Last week, after the devastating results of the election were in and I was trying to wrap my head around the prospect of a four-year Trump administration, I got into my car I looked for a CD that would provide an appropriate soundtrack for the occasion. My selection was Leonard Cohen’s “Live in London” double CD. Recorded seven years ago when Leonard returned to performing after a fifteen-year hiatus, including time spent in a Zen monastery as a monk. I had the privilege to see and hear Leonard in Cohen concert in San Diego during this tour. It was an unforgettable night—perhaps the greatest live musical performance that I’ve ever experienced. The band, the three female backup vocalists, and Leonard himself were all phenomenal. At the tender age of seventy-five, Leonard exuded humility, gratitude, humor, charm, intelligence, and energy for three hours filled with many of his most famous and beloved songs. Ironically, for a man who has been called the “Godfather of Gloom’, Leonard seemed to be having a good time, reveling in the delight of his audience and seemingly surprised that his songs were more popular than ever, even after his long absence from the scene. Admittedly, some of Leonard’s songs are dark, but to my mind, they are some of the most eloquent, ironic, haunting and beautiful songs ever written. I’ve been a Leonard Cohen fan since the 60’s and was deeply saddened to hear of his death in Los Angeles last Thursday at the age of eighty-two.
Born in Montreal in a prominent Jewish family, Leonard began his musical career at sixteen in a country music combo called the Buckskin Boys. Leonard studied literature at McGill and Columbia and showed enough promise as a writer to receive a three thousand dollar grant from the Canada Council of the Arts. He moved to London to write and later to Greece, and had some moderate success as a novelist and poet. At the age of thirty-two, Leonard decided that it was too hard to make a living as a writer and turned to songwriting. He was “discovered” in New York City in 1966 by John Hammond, the same man who recognized Bob Dylan’s talents five years earlier. A few months later Hammond produced Leonard’s first album. Leonard was never a natural performer, and when Judy Collins asked him to perform at Town Hall in New York in 1967 at an anti-Vietnam War benefit he told her, “I can’t do it, Judy, I’ll die of embarrassment.” When Judy insisted, Leonard walked onstage and started singing “Suzanne”, but his legs were shaking so badly that he walked offstage half way through the song. The crowd shouted for him to return and Judy gently coaxed him back on stage, where he finished the song. Leonard claimed that he was never really comfortable on stage until he was in his seventies, saying, “It stems from the fact that you are not as good as you want to be—that’s really what nervousness is.” In a recent interview Leonard said, “You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it. At this stage of the game I hear it saying, “Leonard, just get on with the things you have to do.” It’s very compassionate at this stage. More than at any time of my life, I no longer have that voice that says, “You’re fucking up.” That’s a tremendous blessing, really.