When my father came home from a tour of duty in Korea around 1970 he brought back some stereo equipment that he’d acquired overseas, including a reel-to-reel tape player/recorder and a number of tapes, both dubbed or bought commercially. I spent a lot of time in our basement listening to the Beatles “Revolver,” Moody Blues “Days of Future Passed” and “In Search of the Lost Chord,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Songs from a Room.” At the time I was more interested in the psychedelia of the first two, but Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” made a lasting impression, as did the back cover photo of Marianne Ihlen in Cohen’s white-washed room in Hydra, wearing nothing but a towel.
It wasn’t until adulthood that I began to seriously explore Cohen’s catalog and to discover a kindred spirit. I collected his albums, read his poetry, and got lost in the experimental fiction of his novel, “Beautiful Losers.” It didn’t hurt that he was someone I could sing along to, matching his baritone note for note. The long term effects of subjecting my two elementary-age children to school commutes saturated with the music of L. Cohen have yet to be fully known.
I lamented his infrequent forays into the studio, but understood that he was otherwise occupied, having adopted the robes of a Zen monk. The songs we did have were things of beauty, works of spirit. And then…astonishment… surprise …elation …a new album and, deep into his 70s, a world tour! Followed by a second.
I still feel honored that my sister, Carol, gave me the opportunity to see Leonard with her at Merriweather Post Pavilion in May 2009, and then to be able to see him again a few months later here in Nashville in the company of another dear friend. His late-in-life performances were amazing and moving, to say the least.
His studio output since then as been prodigious by previous standards. Last weekend, my girlfriend and I were listening to his new album, “You Want it Darker,” while riding in my car. It closes movingly, with a reprise of an earlier song, “Treaty,” this time with a string quartet. The tone is elegiac. The final words: “I wish there was a treaty/Between your love and mine.” Was he talking to God? Was he speaking to those he was about to leave? Both, probably. I remarked that at 82 it must be hard for an artist…not knowing whether any statement might be your last. With his triumphal tours and the albums that followed, the man in the Famous Blue Raincoat gave us a late career flourish. I’m thankful for that, as I am for all his work.
He “came so far for beauty.” Thankfully, he “left so much behind.”