Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)
It's must've been 1997. I was living in the upper Fremont neighborhood of Seattle with a girl named Brenda, working in the bookstore warehouse at University Book Store, and trying to make a living writing.
One night, I don't know why, maybe because she was an art history major, we rented the 1996 film “Basquiat,” starring Jeffrey Wright, and directed by Julian Schnabel, both of whom would soon become favorites. The movie? Meh. Great soundtrack, though—Schnabel's soundtracks are always great—and over the closing credits they played a song that began:
I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do ya?
It goes like this: The fourth, the fifthThe minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing HallelujahHallelujah
By this point, Brenda had gone down the hallway, done with the movie, but I stayed and listened to that song. I was kind of stunned by how good it was. The movie was on VHS, so I rewound the tape and listened to it again. And again. And again. I think I listened to it 10 times. I checked the credits for who sang it. The next day at work I was excitedly telling everyone about it.
“It's this song called 'Hallelujah' by John Cale,” I said.
The beauty of working at a book store, or any similar place, is that you're surrounded by people who care about art, literature, music. They were would-bes like myself. And there was a guy there, Jeff V., a would-be musician, who shook his head at me.
“Cale has a version, yeah, but that's Leonard Cohen.”
Later that day we walked down to the music section at University Book Store and he showed me some of Cohen's music. He recommended some CDs. (This is how it used to work, kids.) I bought “The Songs of Leonard Cohen” and “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” and I was off and running. He was my constant companion. I remember cleaning the apartment one day while listening to “Various Positions,” and “Night Comes On” came on, and something about the turn in the melody, and the images of the lyrics, stopped me, stunned me, and tears began to well up in my eyes. This part:
But my son and my daughter
Climbed out of the water
Crying, Papa, you promised to play
That simple but that complex. I kept going back to “Joan of Arc” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” from “Songs of Love and Hate.” They sounded like the resigned sadness of the world; they sounded more mature, more wise, than I would ever be. Most of his songs did. Cohen was with me whenever I received a rejection notice from a magazine or newspaper or journal, which was often, because I always thought this:
And I thank you, I thank you for doing your duty
You keepers of truth, you guardians of beauty
Your vision is right, my vision is wrong
I'm sorry for smudging the air with my song
I recall going to the Edina Theater in Minneapolis 10 years later to watch the documentary/concert film “Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man,” and hearing all of these great interpretations of his songs by Rufus Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, Anthony. By this point, I knew most of his work, but one song was new to me—sung by Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla. They actually bugged me a little, to be honest. Too tremulous; they overwhelmed the song with their own emotion. But then they got to the chorus and I heard these words for the first time:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in
I sat upright in that nearly empty theater, thunderstruck. I looked around. Did anyone else hear that? Shouldn't we all be shouting for joy? That a human being could write that? That sentiment?
If you haven't read David Remnick's profile of Cohen, “Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker,” which was in the Oct. 17 issue of The New Yorker, just a month ago, do so now. It's one of the best profiles I've ever read.
He's gone now, in this most horrible week of this most horrible year, but what a gift he left us. What gifts. So long, Leonard.
Sincerely, E. Lundegaard