my leg, forever documented in an embarrassing photograph.

“I might be your man, but this is my banana.”

Anyway, my inspiration for this sudden Cohen consumption was that I had just recently seen a clip of his video for “First We Take Manhattan,” as part of a brief TV retrospective to promote a new greatest hits record. I’d never heard the song before but knew immediately I had to have it. That track is one of a handful spread across I’m Your Man and The Future which rank as some of Cohen’s most paranoid and pessimistic, apocalypse poems for the era of Reagan and Bush. When Cohen sings lyrics such as “I don’t like your fashion business, mister, and I don’t like these drugs that keep you thin” or “Destroy another fetus now, we don’t like children anyhow”, it’s hard to know just how sarcastic or serious he’s being. His work has that rare ability to peer into the mind of the revolutionary madman and Armageddon-obsessed loner, without ever fully betraying how much of Cohen himself really inhabits those spaces. His perspective remains obscured, and in doing so perfectly encapsulates the moral chaos of the times, where everything feels both true and untrue at once. Did he really believe the sky was falling, or was he just poking fun at the rabid thoughts of those egotistical enough to think they know? Yes, and yes.

Apparently the apocalypse pairs well with California highways.

#2. You may not have heard, but fall of 2001 was a difficult time. In the midst of that confusion, Cohen released his first new album in nine years, the creatively titled Ten New Songs. Since the mid-90s I’d been eagerly awaiting something, anything new from the man, but no such event seemed forthcoming. I actually had no idea he’d even put out a new album until one morning that October, when I saw a magazine capsule review trashing the record. I went right to a store and lo and behold, there it was. The review complained about the album’s middle of the road, soft rock production, and indeed that is largely accurate. But it’s still a sharp record even if it sounds like your grandparents trying to get laid with help from Babyface, and besides, it’s not as if Cohen hadn’t dipped into soft rock territory before. (I’m seriously not sure how any critic could complain about Ten New Songs while giving a pass to the You-Are-Definitely-In-A-Waiting-Room-In-1988 saxophone opening of the Cohen standard “Ain’t No Cure for Love”). Given what was happening after 9/11, we seemed to be living in the frightening times about which Cohen had sang a decade before. But he was no longer treading that dark water, instead offering a more hopeful take on the procession of humanity. The world seemed to be falling apart, but as I stood there one morning with the sunlight streaming through the windows, the crisp fall air outside, and Cohen singing “May the lights in the land of plenty shine on the truth someday,” it seemed almost as if the album were recorded for that specific moment.

#3. In spring of 2002, a friend and I were driving to Chicago to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. On the way, she played a burned CD of Cohen’s album Death of a Ladies’ Man, his ill-fated collaboration with Phil Spector. Now, it just so happens that I really like this album. I know Cohen himself had misgivings about it for many years, and that quite a few of his critics and fans feel that a producer like Spector is the perfectly wrong choice. But I think sometimes an artist’s failings are as important as their successes, particularly if the end result has its own accidental charms, or if the original intentions have imparted some impression of coherence even if falling short of the goals. I get a kick out of the album, and some of it sounds truly beautiful. The end result is something neither Cohen nor Spector would have achieved on their own, which certainly lends it a uniqueness. But oh my god, did we make fun of it during the car ride. I particularly remember the end of “Memories,” where Leonard Cohen is going higher and higher out of his range, and me imagining Phil Spector grabbing him by the balls with an illicit torture device and whispering “Hit those notes, Leonard. They want to be hit. They’re asking for it.”

#4. On a cold fall day in late 2002 I finally bought Cohen’s 1971 masterpiece Songs of Love and Hate. I’d been slacking in collecting his earlier work, and had set about remedying that shameful situation. It’s easily his darkest album; true to the title, at least half of the songs are filled with rage and resentment at a level he would never express on any other recording. There are classics on here such as “Joan of Arc” and “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and incredibly disturbing inventories of self-hatred like “Dress Rehearsal Rag.” But for me, the standout track has always been the opening song, “Avalanche.” I’d first heard it through Nick Cave’s notorious cover, where he takes the seething bitterness of Cohen’s original and turns it into a melodramatic exercise in narcissistic bile. However, though Cave’s version is more physically violent and cuts to the grotesque heart of the song, I still think Cohen’s wins in terms of sheer wretchedness. (Years later, Cave would go on to record another version for the show Black Sails, pitched perfectly between his and Cohen’s). The original is quieter on the surface but loaded with a type of spiritual violence that can’t be captured more than once. Painting the picture of a spiteful, misshapen, tattered, egomaniacal creature with a messiah complex, Cohen borderline-hisses vicious lyrics strangulated with grim potential (“You say you’ve gone away from me, but I can feel you when you breathe”) over ominous strings and a clipped flamenco guitar pattern. Upon hearing Cohen’s version, a particular sequence of images flashed in my mind, and they became the opening of a script, later adapted into a book that is yet to be finished. I’ve written that sequence over and over again, every image and detail timed to Cohen’s song, to which I owe a debt of gratitude for torturing me all these years.

One would never guess that he was in a distressed frame of mind while recording this album.

#5. In early 2005 I ordered a copy of Cohen’s 1974 release Live Songs, one of his rarer albums as it was largely unavailable in the US for many years. By now, I’d collected all of his records except this one, and was pretty eager to finally give it a listen. Live Songs is perhaps most famous for containing some tracks that never made their way to a studio recording, in particular the 13-minute long epic “Please Don’t Pass Me By (A Disgrace).” A self-excoriation of the highest order, the song depicts a vision of the totality of human suffering as it strikes one poor bastard in a humiliating revelation of loneliness and despair. There is also a fun singalong. Cohen reportedly couldn’t bring himself to perform this one very often, and it’s easy to hear why, given the desperation on display. At this point in my life, I was in a desperate place myself . . . paranoid, depressed, drunk, and very afraid of what was happening to me. I listened to this album alone in the car one night — one foot hungover, the other still dranked — and as “Please Don’t Pass Me By” was playing, I never wanted it to end. While Cohen screamed lines like “I mean the real ones that are burning! I mean the real ones that are burning!” and “I can’t stand who I am,” I felt strangely at peace, like I’d found an okay song to accompany my driving off a cliff. But I didn’t, because the song kept playing.

#6. 2009 assuredly marked Leonard Cohen’s resurgence in the new millennium. The previous year, he’d resumed touring for the first time since the early 90s. Though the tour was largely to recoup losses from having been swindled by his longtime manager, it proved a highly successful endeavor, earning rave reviews and resulting in a seemingly endless string of dates. In addition to releasing a live album that spring, Cohen’s music was prominently featured in the ever controversial film adaptation of Watchmen, which hit theaters at almost the same time. “First We Take Manhattan” is used nearly in its entirely during the end credits, and dovetails nicely with the story’s themes of misguided heroism, fascism, and egos run amok. But no one talks about that, as they’re too busy discussing the absolutely bizarre choice to score an uncomfortably graphic sex scene with “Hallelujah,” far and away Cohen’s most known song and now held in a kind of religious reverence for many people.

A word on “Hallelujah.” I first heard it when I bought Various Positions at the mall outside Universal Studios in 1997. It struck me right away, as I believe it strikes many people. I had yet to hear the covers by Jeff Buckley, John Cale, and Rufus Wainwright. All fine versions, if I do say so myself. But they started a rather unfortunate trend of the song becoming a gold standard for go-to sappiness. Want to get some immediate notoriety by tugging on the heart strings? Cover “Hallelujah.” Performing on a reality TV singing competition and need to show off your chops with a bunch of unnecessary vocal inflections? Cover “Hallelujah.” Want to imbue your movie with a sense of uplifting melancholy? Play a cover of “Hallelujah.”

I could go on. Point being, the more this song is endlessly churned out, the more frequently many versions are likely to miss that very, very particular balance of sincerity, irony, and humor present in Cohen’s original. (It’s worth noting that most covers mix lyrics from the studio version and Cohen’s 1994 live album, which presented a darker take). Leonard Cohen was nothing if not someone who could strike an accord between the sacred and the profane. But people who cover “Hallelujah” tend to either overplay its sincerity, forgetting its sarcasm and the song’s own disappointment with itself, or they overemphasize the cynicism and bypass the very genuine spiritual yearning at its core. And both approaches miss any sense of humor present in Cohen’s delivery.

This is why I love the way “Hallelujah” is used in Watchmen, one of my favorite films of that year and possibly ever. I know many would disagree with this choice, but if I have to pick a pop culture moment which enshrines “Hallelujah,” it’s not any famous cover versions or American Idol or even the Olympics. It’s Watchmen, giving us an awkward sex scene awkwardly scored with an awkward song.

Brimming with an undeniable sexuality, “Hallelujah” is just tender enough to be played in a love scene, but the movie goes further, really selling it that the characters are so impassioned that they need to fuck and they need to fuck now. Scored with Cohen’s flat voice, aiming for the heavens he knows he’ll never reach, it becomes a moment of two people getting lost in the ridiculousness of their own bodies, stupid humans stumbling into a brief glimpse of the divine. The scene is disconcertingly and unflinchingly graphic, so much so that it’s funny, and using Cohen’s original recording just makes it funnier. Because ultimately, that’s what “Hallelujah” is: an imperfect, vain attempt to achieve a holy moment, doomed to failure at the outset. But in failing, it succeeds. No other version of the song, no matter how schmaltzy or sad, could imprint quite that same feeling.

“Wanna bang? I know juuuust the song choice to upset hipsters.”

#7. The day after I saw Watchmen for the second time, I took a bus to Chicago, where my friend and I went to see Leonard Cohen perform at the Chicago Theater. (Same friend as the Death of a Ladies’ Man incident, perfectly enough). To call this evening transcendent would be doing it a disservice, both overcomplicating and understating what really can’t be put into words. Cohen, now well into his 70s, took the stage to thunderous applause and proceeded to perform for several hours, putting pretty much all of us in the audience to shame while not appearing to even break a sweat. His banter in between songs showcased his humor and humility, both of them self-effacing. (Discussing his last tour: “I was in my 50s then. Just a kid chasing a crazy dream”). Cohen’s presence was undeniably hypnotic but also soothing and friendly, his off-the-cuff and witty remarks charming the audience like a spell. Of course, it was an act. Cohen’s humor was real but the spontaneity of the performance was not; nearly every interaction with the audience was rehearsed and timed to help him combat stage fright. I can attest that approximately zero people would have guessed that this man had ever experienced stage fright, or any other standard form of human frailty, even though that’s the precise territory in which his songs traffic. He seemed more like a living Yoda, emanating a dignity so strong that I felt ashamed for not being good enough, but the unfettered volume of his grace let me know that everything was okay and all trespasses were forgiven. Knowing that in reality he was an increasingly frail old man struggling with shyness only makes it more wonderful.**

#8. Valentine’s Day, 2010. My new girlfriend surprises me with a basket full of tea, my favorite drink. Among the many kinds on display is an orange-flavored black tea called Constant Comment, the first tea I ever truly fell in love with. My girlfriend has written a Valentine’s note which quotes Cohen’s famous song “Suzanne,” promising to share with me “tea and oranges that come all the way from China.” Outside, it is snowing. I haven’t told my girlfriend this, but that line from “Suzanne” always made me think of my favorite tea, so her reference proves more than appropriate, and I know that I’m somewhere I’m supposed to be.

(Many years later, while doing a bit of research for an essay called Leonard Cohen: Ten Old Memories, I will learn that the line is actually inspired by Constant Comment. Apparently that was the tea served to Cohen by the real-life Suzanne).

#9. In early 2012 Cohen released his first studio album in seven years, Old Ideas, the start of what would become a final trilogy of smaller but no less significant records. My girlfriend and I were returning from her father’s house and making a left onto a rural highway when a car ran through a redlight at high speed. Due to infinitesimally perfect timing and positioning, my girlfriend slammed on the brakes and we just narrowly avoided a collision. (This wasn’t our first near miss: a year earlier we had flown off the highway on Christmas morning after hitting a patch of ice, and somehow escaped unscathed). She and I were somewhat shaken and speechless afterwards as we drove down a dark backwoods road. Though in many cases we would just turn off the music after such a shock, in this situation we continued to let Old Ideas play, Cohen’s smoky voice providing a particular comfort as we slowly eased back into normalcy. Since I was in the passenger’s seat, I very likely would have been hit by that car, and at full speed. It was a strange thought, that this particular Leonard Cohen album would have been the last thing I ever heard before being snuffed out of existence, considering that it starts with “Going Home,” a song where Cohen laughs at the brevity of life. Thankfully, that night I went home without Going Home.

#10. And speaking of death, here we are. In October 2016, an extensive profile in the New Yorker revealed that Cohen was in declining health. “I’m ready to die,” he says, seemingly accepting of the situation but sending waves of panic throughout his fans and admirers. (It’s mentioned in the profile that he’d been dealing with debilitating back problems; what goes unstated is that he was seriously ill with cancer). The article coincided with the release of his final album, You Want It Darker. A somber, meditative goodbye, the record caps off what began with its predecessors Old Ideas and Popular Problems: three albums which find Cohen reflecting upon his life, or at least some version of his life, sometimes playfully and sometimes not, and almost always halfway between a smirk and a grimace.

The day after the record was released, I drove to spend the afternoon with my mother, herself incredibly sick from cancer and its necessary treatment. I had to make several trips in my car — to pick up lunch for us, to retrieve my forgotten phone — and You Want It Darker kept me company over the speakers. A relatively short album, I must have listened to it all the way through about six times that day. After my mother grew unexpectedly sicker during the evening, Cohen’s album helped to calm me once it was time to leave. It took me to a place that had me inevitably reflecting on what was happening but also allowed me to be okay in the face of the immovable.

It was only a few weeks later when I found out Leonard Cohen had passed away, after I received a text during an appointment with my therapist. (Yes. A Leonard Cohen fan who needs therapy. Shocking). I was saddened by the news, and left briefly stunned. But I wasn’t surprised. Cohen had already announced that he wasn’t long for this world, and his exit felt natural, charged with that calculated grace he carried with him. Everything he did seemed dignified, even his indignities. Since I wasn’t present for his death, my mind can’t help but picture him walking off stage in one of his immaculately tailored suits, tipping his fedora as he departs into the night. Of course, that’s far from the reality of one’s body shutting down or the imperfect messiness of actually dying — apparently, Cohen passed away suddenly following a serious fall — but nonetheless, his death feels dignified, and again I feel ashamed as I’m almost certain that mine won’t be.

David Bowie was also taken this year, and he too died right after releasing one of his greatest records, Blackstar. Both Bowie and Cohen’s albums are farewell gestures without ever wallowing in genuine self-pity or defeat, and retain a kind of mystical power that glistens and seeps off of every song. “Hineni, Hineni/I’m ready my Lord,” Cohen sings on the title track, invoking the Hebrew expression for “Here I am.” By this stage, Cohen’s voice is practically a whisper, barely even registering as conversational. Yet not a word feels lazy or lacking. He’s earned his weather-beaten delivery, attaining a damaged precision accrued over a lifetime as he recites lyrics easily comparable to prayers or mantras.

Indeed, Cohen perfected the art of repeating certain words and phrases as one would when calling upon a higher power, or attempting to slip into a meditative state. His spoken word deliveries sound less like a beatnik poet and more like scriptural recitation, yet are also riddled with all the typical faults of a man and massaged with a quietly biting humor.

I don’t know where he is now. I’d like to think he’s back on boogie street, but perhaps that’s wishful thinking. We cannot say, and neither can he. The only thing for sure is that he’s gone.

He is gone. But his work remains, which of course means that he is not gone at all.

These are my memories of Leonard Cohen.

Sincerely,

C. Evans

*There really is just something stark and desolate and inherently apocalyptic evoked in much of Cohen’s work. Not only did I immediately imagine a desert the very first time I heard “Waiting for the Miracle,” but it turned out that Natural Born Killers actually opens on images of a desert set to that song. (And the movie’s entire end credits are essentially a music video for Cohen’s “The Future,” a nightmarish trip through a violent American landscape on the eve of destruction). Also, well before Oliver Stone, Werner Herzog used tracks from Cohen’s first album to score Fata Morgana’s visions of a desert wasteland.

**My friend and I would see him again later that year — where I’d finally get to hear “Waiting for the Miracle” performed live — this time in St. Louis. This particular show ended up being complicated for me for a variety of reasons. I was emotionally compromised, as Spock, my other favorite Jewish Canadian named Leonard, might say. It in some ways equaled and in others surpassed the previous show, though nothing can compare to that very first time I realized I was in the same room as Leonard Cohen. That concert, however, saw us seated next to a gentlemen who proceeded to talk through the Entire. Fucking. Show. I was happy to be rid of him this time.

Addendum: Cohen’s actual quote from the concert is, “I was 60 years old. Just a kid with a crazy dream.” Apparently he had a couple of different plays on that joke, but this was the one he used when I saw him. However, I opted to go with my slightly misremembered version, because memory seems more significant in this instance.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store