It's instructive to remember that so many of the people and publications that now praise him routinely dismissed him for his nasal reedy sound, limited range, and lyrics of gloom. Montreal, which has studiously ignored in its monuments and memories the enormous contributions of its Jewish population, now talks of raising a proper memorial to him. But when, in 1983, I Am a Hotel, a pioneering Narrative Video made up of five of Leonard's songs and voted that year as the Best TV Program in the world at Montreux, was offered to Radio-Canada, they rejected it on the grounds that Leonard was not "a Quebec artist."
When I first got a hold of AM 740 they didn't play Leonard either. At the same time, they would play pretty lame stuff that had to do with meeting the Cancon quotas. So, I would say, "Play more Leonard Cohen." Eventually I insisted on an all-Leonard program. And I think we're probably the only radio station on the planet that has not just played "some" Leonard Cohen, but "a lot" of Leonard Cohen over the years.
For me, Leonard is unique because people like Sinatra and Elvis seemingly blasted onto the scene full-grown; Leonard ripened. If you listen to his early albums, his voice was, as I mentioned, very different. His great accomplishment was that he kept at it, got control of his voice, acquiring a later-life lower register that was authentic, commanding and different. He took the time, sometimes years, to find the right words. He wrote elegant, smart, meaningful lyrics and married them to deceptively haunting music that lingers in the mind and in the air, especially about that human thing that none of us can escape. He remained true to himself, and eventually the world swung back to the beauty and the profundity of his work.
When it came to getting old and staying cool, nobody did it like Leonard. Leonard was 50 when he released "Hallelujah," which would go on to become the most-covered song of the modern era. There are many lines to like in Leonard's work, but the ones I think I love the most are the ones where Leonard speaks for me because of this trade we share, with its ambiguous connections to commerce and to art. I'm thinking of "Tower of Song."
Yeah, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
I'm just paying my rent every day
Oh in the Tower of Song
Now you can say that I've grown bitter but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
And there's a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong
You see, you hear these funny voices
In the Tower of Song
We would catch glimpses of each other over the years at industry events and in Montreal where he kept a place just off St. Lawrence Blvd. It was up the street from Schwartz's. There was a little diner kitty-corner to his house, and as there was Beauty's, a great breakfast joint on Mount Royal a couple of blocks away. And when we'd have a steak at Moishes, another iconic Jewish restaurant in Montreal, he got the table—the Leonard Cohen table, the corner table, which could survey the entire room, and which was otherwise reserved for wealthy businessmen and other grandees. I would also see him in L.A—once he came to a Passover Seder at my place there. He had a simple home in the L.A. flats and, if you visited him there, he was like a Jewish mother always wanting to feed you.
After he started on that last great worldwide tour, I barely saw him. The last time I sat with him at length was in L.A. I was there on business, and it was getting toward the end of the week, so I gave him a call. He said, "Tomorrow, when your work is done, come on over." He gave me an address, which turned out wasn't his house but a Korean restaurant that he frequented in the area. It was Friday night, Shabbat, The Sabbath; and there, at a long table, was Leonard, his gal, his son Adam, his son's girlfriend and their newborn. There was bulgogi and kimchi and chap chae and there was challah, a delicious ritual loaf, halfway between bread and cake, which he then distributed in the manner of an old Rebbe, giving us each a chunk over which to say a little benediction. There was that Asian thing, his interest in Buddhism and matters of Eastern spirituality but, at the same time, he was a Jewish boy from Montreal. He liked to blend those things.
He was calm in the face of death. As a spiritual seeker, he'd been dabbling with the idea of death for most of his career. His most recent and last album, You Want It Darker, is his last statement. But his song, "Going Home" from his 2012 album Old Ideas, is, in my opinion, the perfect expression of what he knew was coming.
Going home without my sorrow
Going home sometime tomorrow
Going home to where it's better than before
Going home without my burden
Going home behind the curtain
Going home without the costume that I wore
It's stunning—he had a sense that he was getting close to his time and he told us about it. We were warned.
In that song, he also describes himself as "a lazy bastard, livin' in a suit." That was his uniform. But the most lasting image that I will always have of him is of a man in a room, a bare room, trying to write the perfect song.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 issue with the headline, "They Praised Him, But I Played Him", p. 38-39.
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