I remember vividly the first time I heard Leonard Cohen. It was in my room at Squatemala, an anarchist compound of Victorian mansions and carriage houses built by long-dead lumber barons. Over the decades, it had gone feral with broken windows, collapsing walls, leaking roofs and beautiful ghosts roaming the creaking hallways. The overgrown yard, a full-city-block, was hidden by a stockade fence and a row of garage workshops. We added a large wall tent, cultivated wild edibles and gathered nightly around a bonfire for song and smoke, drink and dance.
I had a room in the “Big House,” with moonlight that slipped through leaded glass and a museum of frayed and faded antique furniture.
A very dear friend, a lover then, was surprised and excited that I’d never heard of Cohen. She played “Suzanne” and we lay there, silenced. As a love song, it was instantly among the best I’d heard. Up there with Coltrane’s “Naima” and “San Diego Serenade” by Tom Waits. But then there came this verse:
And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
and I knew I was listening to a poet. I think a poet is someone who says something utterly new that is so true, so authentic to the music of the universe, that the moment you hear the words they seem to have always existed—part of the bedrock, rooted in our pre-conscious myth. Academics, theologians and philosophers could spend years analyzing and explicating these lines. As humans, though, we feel their meaning in an instant.
The song ended, and we played it again. And then we didn’t play it, and it kept playing within.
Sometime later, our friend, the insanely talented artist and musician Jim Perkins started playing a weekly gig at the Hamilton St. Pub, and during his set would play Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” There was a group of us, based around Squatemala and around the Red Eye Coffeehouse—the greatest coffee spot to ever exist—that were there every week. (Of course, you, I hope, have the same independent, quirky designation in your home town—the greatest coffeehouse exists all over the world, and it never sports a green mermaid in its logo.)
The night was always fantastic. Love and camaraderie and silliness and tiny dancers and enough booze to stun a rhinoceros. But then, near the end of the night, Perkins would give in to our screaming request and play “our song.”
I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
And suddenly all of us were on the dance floor, in one big hugging circle, signing as if our lives depended on it. We loved each other, we loved the perfection of the song, we even loved that damn curmudgeon Perkins who was humoring us, and we loved the moment that we pretended would last forever.
But it didn’t.
We moved on. We moved away. Some of us loved each other too much and don’t anymore. Some of us sometimes lay awake remembering those days when something magical and beautiful took hold of us, brought us together and gave us a memory that no one on the outside will ever understand.
But all of us still love Leonard Cohen for giving the us his words, his voice and his pain. And I still love all those people, even the ones I pretend I don’t.