I have recently spent several long weekends with Leonard Cohen. Not in person, you understand, but even so I feel I now know him much better than I did. In the unlikely event that we were ever to get together for a real-life weekend (and time and circumstances seem to make this increasingly unlikely) I’m sure we’d get along like a house on fire (but more of his house later).
The first of these weekends was spent in the company of ‘The Complete Studio Albums Collection’.
When the box set arrived I announced to the world that I was going in to my room and that I ‘may be some time’. From the enthusiastic social media response (one RT and two likes) it seemed that most regarded this statement as mere acknowledgement of the size of the box set rather than a knowing reference to Oates walking to his death at The South Pole. To spend a weekend with ‘Laughing Len’ and his ‘music-to-slit-wrists-by’, I was suggesting, was to be thrown into some profound depression from which, like my room, I was unlikely to emerge.
How wrong I was. Listening to Cohen’s work chronologically (topping up the box set with ‘Old Ideas’) turned out to be a far from depressing experience. In much the same way that you feel purged after witnessing the suffering of a great tragedy, I finished the experience feeling strangely uplifted. OK, there are many songs that can’t be accused of looking on the bright side, but there’s also a lot of humour there, not all of it dark. In fact, I would suggest that a chronological Cohen – listen should be available to all on the NHS. It remains one of the great secular pilgrimages of our time.
The other long weekends with Leonard were spent in the company of Sylvie Simmons’s ‘I’m Your Man’.
There are too many highlights to mention here but several stand out. I was intrigued by the revelation that in his early teens Cohen acquired a book called ’25 Lessons in Hypnotism – How to Become an Expert Operator’ – a telling indicator of the spell he was destined to cast over several future generations of listeners. That the first use he should put his skills to was getting the family maid to undress seems an equally telling indicator of the spell he was to cast over future generations of women. Simmons also sheds interesting light on ‘Hallelujah’ – it took Cohen five years to write ( he kept eighty alternative verses and discarded many more) and it has two different endings, one downbeat and one full of life-affirming bravado.
Of most interest, though, was the importance of the Greek island Hydra to Leonard Cohen. Hydra was the first place I went on holiday to with my wife, and it has always held a special place in our memories. That it should be so much associated with Cohen means that he, too, has held a special place in our lives. My wife, in fact, felt so close that she wrote personally to him (including a photo of us together on the island) saying that we had a real soft spot for Hydra and would love to stay in his house any time he wasn’t there and it was free. For some strange reason Leonard failed to get back to her, but we’re heading back to Hydra soon and haven’t ruled out the possibility of bumping into him and enjoying a proper long weekend with Leonard Cohen in person.