From this broken hill I will sing for you.
From this broken hill, all your praises they shall ring
If it be your will to let me sing.
Friends, Roamers, Countryfans,
Today – September 21st – is my rabbi Leonard Cohen’s birthday. He is 79 years old.
Let me explain the rabbi part: About seventeen years ago and, I was faltering, making a mess of my life. During this time, I awoke from a dream in which Leonard Cohen was my rabbi. I recall no images, but just before my waking reality and timeline clicked into place, I thought, “Leonard Cohen is my rabbi.” I am not Jewish – I prefer the terms evangelical agnostic and/or possibilian – but, as a fatherless kid brought up with no particular spiritual discipline, I’ve sought out older male figures to help get me through life. (I only just recently realized this.) Leonard occupies a significant place in that pantheon, especially since that dream. Prior to that, I was a fan, but the dream altered Lenny’s and my relationship, took it beyond mere fandom. He is my spiritual authority figure, his songs (well, a lot of them) are my sacred texts. He’s also the man I consult over matters carnal and practical. And he has not let me down. Threaded throughout his greatness are some awful songs and some questionable decisions regarding presentation and production, but that’s fine. His imperfection – like Dylan’s, Neil Young’s and Patti Smith’s – emboldens me.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
I initially came to Leonard Cohen in his late-80s phase. Remarkably, my conversion happened when I was playing bass in garage rock titans The Fleshtones in 1988. I was 22. I’d heard “Suzanne,” and maybe a couple others from his 60s-70s period, but his dense lyrics, lecherous-hippie troubadour attitude, and keening, nasal voice annoyed me. I was a rocker, and his sensitivity made me feel vulnerable, embarrassed.
The Fleshtones had finished our soundcheck at a roadhouse-type joint in New Jersey. It was springtime, and much was afoot in my fevered brain; I was considering leaving the band. I wanted to write songs, front my own group, play solo acoustic, not be a sideman. The prospect of actually doing these things made me both anxious and excited, a combo that most often manifested as inarticulate crankiness. Leonard arrived and gave me clarity.
If you want a lover, I’ll do anything you want me to
If you want another kind of love, I’ll wear a mask for you.
If you want a partner, take my hand
Or if you want to strike me down in anger, here I stand.
I’m your man.
The Fleshtones had dispersed after soundcheck – lots of time-killing between soundchecks and gigs in those days – and I wandered alone into a nearby cafe, in full-on Fleshtone mode: dyed black pompadour, skintight red twill jeans, Chelsea boots, and a biker jacket with Mardi Gras beads hanging from the epaulets. The TV over the bar was on PBS (!!) and a new Lenny documentary had just started. He was playing “Bird On A Wire,” and suddenly I was a goner. I ordered a double espresso – perfect, right? – and sat, transfixed as the Bard of Montreal spoke at length of songs, poetry, and his remarkable life (which would only get more remarkable in the coming decades). He also sang live, songs both old and new, and I recognized him at last. It was a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment, one of only a few I’ve experienced.
He’d just released his 8th album I’m Your Man. He’d not put out an album in four years, and the buzz was lively; I’m Your Man – one of the last LPs I bought – was radically different than anything he’d done before. It was brazenly synth-heavy, even occasionally Euro-disco; his baritone had dropped to the sub-basement, and slow-burned with a laid-back intensity. He’d forsaken his Spanish guitar for a drum machine and a cold keyboard, and all was digital crispness. The lyrics – pared down, concise koans of wit – were often mordant and funny, quite direct instead of the oblique, meandering, freeform stuff of the past. Those pithy, much hewed-at couplets, combined with a quiet swagger, comprised my entry point. And it was all sexy in a way that I’d not yet clocked. He was riffing on getting old(er), embracing darkness and loss, but also the glories of sensual life, with a kind of candor that struck me as particularly brave. “First We Take Manhattan” was – and remains –the finest revenge fantasy song ever written.
Ah you loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win
You know the way to stop me, but you don’t have the discipline
How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
What struck me was this: Lenny had been through some kind of shit, some full-grown-man drama, yet he’d come out the other side with a kind of ritual scarring, wrought into stark, tuneful art. Perhaps it finally hit me because I knew my own dark road lay ahead (I was right, and how) and this work offered a kind of emotional map, much more expansive than what I’d previously attached myself to. It wasn’t rock and roll, but I liked it. I walked out of that New Jersey establishment caffeinated and changed. I was a fan. He was my man, indeed. By the end of 1988, I’d staked out a new path.
Against the odds of time, commerce, and human frailty, he got even better. He would overcome addictions to alcohol and nicotine, and speak freely about his depression, anxiety, insomnia, etc., and he would joke about his dance with a vast array of pharmaceuticals, legal and otherwise. His song “Hallelujah” would become a standard, and, much to the chagrin of some fans, be mangled like “Stairway to Heaven” innumerable times, yet rise to be mangled anew. (Full disclosure: I am sick of that song. Still, it remains a marvel to me, technically speaking.) As you read this, it is being mangled –perhaps by me – around a campfire somewhere, and being referred to as “Jeff Buckley’s best song.”
After my conversion, Leonard would help me come to terms with loss, with getting older, feeling mean, being betrayed, betraying, making amends, and, if not making peace, then recognizing the road to reconciliation, even the sinful detours one may allow one’s self in the secret heart. His ability to crystallize moments has improved my ability to do the same. He has made me less afraid of death, but more importantly, less afraid of getting older, which is quite helpful.
My friends are gone and my hair is gray
I ache in the places that I used to play
And I’m crazy for love, but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song.
I’ve been to see him three times, and one of those shows – Madison Square Garden, just a couple years ago – was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. (And I’ve seen plenty.) He and his band cast a spell of open-mouthed amazement, then sent us on our way. His fortune had been stolen, so he went back out on the road like a yeoman, or a soldier, and turned his loss into a triumphant return to form, skipping onstage to rapturous applause, hushing thousands with the power of song. We swooned, hooted, and threw money at him with no regrets.
He’s enriched my life deeply. I’ve learned a few of his songs, aped him shamelessly, even recited the poem “A Thousand Kisses Deep” at a gig last year. Now he is in the winter of his years, and I have no idea how he’s celebrating his birthday, whether he’s on Mount Baldy with his sensei, in a VIP lounge with his girlfriend, hanging out with his kids in Montreal (a big plus that he’s tight with his adult kids Adam and Lorca), or alone in the Hollywood Hills, breathing in the sage, sneaking a smoke, and laughing. The very fact than any one of those situations is highly plausible says a lot about why I love him.
Happy Birthday, Leonard, my rabbi.
I loved you for a long, long time
I know this love is real
It don’t matter how it all went wrong
That don’t change the way I feel
And I can’t believe that time’s
Gonna heal this wound I’m speaking of
There ain’t no cure,
There ain’t no cure,
There ain’t no cure for love.