Charlie Lewis reflects the wry, breathy baritone that was Leonard Cohen
I saw Leonard Cohen, just once, as part of the never ending tour he embarked on after his business manager had robbed him of most of his life savings. It was February 2009, and through the fog of nearly 8 years, there are still moments that come back with a perfect shock of clarity. A longer piece than this could be dedicated to that show, but doing it justice would be a losing battle against the limits of language and given the man I’m commemorating, that would be a terrible insult, a poor joke. I’ll just say it was the greatest show I’ve ever seen, and I’m fairly confident, will ever see.
I bring it up mainly for one memory. A middle aged woman in the row in front of us was holding a little wad of paper, making little additions and crossing out lines on a long piece. Intrigued, I glanced over her shoulder. It was a letter to Leonard. I caught just a few snatches, but it appeared to be catching him up on what had happened since she had seen him last. Whether that meant in person, or in concert, didn’t really matter. Cohen was, for many of us, a chronicler and companion for the various complications of adult life. His songs were correspondence from a friend, and this woman simply wanted to reply.
For all of his reputation as a purveyor of darkness and despair, self-pity is not a trait you will find in any Leonard Cohen song. You’ll find warmth, wit, sex, mortality, religion, politics, history and yes, sometimes a pure existential howl, because sometimes, Christ, we are capable of nothing else. Surely no one needs reminding of that this week. But never once did he give the impression that this made him a special case, and particularly as he got older, he looked into the void with a wry smile. He once laughingly noted that the brain cells that cause anxiety are among the first to die.
When McCartney, or Simon or Jagger or Young go (and given 2016’s record I’m not recommending they share a plane for the next month or two), I will, fairly or unfairly, return to the late sixties or early seventies to remember the pure narcotic thrill they could deliver. The first song I listened to upon hearing the news about Cohen was Treaty, a song he released 3 weeks ago. He was craftsman, so perhaps it makes sense that in his prolific final period, his work just seemed to get better. As the range of that lived in, breathy baritone narrowed to a slit, his phrasing and grasp of melody became flawless. As an 82 year-old, it felt like he still had a lot to give us.
I wonder if that woman ever got her letter to him. I hope she did.
Today, more than ever, I hope she did. For her sake, and mine, and everyone else who woke up to the feeling that they’d lost a genuine friend. Such is the dynamic with artists who make you feel as though you’re being personally addressed.