We are ugly but we have the music: Remembering Leonard Cohen

It’s taken me two months to write about Leonard Cohen. I’m not sure why. Maybe I was sick of the fact that every blog post I wrote last year was about the death of one of my heroes. Maybe it was that Cohen died the same week that the most unheroic cowardly man possible was elected to power, and my mind was reeling. Whatever the reason, I am writing about him now.

You don’t always remember when an artist enters your life. Some of them, it just seems like they were always there. I remember exactly when and where I discovered Leonard Cohen. I was 15 and babysitting for a family that lived across the street from mine. I spent most weekends babysitting, truth be told. I was shy and awkward, and didn’t have much of a social life. I was always happy to earn some spending money, but I must confess that there were certain families that I preferred babysitting for. Namely, the ones with cable TV, comfy couches and tasty snacks.

This family had none of those things. Their tiny black and white TV was in the chilly basement, and they didn’t have cable. The whole house was chilly – freezing, in fact – because they believed in keeping their thermostat as low as possible. They were also big into health food, which meant that forays into the pantry for a snack yielded up bags of bran and wheat germ. The one thing they did have was books. One night, after I’d put the kids to bed, I curled up on the hard living room couch with a scratchy blanket over my legs and started inspecting the book shelves. There must be something I can entertain myself with for the next couple of hours! Hey, Leonard Cohen. I’d heard of him.

I picked out a volume of poetry, Flowers for Hitler, and started reading. My eyes grew wide and my mouth dropped open. This  unlike any poetry I’d ever read before. There were poems about sex! He even wrote a poem about getting a blow job! And no, it wasn’t Chelsea Hotel that I read. It was another poem. Cohen was apparently the poet laureate of oral sex. I didn’t know you could write poetry about things like that, and that poems could be both dirty and beautiful. There was a short one-act play in there as well, called The New Step, and I was so fascinated by it that I read it every time I babysat for that family.

I developed a fascination with Cohen and devoured his poetry. His novels were less accessible to me. It was his poetry that I read over and over until I could recite entire poems by heart. I discovered his records and fell instantly in love with that impossibly deep, rich voice. I babysat for another couple, Ken and Judy, who were both huge Cohen fans and told me stories of having seen him live. He disappeared into a monastery in 1994, when I was just finishing university. I figured I would never get to see him live. I kept listening and reading and wrote a paper on him for my Canadian Literature course, even though my prof hated Cohen and was guaranteed to give me a low mark.

I watched documentaries about Cohen. When Phillip Glass set Cohen’s latest collection of poems to music for a multimedia spectacle at Luminato, I went and almost imploded when Cohen himself slipped into the theatre just before the lights went down and sat two rows behind me. I went to a live Q&A to listen to Cohen and Glass talk about working together. I watched as Lou Reed inducted Cohen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Then something unbelievable happened. Cohen emerged from several years of seclusion to find that his manager had misappropriated most of his money. To make it back, he went out on tour. My husband and I splurged on the best tickets possible and saw him twice in Toronto, both times within the first 10 rows. The second night, tears started pouring down my face while he sang. We saw him again a few years later, this time the tickets were a birthday gift from me to my husband.

He was 82 when he died. That’s a good long run. His time had come and he knew it. He was ready. It’s the rest of us who weren’t ready yet.

I like to think of him hanging out in the afterlife with Lou and Lemmy and Bowie. Like all of them, he was an outsider and he spoke for us with wisdom, dark wit, bawdiness, and stunning beauty. We are ugly, but we have the music.

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