Saturday, November 12, 2016

Death of a ladies' man

Leonard Cohen had been telling us so often that he was close to death that it shouldn't have come as a shock when he did die; but it still came as a real jolt at 5.20 yesterday morning when I opened the daily email from the Guardian, the newspaper to which I subscribe, to read the headlines.  What I saw was that the first story (ahead of the latest installment in 'The Decline and Fall of the USA') was that while the band has been playing Auld Lang Syne for a while now, Leonard Cohen's heart has finally had to retreat.  The night really has now come on, and he can no longer obey his mother's exhortation to go back, go back to the world.

We'd woken up a couple of mornings previously to find that the world had (probably) become a worse place (as a result of the American election) and yesterday we woke to find that it definitely is a worse place.  Except that it isn't really: over the last 50 and more years it has become a much better place for Leonard Cohen's poetry, and the poetry still exists.  As Paul Kelly wrote of Brian Wilson, "he'll only die when the world dies".  To (mis)quote Leonard again, this time from 'Tower of Song', we'll be hearing from him long after he's gone, and he'll still be speaking to us sweetly from his window in the Tower of Song.

I was a late convert to Leonard Cohen's music.  One is meant to spend one's studenthood listening to it, but I didn't wake up to it until I was in my 20s.  I first stumbled upon it - unknowingly, initially - when Jennifer Warnes had a hit in 1987 with 'Bird on a Wire'.  I bought the album from which that song came, 'Famous Blue Raincoat', which consisted of her singing several of his songs, including a duet with him on a beautiful version of 'Joan of Arc'.  Stupidly, I didn't start to explore his music beyond this for another four years, and I have Leigh Messner to thank for prompting me to do so.

During the year which I spent in Australia in 1991, I was lucky enough to spend a fair bit of time with Bob and Leigh Messner at their home north of Melbourne on Break O'Day Road near Flowerdale (which, I think, is whence the Roycroft family hailed before moving to the Western District) including spending Christmas Day with them, and going to Mansfield races with them on Boxing Day.  Anyway, Leigh gave me a copy of 'The Songs of Leonard Cohen' - and I've spent the subsequent 25 years listening to his music ever more widely.  In fact, only last weekend I ordered another three albums: his latest (last) one 'You Want It Darker' plus two recordings of concerts.  I don't know how many of his albums I own, but they are numerous, particularly the recordings of his concerts, each one an individual and never-dulling source of joy.

While I ought to have been listening to Leonard Cohen as a student (which means as a schoolboy, as I dropped out of my theology course at Oxford at the earliest opportunity) I wasn't.  Neither were any of my peers.  If one singer is synonymous in my mind with my schooldays, that would be David Bowie.  One of my strongest memories from prep school was watching 'Top of the Pops' (we weren't really allowed to watch television, but remarkably we generally did manage to see TOTP) when 'Ashes to Ashes' was Number One.  It blew me away, both the sight and the sound.  And then on going to public school and starting to listen to the music which older people (ie 17-year-olds) listened to (ie LPs rather than singles) the soundtrack of those years in my memory consists of 'Hunky Dory' and 'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars' (as well as 'Transformer' and 'Year of the Cat').

I still listen to all four of those albums frequently.  In fact, yesterday when I got into the car and felt that there just had to be a Leonard Cohen CD in the slot, I had to remove Ziggy Stardust from the machine to put one in.  (And it went without saying that there were several in the car, as a matter of course).  But year in, year out, I spend more time listening to the music of Leonard Cohen than of anyone else.  We had the shock of losing David Bowie earlier this year, and now Leonard Cohen has gone too.  The world is a greater place for the existence of his sublime lyrics and for his renditions of them.  He brought joy and wonderment to millions through his songs of love and hate, of life and death; and for that we can thank the God about whom he wrote so variedly.  I can only hope that he is healed and his heart is indeed at ease.  May he rest in the peace which he has so richly earned.

It's been miserable today, with incessant rain.  Thursday wasn't much better.  But yesterday, after the early frost and fog had dispersed, was glorious. As you can see.

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