Leonard Cohen passed away about eight hours before I sat down to write this piece. I should be depressed because he was greatly influential on my life, so much so that my son, my only child, is named after him. His passing hurts, to be sure, and I am not one who usually feels hard hit by the passing of celebrities, even those who rank among my favorites. Part of me, however, chooses to celebrate rather than to be overcome by grief. Leonard Cohen’s body of work touched so many people around the world and brought them so much happiness, and I want to focus here on the fact that, although the world is worse without Leonard Cohen in it, it is so much better for what he gave us during his 82 years here.
Cohen’s songs, poems, and novels have often been mistaken by casual listeners and readers to be exercises that wallowed in despair. This is far from the truth, though, as Cohen flavored his material with a dark, wry humor — not always, but certainly often — and some of his work is nothing short of celebratory and joyous. The humor may not jump out immediately at new listeners or readers, but it is there for them to discover, the way that so many thousands and thousands of Leonard Cohen fans like me have done. At the time, some friends found Cohen’s work to be as deeply affecting as I did, while others loved to make good-natured fun of it as they tried to get my goat. Cohen’s unique approach was summed up in the “Nasty” episode of the classic British comedy television series The Young Ones when one of the characters, in fear of becoming undead, states, “He’s gonna get us and turn us all into vampires! And we’ll all be dead and yet still alive! Like Leonard Cohen!”
I first learned about Leonard Cohen in the early 1980s. Some of my favorite bands and singers at the time, such as Echo and the Bunnymen, The Smiths, The Sisters of Mercy (who took their name after one of his songs), and Nick Cave mentioned him often in their interviews. I worked at a record store in Sacramento, California, when his latest album at that time, Various Positions (1984), was newly released. As the opening notes and back-up vocals on “Dance Me to the End of Love” played, I knew something magical was happening, and when his deep voice and unusual vocal stylings kicked in, I was hooked. I bought his back catalog as quickly as I could. I then found his two novels and some of his poetry collections at used book shops in Sacramento and San Francisco.
Leonard Cohen and his work inspired me to apply to graduate school at San Francisco State University’s Creative Writing department. A poem that I wrote about him was part of my body of work required for graduation, and I gave my first class lecture about his novels and poems.
I was fortunate enough to see him twice on his tour for the album I’m Your Man. In October 1988, in front of San Francisco’s Fillmore theater, I was lucky enough to meet him after he stepped off his tour bus. He walked right over to greet the five of us who were in line waiting for the doors to open several hours later so we could get front row seats. Hoping that something like this might happen, I had brought along a copy of his first novel, The Favorite Game, and he signed it for me. I told him how important he and his poetry, novels, and songs were to me, and in that deep voice of his, he replied, “Thank you so much for your kind, gracious words” and shook my hand. He spoke in conversation exactly the same way he did on stage and in interviews. The only memory about Leonard Cohen performances that makes me happier than that one is that my son saw him in concert on more than one occasion, too. My son Cohen called me in South Korea, where I had been living and working for two years at the time, from Portland’s Rose Garden on December 8, 2010 (the first time Leonard played there) as he waited for the concert to start. I got to hear the moment that the lights went down and the crowd responding accordingly. Thanks to my son, although I was half a world away at the time, I felt a bond as if he and I were there together, preparing for the show to start.
Leonard Cohen’s work has been with me through some of my darkest hours and some of my brightest, and a great number of times between those two absolutes. When so many of my friends started sending me posts and private messages on Facebook about Leonard Cohen’s passing today, I was so touched that they all took the time to see how I was doing. I’m sad but sadness passes, and I will celebrate all of the joy that Leonard Cohen has brought to my life today and always.
The first song that came to mind when my son broke the news to me was “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” I always thought that the world would be a much better place if all relationships could end the way Leonard sings about in this song. I think some lyrics from this song are appropriate for Leonard’s passing, as well: “But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie/You eyes are soft with sorrow/Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.”
I’m not going to suggest certain songs, albums, or poetry collections for people to listen to first if they have never heard or read Leonard Cohen before. I would like to think that wherever newcomers start, like me, they will be so impacted that they start digging for more and more. I hope that, like me, they discover that his voice changed to a surprising degree over the course of his first several albums. I hope that, like me, they will have that feeling of having one of his poems hit you in the gut, and that the poem on the next page brings a smile to their faces. I hope that, like me, The Favorite Game becomes one of their all-time most cherished novels, and that they find the challenge of reading Beautiful Losers to be well worth it.
My son consoled me this morning when he broke the news about Leonard Cohen leaving this mortal coil by writing to me, “He’s where I imagine he always lived. Some other place that exists in all of us.” I wholeheartedly agree, Cohen. Thank you, Leonard Cohen, for touring and performing such long concerts into your eighties. Thank you for your final album, released only days ago. Thank you for everything, Mr. Cohen. You are missed and greatly loved.