I woke up this morning to the news that Leonard Cohen had died. It wasn’t shocking news, not like Bowie’s death earlier this year, or Phil Lynott’s back in the ’80s. Cohen was 82 – not ancient, but at least it felt as if he’d lived a long enough life.
Still, even if it wasn’t shocking, it gave me pause to reflect, in the way that death often does.
For lot of people, his music represented depressing moods. On several occasions, I heard it referred to as music to commit suicide to. And I understand that. I remember, at the age of 16 being filled with angst (isn’t every teenager at some point?). I’d split up with a girlfriend earlier in the year so I could go out with another, and realised the mistake I’d made. Overcome with grief (I didn’t have the context yet to realise it wouldn’t kill me) and feeling self-destructive, I put a Leonard Cohen album on and raided my mum’s supply of cigarettes. I had the house to myself, and sank even deeper into my funk.
So, it’s definitely mood music when you’re feeling low. And yet I normally find it uplifting. I don’t know whether it’s the finely crafted verses, or the sense of hope that seems to come out of the darker moments. There’s also a sense of humour in the choice of words.
I’ve tried to look back and recall whether I was aware of that before or after I saw him perform live, and I honestly can’t remember. I think so, but it was certainly more apparent when you saw him in the flesh.
The first time was in the ’80s, when he was promoting the album I’m You’re Man. I was a big concert-goer in those days, though the artists I saw were arguably more mainstream, so the people I’d normally go with weren’t really interested. Fortunately, a couple I knew were big fans, so the three of us headed off to Birmingham together. I can’t recall the name of the venue, I just know it was in the city centre.
Dave dropped Karen and I off outside while he went to park, and we headed in and found our seats. When he caught up with us, he had a big grin on his face. “Did you see the sign outside?” We hadn’t. Apparently it said that the last time Leonard Cohen had performed there, he’d had them rocking in the aisles. It seemed “Mr Misery” might surprise us.
As it turns out, we didn’t head for the aisles, but it was a terrific performance from a class act. We sang along, we danced (there were a few you could dance to), and we laughed.
It would be nearly twenty years before I saw him again. This time I went only with Karen (sadly, she and Dave had subsequently gone their separate ways), but for the two of us the Birmingham gig had been something we’d enjoyed sharing and it seemed only right to share this one too. The venue was The Opera House, Manchester, and it was sold out, packed with people of all ages.
When he walked on to the stage, the place erupted, the warmth towards him palpable. His smile was filled with pleasure and tinged with the sly, self-aware humour that continued throughout the night.
An example of his humour came from his performance of Tower of Song. There’s a section that goes:
I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
As he sang the last few words, he put more emphasis on the gravelly sound he can produce, and the response from the audience was a massive cheer. We were all in on the joke and we loved him for it.
He was 75 when I saw him perform in Manchester, yet he had a charisma and ability to connect that left you in no doubt that the, often wild, stories of his past had to be true. What woman could resist that charm? I’d have been tempted myself.
I’d be lying if I said Leonard Cohen had transformed my life. But it’s been a gift to have his music there. I was asked a couple of years ago what my favourite lines from a song were and, again, they were from Tower of Song:
Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
Sadly, that pretty much describes my life now, but it’s good to have a sense of humour about it.