I probably wouldn’t have become a musician if it hadn’t been for Leonard Cohen, and probably not a poet either. The very possibility of being both these things came to me through him, and there have been few later examples to learn from. I remember my sister Mignon coming home for the weekend from her university studies and telling me how they had analysed Cohen’s Suzanne in a first-year tutorial class. My joy went far beyond a sense that academics were hip enough to know about popular music: my own knowledge of popular music was patchy at best in those days. I was happy that they could see what I saw from the first moment I encountered him: that Cohen’s songs were haunting in the sense that they refused to be forgotten.
The stubborn refusal to be forgotten is a quality I look for almost above all others nowadays in all the music I listen to – something you can’t easily describe that makes you want to learn a line or phrase or melody by heart. To this day I probably know more Cohen songs by heart than by any other singer, and the desire to internalise songs in this way came to me most strongly from him.
Like most Cohen fans I know, I started with a 1975 Best Of compilation, though I don’t own a copy of it today. I don’t have to: I could hum all the songs from it to you in sequence, remember the way the half-seductive, half-despairing So Long Marianne is followed by Bird On the Wire, the song whose first lines Willie Nelson once promised to have written on his tombstone.
It is a song Cohen has returned to again and again, but nothing could recreate the way it first moved and startled me when I was twelve or thirteen: “I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch, / He said to me, “You must not ask for so much.” / And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door, / She cried to me: “Hey, why not ask for more?” The lines have all the dignity of a parable from the Gospels, but leave no promise of salvation. What they did leave with me was a sense of the importance Cohen attached to his work as a singer and songwriter. This was not the same as the self-importance of other singers who chronicled their own sufferings as if they assumed these to be of the utmost importance to all of us. When Cohen sang about suffering you knew that he knew what he was talking about, and that was all.
Suzanne was slightly more consoling: there was the possibility in it that you could touch a perfect body with your mind – whatever that meant. Two years after its release, Randy Newman gave the same title to a song on his brilliant Twelve Songs album. Perhaps by way of an ironic commentary, Newman’s Suzanne features a stalker who apologises for his lack of romanticism: “I saw your name, baby / In a telephone booth / And it told all about you, mama / Boy, I hope it was the truth …” But Cohen’s song survives this hilarious irony. In its ambitious second verse Jesus learns that only the drowning can see him, and concludes: “All men will be sailors then / Until the sea shall free them …”
Whatever my misgivings, religious or otherwise, I knew with the unschooled intuition of the thirteen-year-old that I was one of this company, that I wanted to be one of the drowning who could see things and be changed by them.