I will never forget the first time I saw Leonard Cohen in the flesh. It was the autumn of 2007, and Leonard was scheduled to appear “in conversation” with with Philip Glass at the Barbican. The Leonard Cohen forum – an online gathering of die-hard enthusiasts – had arranged a day-time meet up at a bar in Camden and I went along to meet them. I was outside having a cigarette when a taxi pulled up. Apparently the forum administrator had, somewhat optimistically, invited Leonard to come and join us. I was in shock. He shook my hand and asked my name, and we had a picture together before he went on to joke and banter with others. He told to us in his unmistakable voice how grateful he was that we had gathered like this and stayed until every one of us loonies had enjoyed the chance to speak with him. I believe that one woman still possesses the glass from which he drunk.
Leonard Cohen was born on the 21st of September 1934. By the time the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper he was already 33. And I think his ambivelent relationship with that decade – and the cultural and sexual revolutions that it spawned – offers some insight into his work.
Before releasing his debut album Cohen was a poet and then a novelist. Beautiful Losers, published in 1966 was too much for established adulthood to bear. When asked, years later, what inspired it, he answered “amphetamines”. Filled with all manner of bisexual, polyamorous sex, it was described by one reviewer as the most disgusting book ever written, and was banned for some time in Australia.
Yet it was not a tale of liberation. If some of that generation saw free love as a panacea for man’s dispossession, Leonard did not. Beautiful Losers does not cast moral judgement upon the web-like relations of its main characters, but it does portray the anguish, the sense of bereavement and the descent into meaninglessness that attended their activities. If, as Frank Furedi recently wrote, the 1960s sexual revolutionists “found it easier to undermine traditional values and practices than to construct new ones that might offer meaningful guidance”, so that “experimentation soon gave way to disappointment, even demoralisation”, perhaps Cohen realised this first.
Thus in the interview below (followed by an excellent work of poetry!) Cohen laments the “psychic catastrophe” that had seen men and women become “wander away from each other, become gypsies to one another.”
When I heard first heard Cohen recite that poem I was struck by the lines “now we are wounded so deep and so well, that no one can hurt us except death itself”. It is a popular myth that Leonard Cohen is the godfather off gloom, the dean of despair. In fact, what what has perpetually characterised his work is his capacity to find joy in odd places, and to picture beauty in defeat. This is explempified most famously in Hallelujah, and also in his poetic homage to his “final great circumcision”, and perhaps most brilliantly in If It Be Your Will.
The religious undertones in this song are obvious. Despite the misconception that he converted to buddhism Leonard Cohen remains attached to judaism. Though I do not share his faith, his allusions to the sacred and the holy are nonetheless engaging. ”Love”, Leonard famously wrote, “is not a victory march, but a cold and broken hallelujah”. In his work Cohen presents a vision of joy and redemption that is routed in – not alienated from – the messy, dissapointing reality of human experience. It is found not the negation of worldly frailties, nor the glamorous, ecstasy-filled parties of 60s mythology, which for most were elsewhere. Rather he offers us a sense of beauty that affirms the value of ordinary human experience and our necessarily imperfect relations with others.
Happy birthday Leonard and I’m glad you’re still going strong.