2016 was a chaotic and confusing year. The first couple of weeks of November were especially chaotic and confusing. That was when Leonard Cohen died and I haven't felt ready to talk about it much nor do any sort of public eulogizing. I still don't really want to. Nevertheless, here's this.
The Full Measure
(for Chris R.)
1999. There was a house down the road from my college dorm where several, slightly older friends of mine lived. It was a place to drink too much beer, watch movies, listen to records, and play guitar. One of the inhabitants was an unemployable, manipulative, wannabe songwriter, who happened to be working his way through quitting heroin for the third or fourth time. He was also a voracious record collector who had thousands and thousands of LPs. His room was in the basement. Everything out of his mouth was a romanticised vision of the mundane details in his life. If he saw a pretty girl working at the bank, he'd spend 99 percent of the day obsessing about her. We got along pretty well. I’d come over in between classes. He’d read me third rate Jim Morrisonesque monologues out of his journals while I picked through his records and played whatever looked interesting. I was writing songs at the time, but my songwriting skill set was truly limited. Coming from a small, isolated farm town with a poor education system, the most underground music I was exposed to was maybe Korn? To put it lightly, I did not have the tools I needed to become a singer-songwriter. A vocation I only vaguely understood.
After class one day, I headed to that house down the road. As I made my way down the stairs into the basement, I heard a brittle, patiently strummed acoustic guitar crackling out of the stereo speakers. A monotone voice croaked. The words were both difficult to discern and clear as crystal.
Well, I found a silver needle,
I put it into my arm.
It did some good,
did some harm.
But the nights were cold
and it almost kept me warm,
how come the night is long?
I felt as if I was going to fall over. Not necessarily from the content of the words, but from the sound of the whole thing. It was painfully quiet and isolated and foreign sounding music, but it was also instantly recognizable in its vulnerability. It seemed childlike and amateurish, but also wise and sophisticated. I asked, “What is this?”
“It’s Leonard Cohen. Songs From a Room.”
I’d heard the name before.
“You mean, the guy who wrote that one song on the Jeff Buckley album? He makes music that sounds like this?”
“Yeah, he’s great.”
I picked up the album sleeve and looked at the cover. It looked like it was made with a Xerox machine. Black and white and overexposed and washed out. The font scared me. It looked like a warning. The deadly serious and cold face looking back at me was shocking.
Everything in my life instantly changed. The way I thought about songwriting. The way I understood music was “supposed” to sound. The sort of things you could say in a song. The way you could sing them. Everything.
The song ended with this:
Blood upon my body
and ice upon my soul,
lead on, my son, it’s your world.
And just like that, I became a songwriter.
I introduced this music to my best friend Chris and we both became obsessed. We bought every LP, every poetry book, both novels. We bought bootleg VHS tapes on ebay filled various TV interviews and live performances. We read the unauthorized and authorized biographies. We learned about Leonard’s family and children and childhood friends and ex-lovers. And we always laughed and laughed. Yes, the music and poetry is “dark” but it’s also hilarious. Sometimes painfully dry in its absurd humor. In the case of the poetry and novels, the surrealism, violence, and sex interspersed with the irrepressible romance was too much to take. Sometimes just the mention of a song or poem title would send us into a giggling fit.
Death of a Ladies’ Man
Flowers For Hitler
I Have Not Lingered In European Monasteries
Came So Far For Beauty
A Singer Must Die
Whenever we’d get together, one of us would inevitably show up with a piece of Leonard Cohen ephemera.
“Check it out. This is a laminated magazine advertisement for “Songs Of Love and Hate.” I’m going to hang it by my toilet.”
“Woah. Perfect place for it.”
I have six different editions of the novel The Favourite Game. Chris has the cover of the album New Skin For the Old Ceremony tattooed on his leg. In the masterpiece, stream of consciousness prose poem End Of My Life in Art, Leonard mentions a cocktail he created while in Needles, California: The Red Needle.
“Tequila and cranberry juice, lemon and ice. The full measure.”
Chris and I exclusively drank this cocktail from 2001-2004. At this point, to call Leonard Cohen a cult figure would be accurate, as we had essentially started a cult.
At some point, during those years, we took a trip to Montreal with friends under the guise of a vacation. While the rest of our group spent time in bars and strip clips, Chris and I walked the old part of the city looking for any landmark mentioned in a Leonard Cohen poem or novel. We found his childhood home in Westmount. We chatted with his neighbor. “Ah, yes. Young men come snooping around this neighborhood quite often," he said.
I’d prefer not to spend time rehashing Leonard Cohen’s entire life and career and commenting/critiquing/praising each phase, but I’ve heard and read it all. A massive portion of it is (clearly) indispensable to me. And much of it suffers from frustrating shortcomings (particularly production and collaborative choices in the music he made post-2000).
I will say the significance of Leonard Cohen’s poetry and two novels are as important to me as the music and if you haven’t, I urge you to read every word he’s written. This material ranges from somewhat traditional verse (The Spice-box of Earth) to religious text (Book of Mercy) to avant garde erotica (Beautiful Losers). His writing is dazzling, and I assure you, quite funny. You will laugh and laugh.
I wish more people talked about his singular, faux-flamenco style guitar playing that, according to one of my guitar teachers, is “impossible unless you have more than 5 fingers on your right hand.”
I wish someone would publish an art book of all his drawings and paintings.
I wish I knew everything about his time spent as a Zen monk on Mt. Baldy where he was given the name Jikhan, meaning "silence.”
I wish there was a religion based on Book of Mercy.
I wish some of his ex-band members would write a book and talk about what he was like as a bandleader and a friend.
I wish a camera was rolling when he recorded “Don't Go Home with Your Hard-On” with Phil Spector producing, and Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan singing background vocals.
I wish I knew what it was like to stumble upon Beautiful Losers in a Canadian bookstore in 1966.
“I wish there was a treaty / Between your love and mine.” - “Treaty” (2016)
A funny thing happened in the last 15 years or so. The entire world started to really love Leonard Cohen. The song Hallelujah became an international anthem of beauty and redemption. He went back out on tour and started making albums again. He was always beloved and respected, but now it seemed like the word was truly out: Leonard Cohen is one of the best, if not the best singer-songwriter of all time.
There’s an absurd, knee-jerk reaction some people have when an artist they love becomes a household name. Well, I am guilty of this when it comes to Leonard Cohen. I’ve been known to feel somewhat uncomfortable when I think about large crowds of people loudly singing along to these words that are so private and personal to me. But now that he’s gone, the words are all that’s left. He was so generous to share the work that made me this person I am today, it would be selfish and foolish to want to keep him to myself. I wonder how he helped shape you and your life. I hope he made you laugh.
Make yourself a Red Needle tonight. Don’t forget the recipe:
Tequila and cranberry juice, lemon and ice. The full measure.