‘I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best’ Leonard Cohen sings of Janis Joplin in ‘Chelsea Hotel’. Well tonight I don’t want to suggest that of Leonard Cohen either. I’m not a superfan who owns every album. I’m not grieving. There are sadder things in this world right now than a fulfilled, beloved man dying at 82. But it’s Friday, the children are asleep, and I’m in on my own clicking on ‘So Long, Marianne’ and drinking a glass of red wine to one of the very greatest lyricists of all time.
My dad used to like singing Leonard Cohen songs – he said they were some of the few popular tunes in his vocal range – and he often recounted how when he was dating my mum and they had to live in different towns he would sing her ‘Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’ (‘your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm…’).
One of my top ten albums is the deliciously sleazy I’m Your Man with Lorca’s ‘Take this Waltz’ and ‘Everybody Knows’ (‘Everybody Knows the fight was fixed. the poor stay poor and the rich stay rich.’) One of my top ten concerts ever was Cohen at Benicassim, bounding onto the stage full of joy.
(image of Cohen at Benicassim by Baggio)
Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ was pretty much the anthem of my adolescence, and Chelsea Hotel, well, it’s a top ten song, maybe even top five. It breaks my heart every single time I hear it. ‘You were talking so brave and so sweet’. I think I’m pretty much gone from there.
And he was a real poet. I mean, I love Dylan, but Dylan lyrics without the music don’t sound like poems to my ear. Cohen’s are poems. Look at ‘Suzanne’:
Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then he gets you on her wavelength and she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover
Listen to the cascade of soft, feminine rhymes there. Listen to the caesuras breaking the lines like waves breaking. Look at that image of tea and oranges: comforting yet exotic, fragrant, precise.
I’ll remember you well Leonard Cohen. That’s all.