The fall that Leonard Cohen died there was an unforgettable interview with him. It was his last interview, done at his home in Los Angeles. It was one of those extra long New Yorker articles that you can literally slip into like a warm bath, get tired of laying, stand up, sit on the edge of the tub, get cold, get back in and run the hot water again to warm up. Whatever you do you never want to get out.
I read it right after it came out and I didnt re-read it for the sake of this post because I wanted to remember the impressions that have lasted. The interview came out within a month after my marriage came to an abrupt halt. I was facing every nightmare about myself all at once. I had moved back to New York City and wanted to start making a lot of music, that was the good part. I was living in the heartbeat of it, historically, in the West Village. The streets where Dylan walked and performed, where the rock folk scene in the U.S. was born, where Leonard Cohen lived and wrote so many songs, where all my music heroes lived, died, passed through and played. Still dirty despite the gentrification of the 2000’s, the energy there still emanates from the concrete and cobblestones. It drips from the trees like high colored, cob-webbed skeins of energy.
It was the first time in my life that I was there to live and wasn’t a dumb kid fending off or hiding behind self-destructive habits. I had calmed down enough that I could maintain a clear head but still get off on all the creative energy that will always be there. It wasn’t until making music that I experienced downtown New York City in this way. My head literally vibrates when I am there. I can feel the history as I walk down the narrow, broken sidewalks and stop at the corners or wander into the quiet streets.
I remember in my late twenties, soon before I moved out of New York City, I had bought Cohen’s album ‘The Future.’ I remember buying the Cd at Tower records on Broadway. Sitting on the lap of my lover in my apartment sometime soon after, I insisted he listen to the song Anthem. I had become obsessed with the album and was certain my lover should be too. I sang him the lines as we listened, arms around his neck, “…there is a crack, a crack, in everything, that’s how the light gets in…” He looked down at my lap and pointed to my fly being down. What can you do? He wasn’t my lover for long but I laughed.
When I was in my thirties, I was living off the grid deep in the Arizona desert. There the music of Leonard Cohen finally penetrated me. I was finally old enough and calm enough. It was the first time I would turn to music for healing. Embracing music was no longer about identifying the music as my identity, but about letting it shine a light on the way, on how to move into and through my darkness, how to laugh at it and float within the pain deftly.
It was also when Bob Dylan’s lyrics opened up to me like floodgates. It had always been the music with him for me, but hearing the lyrics for the first time in all the years I had been listening, changed him for me. It was like he was another musician. I began to listen to his music from the sixties in meticulous detail. I remember listening to the long ballads on long, cold daily walks with my dog Spike through the desert that looked like the dried up bottom of the ocean with cactus and coyotes.
I never wanted them to end. They were safe, they were clear and truthful and raw. They were funny and while they told me, they also heard me. I wasn’t alone. I saw where these songs were and I fell in love with the spaces.
Cohen’s music was like a light touch of the heaviest news. The news that the darkness was coming despite everything. He always delivered gentle, non-judgmental advance warnings in his music. At the time, I listened a lot to his album ‘Ladies Man.’ I could not figure out what in the world he was talking about but I kept listening because I sensed somewhere in my spirit or soul it made sense. All his songs felt that way. The production on the later music wasn’t my deal, the lyrics were strange and yet the whole thing felt better than so much I experienced in current culture or the things happening in my personal life. His music, his melodies and toneless voice guided me and gave me deep comfort. A home I came back to every night to rest as much as God would allow me to rest at that time. But I realize while writing this that whether I listened to him as a nine year old or a forty-nine year old, I always knew I was listening from a sacred room, a room that God could inhabit if he wanted. Cohen’s music feels like everything that is great about humans, kind, gentle, funny, raging, brilliant and unusual.
Dylan and Cohen, both poets, wandering minstrels. Had it been the medieval times it would have been the Canterbury Tales by one of them and Beouwulf by the other.
I know Dylan has popped up in this essay from seemingly nowhere. But Im going somewhere with this. The New Yorker interview filled in a space of questions I never realized I had had about the connections between the two men. They interviewer asked Cohen specifically about Dylan, what did he think was his best song. He said it was ‘I and I.’ I went and listened to the song for two months straight. Listening to it from Cohen’s perspective turned it into an odyssey for me.
The interviewer then requested a brief interview with Dylan about Cohen. It was one of the few times that Dylan easily agreed to being interviewed. It was the only time I have ever seen Dylan deferential towards another musician, a colleague, sort of in awe. They asked him what was his favorite song of Cohen’s which was “Hallelujah.” The reporter asked Cohen how long it took to write “Hallelujah,” he said about three years. They asked Dylan how long it took him to write
“I and I,” he said around fifteen minutes.
Both songs are titan-esque examples of the written word. Both are complete and infinite worlds. For some reason, I have never forgotten these details about the interview or the songs. It is what I think about when I listen to the musicians today.
To be honest, I don’t know what actually prompted me to write this essay. Maybe because these are some of the things that never quit rolling around my mind like pinballs. That New Yorker interview published at that time of my life. Cohen’s death timely with the death of my former life and the birth of my musical one. I am sad he is gone, that I would never have had the chance to have met him if I ever could have. But it shows me that he was always there to be a place where I would go with my imaginary impressions and those only.
It makes so much sense to me. His words and energy have always ushered me to the right places where I could stay safe in order to get to the job I was put here to do.
Dylan and Cohen’s presence in my life, melded forever in that essay, in a remote conversation. I now see in this article was placed there like a steel stanchion in my mind, I run around this steel tree when I need to remember, when I need direction back to who I am, to where I come from.