I saw Leonard Cohen live a few years back. The concert was the same week my father had his heart attack, and I was meant to be going with my dad and my sister. Instead, my father was hospitalised and being prepared for surgery, and my sister stayed with my mum. I was encouraged to go Cohen anyway, find friends who could make use of the spare tickets.
I did. We ate Indian food. Leonard Cohen wore a suit on stage, and he performed with the kind of serenity and poise you’ve got no choice but to envy. I was not in good shape before my dad’s heart attack, and things were considerably worse after it happened.
Seeing Leonard Cohen was the only time that month it felt anything close to okay.
Now it’s been three weeks since Cohen died and I’m seated on the balcony of my parent’s apartment, listening to my dad watch the cricket inside. It’s thirty-something goddamn degrees and Brisbane is hot and sweaty and still, and there’s a magpie on the far end of the balcony warbling with very little regard for nearby humans.
I’ve been hitting Democracy on YouTube, day after day, for three weeks now. I don’t think I’m anywhere close to being done with that song yet.
I came across Cohen as a poet long before I heard his music. I found a copy of his Selected Poems in a second-hand bookstores, one of the few single author collections among a poetry section populated by old anthologies and schoolbooks. It was $10.95, hardcover, and I was doing an honours thesis in poetics. I bought the book, took it home, and disappeared inside the words.
The music came after that, but Cohen remained a poet in my head. He made more sense that way, with the poise and the suits and the gravity and the humour. He remained one of the few poets I loved at twenty whose work I still love two decades later.
I made a t-shirt using lines from Beautiful Losers. The poem, not the novel, although you can see the echoes between them if you look real closely:
So you’re the kind of vegetarian
that only eats roses
Is that what you meant
with your Beautiful Losers?
I learned that if you leave sheets of paper with those lines around the apartment, and you’re not there to provide context when your girlfriend comes home, there will be the kind of freak-out that’s indicative of how things will eventually go very, very wrong.
I’ve spent the weekend reading through a months’ worth of blog posts in my RSS feed. I am processing November backwards: Cohen dies, and then I hit the aftermath of the US elections. This results in me hitting Youtube and firing up Democracy again.
Except the version of Democracy that lives in my head isn’t the song, which makes it incredibly hard to listen to the version where it’s treated as such. The version that lives in my head strips away almost everything except the words, delivered in Cohen’s dry tones:
I have thoughts about the state of the world right now, but this is hardly news. I’ve had thoughts about the state of the world for the last twenty years, and most of them boiled down to fucking hell, people, be better than this.
When I look at the state of the world, the directions that we’re heading in, I can’t muster anything akin to Leonard Cohen’s serenity. And I sure as hell won’t look anywhere near as good in a suit.
But I come back to Cohen, again and again, as a reminder of what art can do in the right hands. It can be beautiful, and it can be cool, and it can be terrifying. It can be a weapon and it can be a tool for change and it can be the salve that makes things okay.
Do it right and it can be all of those things in the same song, or story, or poem.