He’s My Man: Leonard Cohen

leonard cohen (black and white photo)

I’m sure most people are still trying to understand Trump’s win, but seriously, they’re missing the meaning of Cohen’s loss.

He made the personal epic, but in the right way.

Leonard Cohen will be lauded as a songwriter, and a poet, but for me, he was always a consummate storyteller. The kind of storyteller I will always try to emulate. I’m feeling the same kind of grief I did when Kurt Vonnegut died. One of my narrative lodestones is gone. They’re not showing me the way anymore. I’ll have to take their examples, and do it on my own.

But what examples!

Not too long ago, I spent an evening listening to “Alexandra Leaving”, a song that was part of his 2001 album, 10 New Songs.

Over and over and over and over. (There may have been some wine involved.)

It is just an example of his genius. He took a poem written by the Greek poet, Constantine P. Cavafy, which Cavafy had based on just a few lines Plutarch had written about how Mark Anthony must have felt, the night before his death, and turned it into an insightful, beautiful, heart-rending evaluation of how relationships change, end, and how to face that inevitability. (Gotta say here, because of journalism, co-written by Sharon Robinson — ah, you’ve stopped reading at this point.) Anyway, I’d encourage you to read the source material: Plutarch, Cavafy and what Cohen does with it. He takes the idea, the kernel of despair that is a man who has lost an empire, and makes it personal.

Unlike Anthony, who gambled and lost on an empire, the story is now about a man who has lost his woman. Cohen takes an ordinary — but excruciating — thing, and makes it epic. Alexandra isn’t just leaving. She’s leaving with a God. And the song, like the poem, encourages the lover to take it all. To appreciate her love, right up to the point it is gone. To love her, even when it is over.

I dunno. That’s one song, it’s off the top of my head, and that’s what, two long paragraphs? Every time I pick up the guitar I end up playing at least one of his songs. I nearly cry every time I venture into “Famous Blue Raincoat” territory. It’s wholly inappropriate, but I still love the combined affection and megalomania of “Chelsea Hotel.”

Cohen foresaw many of the ills of our current era in two albums, I’m Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992). In fact, I’m sure that distant historians will look at the lyrics of “The Future” and say things like: “See, they weren’t all idiots. Some of them understood what was happening.”

But more than that, Cohen loved. It was the central idea in his poetry, his writing, his music. It was, for him, the one thing that made us redeemable as a species. And I agree with him, though the world seems bent on proving it otherwise.

Like Cohen, I’ll endure — as long as I can — and like him, I’ll find the cracks that let the light get in.

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