I was sixteen and in fifth year at school. My girlfriend at the time was in sixth year, her eye on the end of school and the beginning of ‘real life’. One evening at her house she brought out a white album with an obscure, burned out photo on the front. Songs from a Room. “You should hear this, you’ll like it. He’s over 30 but he’s really good!” I listened with mild curiosity to what seemed like a voice from another generation, noting the first recording I’d ever heard of a Jew’s harp, an instrument I owned but would never have thought had any real application to music. But it was the sinister patterns and wartime narrative of The Partisan that really hooked me. Not even Cohen’s own song, but it became the door to Cohen for me, the fact that music could talk about the adult world in a way that made it in equal terms credible and intimidating. That and the picture on the back, Marianne in her towel sitting at the typewriter. This was a different world from the hippie, India-tinged music I loved most at the time. There was a sense of culture shock, that only grew when Cohen’s next release came to my attention. Songs of Love and Hate. Just the title was enough. How, at what was in Scotland at least, still the fag-end of the hippie period, could you call an album that? And not apologetically either – the sleeve design was a sledgehammer compared to his two previous albums. When I heard Famous Blue Raincoat and Joan of Arc, I became a Cohen devotee for life.
Live Songs was a bit raw and uncomfortable. Cohen sounded disturbed or drugged, and the sleeve bore a letter from a fan who, I was told, would soon after take her own life. The front picture added to this feeling of desperation. We are so used to male shaven heads now it’s hard to remember the associations it had long ago – the workhouse, the concentration camp, the psychiatric ward.
In 1974 New Skin for the Old Ceremony didn’t have such a strong effect on me, but what it did bring was a tour date in Glasgow. I sat mesmerised as the normally rowdy Greens Playhouse hushed to silence for this self-effacing man in a suit and black polo-neck and his small band. He seemed so genuinely surprised that anyone even knew his songs. I’d never seen so humble a performance in front of a sell-out crowd. I wasn’t actually performing at the time, but something of it stuck with me as the right way to approach an audience.
The next albums became associated for me with the places I was living when I heard them. I bought Death of a Ladies Man while living in Rotterdam. I bought it on cassette as a cassette player was all I had. It was puzzling to say the least, but the cheesy arrangements couldn’t disguise the desperation of songs like the title track and Paper Thin Motel. Cohen evidently wasn’t any happier. I wondered if he’d survive.
When Recent Songs appeared I was living just outside London and it was a delight. The songs seemed more serene and the violin-and-oud arrangements were elegant and stately. I fell for Cohen all over again. A tour was announced and I got a ticket for the Hammersmith Odeon. I then heard that on his last tour he’d actually come and played a free afternoon’s show at the very unorthodox psychiatric hospital I was working in. I went to the Odeon bearing a letter from the staff inviting him to return, which I could do no more than pass to the bouncers. The show, later released as Field Commander Cohen, is the one I’ll remember as the best. Not only Cohen’s performance but every instrumental solo – oud, violin, guitar or saxophone – was immaculate and riveting. During one sax solo I had a vision of liquid burning gold pouring down the steps of a dark cellar. (At the gig, I was on nothing stronger than coffee and solitude.)
During the five years before he returned to the marketplace with Various Positions, I discovered a journal called Zero produced from the Mount Baldy Zen Center, for which Cohen was an editor and contibutor, and discovered to my surprise that Cohen shared my fascination with the black and sepia world of Zen Buddhism. Although I vacillated for a while, and still do, he was fully committed and would later become even more so, but it gave me a new key with which to read his poetry and lyrics.
Another album, another town. I was living in Manchester when Various Positions came out. Hoping for a reprise of the Mid-East atmosphere of Recent Songs, I was disappointed by the country arrangements, but not by the songs, which seemed as strong as any from before, especially If It Be Your Will. He toured again and I saw him on consecutive nights in Manchester and Birmingham. It was a country band, with pedal steel as the main lead instrument. But the most emotionally intense parts were when he came back after the interval for solo renditions, in a thin spotlight in the darkened theatre, of Avalanche and Stranger Song.
In the interim before his next album, people who weren’t fans began talking about him once more with the release of Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat and the tribute double album I’m Your Fan, which featured John Cale’s stately reworking of Hallelujah, with new verses written but not recorded by Cohen. Suddenly it wasn’t so lonely being a Leonard Cohen fan.
He shocked everyone, however, with the synth and drum machine textures of I’m Your Man in 1988. True to the pattern I first played this in yet another new home, in Leek in Staffordshire. People were maybe expecting him to come back with a return to the styles that had inspired the tributes. No. No way at all. But the new, octaves-deeper voice made up for everything and made Cohen exciting again.
Moving to Edinburgh in the 1990s I heard The Future but didn’t get to any of his European tour dates. I discovered the fan site The Leonard Cohen Files in 1995 during my first years on the internet and learned that Cohen had gone to live at the Zen Center. That looked like goodbye. He would see out his years as a Zen monk and we would have the albums and memories to treasure.
As we know, it didn’t turn out that way. The albums kept coming, including the one that was to become my favourite, Ten New Songs, and we even got to see him live again, in Edinburgh and in London on his triumphant world tours.
I had the chance to speak to him once, as I walked to the Barbican for an evening where Phillip Glass was playing his settings of Cohen’s music. I stood with my friend Deena a few feet away from him outside the Barbican entrance as he signed CDs and books for a handful of fans. But as they leaned into him for selfies and pushed more products at him, which he thanked each individual for buying, I felt sorry for him. He seemed small, weary and alone, doing his duty of civility and gratitude, and I was glad when he broke away and headed inside. We didn’t have the heart to join in the feeding frenzy.
Since then, I’ve had the ritual of greeting each new album with time specially set aside at night, and a glass of red wine, the last instance only a couple of weeks ago. I wasn’t just being a fan when I organised the three Lenny tribute nights in Edinburgh – I feel like Cohen has been part of my life since I first brushed with the idea of adulthood. He’s informed every stage of my life, emotionally and spiritually. When today came, it wasn’t a shock, he’d prepared everyone with his recent press and songs. (And you could read ‘mortality’ into every album he’s ever put out!) Tonight I’ll raise a glass, not in sorrow or bereavement, but just in gratitude.
Some time ago I posted about my quest to create an online presence for the late Di Williams, a songwriter whose work I love and who seemed to be resigned to obscurity.
Well that site is now up. Through various friends I’ve managed to track down some people who knew her, and even a photo.
I hope you can take a few minutes to enjoy her heartfelt, timeless songs
You can hear it, watch the video, download the album or individual tracks at http://www.allthetimeinheaven.com
To hear it live and get a copy to turn over and over in your trembling little hands, come to the launch event in Edinburgh on March 19th!
This has been a public service announcement.
Nobody actually needs a favourite songwriter of course, any more than you need a favourite food or a favourite place. It’s just a convention.
But in the car on the way home last night, listening to a CD of theirs I hadn’t played in years I realised that if I do have a favourite songwriter – one I love to listen to and whom I admire as a writer – it’s not Cohen or Dylan or Simon after all, it’s Brett and Rennie Sparks aka The Handsome Family. The perfect combination of observation and perception AND surreal twists and a refusal to be tied to rhyme and conventional structure. But it all sounds accessible and natural. Here’s the first song I heard by them.
Lyrics (by Rennie Sparks)
I am eating hash browns in the snow white diner
Outside cars are honking, flashing lights on the bridge
They’re pulling a car up from the bottom of the frozen lake
A woman drove her Saturn into the black water
Killed herself and her two kids trapped in the backseat
She’d lost her job and didn’t want her kids to be poor
The diner is noisy, black coffee and sugar
Baskets of dinner rolls, outside the crowd is growing
Waiting by the drawbridge, hoping to see the dead woman’s face
In the booth next to me there are two old women
Eating liver and onions and they’re laughing too loud
And banging the tabletop, but then I see that they’re deaf
I don’t know why they’re laughing, maybe the world’s much nicer
If you can’t hear the cars
They make me feel better like I’m drunk on a plane
And have forgotten that I’m afraid to fly