How do you access the important moments in your life?
Not the moments the world sees.
I mean the great personal moments, the ones that matter most.
I'm certain I'm not alone when I say that music has been a direct pathway to my memory of these moments.
Like this: I am not someone who stays up all night, ever, but when my first book was due and I was just 21 and so scared, I sat at the typewriter until dawn, playing Dylan's Blonde on Blonde over and over as I wrote, and then, as the business day started, I walked the manuscript to my publisher with a confidence I wish I felt every day. Ever since, whenever "Visions of Johanna" shows up....
That memory is the exception. Most connected to music are connected also to women. The happy memories have a varied play list: The Four Tops, Otis Redding, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The heavier memories -- almost all of them -- are linked to the songs of Leonard Cohen.
If you're in the Cohen Cult, you have a list like mine. As someone has said, "You play Leonard after the lovers have left and are in the arms of others." Not always. Sometimes the women were there, and so was a kind of distress you didn't understand and didn't particularly want but couldn't resist -- like a black-and-blue mark you can't help pressing, I used to think. There was something about that pain...
The creator of those songs always knew all about that. He picked up the guitar as a kid because he sensed it could help him with girls. It worked -- Cohen is catnip to many of the women in my life. As Cohen now says, "It was agreeable to have some kind of a reputation or some kind of list of credentials so you didn't have to start from scratch with every woman you walked into." Look around a Cohen concert and even now, when he says it doesn't matter, you'll see women who look at him as their romantic ideal.
Leonard Cohen is now 77. A few years ago, his manager stole most of his money, so he went on a two-year tour, giving long shows that were as close to perfect as anything we're ever likely to see. Everyone who saw Cohen on that tour will hold tight to the image of a thin man in a gray suit, tipping his fedora to his audience in gratitude and humility as he delivered what might euphemistically be called his greatest hits.
I remember we were playing in Ireland and the reception was so warm that tears came to my eyes and I thought, 'I can't be seen weeping at this point,' then I turned around and saw the guitar player weeping."
When the tour was over, he went into the studio with 10 new songs and recorded a CD ironically titled Old Ideas. That too was bracing -- it's very likely he'll tour again and, perhaps for the last time, we'll see the dapper gent in the gray suit tip his fedora to us in humility and gratitude.
I was not exactly looking forward to this CD. His last, Dear Heather, was a weak effort, a marker of decline. Worse than decline; it sounded as if he was borderline addled, incapable of realizing that he really shouldn't be releasing this.
But a week before the launch of Old Ideas you can hear a free stream of the entire CD. I couldn't resist. [To hear Old Ideas now, click here. To pre-order the CD -- for $9.99 -- from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
So... is this an old man's record? It would be easy to make the case. "I've got no future, I know my days are few," he sings. "I thought the past would last me, but the darkness got that too." As for thinking about death -- he practices Zen, you'd better believe his extinction has come up for him. "I've come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that I am going to die," he told a recent interviewer. "So naturally those questions arise and are addressed. But, you know, I like to do it with a beat."
And yet Old Ideas is anything but a valedictory. It's taut, vital music, stripped of the electronic gimmick that sounded so cool a few records ago and got tiresome when they seemed to be covering for weak songs and a weakening voice. You'll hear bits of JJ Cale here, and an echo of "Old Black Joe," and, in the background, smart homages to his own work. (For the best example, listen to "Darkness.")
That's the music. The lyrics are something else: considered, bone-deep, precise. And smart in a way that looks like his best work -- a reach for what is eternally true. Here's his method:
I don't really like songs with ideas. They tend to become slogans. They tend to be on the right side of things: ecology or vegetarianism or antiwar. All these are wonderful ideas but I like to work on a song until those slogans, as wonderful as they are and as wholesome as the ideas they promote are, dissolve into deeper convictions of the heart. I never set out to write a didactic song. It's just my experience. All I've got to put in a song is my own experience.
"My own experience" is precisely why we put on the headphones, light the candles, make ceremony out of listening. Because Leonard Cohen, for those who love him, is older than time and younger than tomorrow. He insists he has no answers -- "Who's to blame in this catastrophe? I never figured that out" -- but we know he does something even more important: He asks the right questions.
Dorian Lynskey of The Guardian had a terrific conversation with Cohen.
And here is a speech he gave when he received an award. Notice how, without notes, he's word-perfect.
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]
Follow Jesse Kornbluth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HeadButler