Leonard Cohen 1934-2016

I woke up in the night to go to the bathroom and when I came back to bed I checked my phone to see the time: sometime after 3am. I took a sip of water and scrolled idly through my notifications. In the middle of them was one from the Guardian. The text started with the words “Leonard Cohen” and I knew even before I read on that it was bad news. The word “bard” and his age 82 stood out and I knew they were saying he’d died before I finished reading the headline. I stopped there, the glass frozen at my lips, and thought just one word, the word that begins with the letter F which you say to yourself when things don’t seem to be able to get any worse.

I put the phone down and got back into bed. I knew this was not going to be an ordinary day for me but there was nothing I could do at three in the morning. I felt ineffectual, useless, resigned and angry, the same as I have done at receiving other bad news in recent days, weeks, months.

I fell asleep and immediately dreamt about him. He was with his family somewhere and I was with some other people, fans maybe or reporters. Something impactful had happened to him, there was some undefined but implicitly negative news, and in my concern I followed him up a path leading to a building, maybe his house. He was right in front of me, close enough that I could touch him. He turned round to me and waved me away, saying something like “You can go now” or “Please leave”. I said, “No problem, I just wanted to check you were okay.” He disappeared round the side of the house and I turned and went away.

It’s not a very heartwarming image or gesture – I guess we’d like to think we’re special to these special people, that if you actually met Leonard Cohen, even in a dream, he would invite you in and accommodate you and be your friend. In real life he was a very accommodating man, extremely gracious to interviewers, giving great answers, asking if they needed more time, if they had enough for their editors, offering them food and drink and even cooking for them sometimes. But in this dream, if I felt shunned, I like to think it wasn’t because he was acting ungraciously or because he didn’t want me there but because he was going away to a place I shouldn’t be going. He was going to his death, about which he was as serious as everything else in his life, and he had to go there alone, and it was in fact the utmost graciousness for him to turn me away and to tell me in effect to go back to my life.

Only a few weeks ago a friend had posted on Facebook about an interview with Leonard in which he talked about being “ready to die”. The friend was lamenting and worrying about the implications, but my response was lighthearted. I commented that he had lived to a grand old age and had lived an incredible life of constant world travel, concerts and writing, and would leave a unique and amazing legacy of work. I left it at that even when a few days later I received his new album You Want It Darker in the post. The title was grim, portentous; did I really want to listen to it? Despite being a huge fan between the ages of 15 and 35, my interest had waned in the past few years. I hadn’t actually listed to many of his records very recently, and wasn’t that enamoured of his last couple of albums. Of course I bought them all though and of course I wanted to listen to this one. It just looked very dark. And indeed it was about as dark an album as I’d ever heard, even from him. I couldn’t actually listen to the end. I’ve not listened to it since and still not heard all the tracks. In the meantime, a video of Leonard giving a press conference to promote the album surfaced on the web in which he regretted saying he was “ready to die” and had in fact “decided to live forever”. That cheered me up, and I developed this idea that he still had plenty of life left in him.

When I woke up at 7am a few hours after reading the news on my phone, I looked at the Guardian article properly, all the live updates as tributes came in, and also at Twitter where people were waking up and gradually finding out. Quite quickly I felt a terrible sense of loss and sadness and grief, my eyes watering. I hauled myself out of bed and put on a pot of coffee, which isn’t something I do every day, but I felt there was going to be a need for it. I got out my laptop, went on Twitter and the Guardian and scrolled through. After a few minutes I could barely type or even see the screen for tears. It felt almost ridiculous. I’d never felt this way about the death of anyone “famous”. Thankfully I work at home. I had no idea how I would have handled it if I’d had to commute into an office.

I was first introduced to Leonard Cohen at the tender age of 15 by my psychiatrist, who had been a fan all his life. I was suffering from anxiety and missing school, and it was the best treatment he could have given me. I used to look forward to our sessions – by definition his availability was limited, but by introducing me to such a great writer and singer he basically showed me a way to a permanent soothing companion. Leonard Cohen knew how I felt, and he would always be there.

My psychiatrist lent me Cohen’s first Greatest Hits album and his first novel The Favourite Game. The novel doesn’t get talked about much and Cohen came to refer to it as an indulgence, which I would agree with now, but a lot of it is as good (or definitive) as anything he ever wrote, lyrically fictionalising his youth growing up in Montreal. As a lonely teenager I could relate to it completely, and for many years it remained one of my favourite books. The album had Suzanne and Famous Blue Raincoat on it, among other classics – even the cover was wonderful, Cohen reflected in a mirror looking mournful in an immaculate dark suit. A friend at the time said I was mad to listen to it because it would make me feel suicidal, but it had the opposite effect; the friend was one of those people who, at that time, had never actually listened to the records, although when he eventually did, he became a fan too. The music and songs were lyrical, beautiful, deeply spiritual, like hymns or prayers. I wasn’t religious, but the songs were religious without being preachy.

I saw Leonard in concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1993 and apart from being a great, long gig I remember him at one point turning on its head the notion that the world was too awful to bring children into: laughing about his daughter Lorca’s decision to pierce her tongue, he cried “Let the next generation work it out! We’ve done our best, it’s their turn now.” He also sang “Dance me to the children who are asking to be born” in Dance Me to the End of Love and years later I had that lyric read out at my wedding. The philosophy of these lines helped me feel better about having children. I saw him again at the O2 in 2008, another magnificent show which he introduced by saying, “Last time I was on a stage in London I was 60 years old – just a kid with a crazy dream.” Both concerts went on for three hours or more – he knew how to give value for money, and he’s still the only artist I’ve ever seen who said “I apologise in advance for the financial and logistical inconvenience you’ve had to undergo to get here. It’s an honour to play for you tonight.” Twenty thousand people instantly forgot they’d paid £70 a ticket, travelled for hours and arranged babysitters, and he had us, as they say, in the palm of his hand.

I went to two international fan conventions, on the island of Hydra in Greece where he used to live, and in New York. Hydra was an especially magical occasion and at the open mic I accompanied a fabulous Italian singer on guitar on Chelsea Hotel No. 2, the song telling the story of his doomed affair with Janis Joplin; it was one of the honours of my life to play that in front of an audience with such a great singer.

I nearly met Leonard Cohen once in London in 2007 when, just prior to his return to world touring, he shared a stage with his partner and collaborator Anjani in an industry showcase for her album Blue Alert. I’d heard on the internet that it was going on and somehow blagged my way in at the door. It was a tiny club in the West End and the room was packed with record company types. Leonard was 72 then, had on a grey suit and blue shirt, top button fastened, cropped grey hair on its way to white. He looked thinner than I remembered and smaller than I ever thought he was, and his voice, while still deep and resonant, was unexpectedly soft. He looked slightly crumpled, in fact. But he had presence in spades in his own low-key way. Anjani sang her jazzy set with her snazzy little band and then Leonard joined her and they duetted on some new songs. It was mesmerising. I pinched myself at the same time as checking over my shoulder in case someone worked out I didn’t belong there and chucked me out. The showcase ended and I started chatting with someone and suddenly I was aware there was a queue of people waiting to speak to him. I ran over to the end of the line, trying to think of something to say: “I love you, man” was true but trite; “Your work has touched me more deeply than that of any other singer/songwriter I’ve ever known” was truer but sounded weighty and pretentious – how was a man supposed to reply to a comment like that? The queue crawled on and with just two people ahead of me, his security whisked him away. If I was momentarily crushed I realised with a grim laugh that it really would have been too good to be true if I had actually managed to speak to him – and anyway what would I have said? I’d had 20 years to think of something to say, but I’m sure I would have only ended up babbling and embarrassing myself.

I’m a fan of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles and The Smiths, but Leonard Cohen was without doubt the most important singer/songwriter in my life. His words were profound. Nobody used words like he did. He once said in a documentary “You have to sit in the very bonfire of your distress until you’re burnt away and it’s ashes, and it’s gone.” He sang “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” In his last interview he said “It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate the willingness to serve.” Nobody else ever said things like that. His songs were like prayers for people who didn’t need to be religious. He made you think you could be religious in a way that transcended organised religion and its questionable leaders. He kept me company on dark and lonely days and nights and he articulated the dark as well as the light. His songs, no matter how dark – well, except for the unbearable You Want It Darker – created a sort of protective roof of invulnerable beauty over me: Waiting for the Miracle, Master Song, Avalanche, A Thousand Kisses Deep, Everybody Knows, Dance Me To the End of Love, as well as his own brand of soaring romance in Ain’t No Cure For Love, Memories, So Long, Marianne and Hallelujah. As a man he exemplified dignity and thoughtfulness. As a writer he made this sort-of writer feel writing was a possible thing to do, if you just stuck at it long enough. There was nothing casual or trivial about him. It seems fitting to me that this deeply spiritual and dignified man checked out of this world the same week that the most undignified president of the USA we’ve ever seen was voted into office.

I will miss Leonard Cohen terribly, but at least we will always have the records, the books, and that voice.