11 November 2016

Songs of Love and Hate

I can’t remember when I first heard Leonard Cohen, but that deep, rich voice wells up from a long time ago. I’d heard nothing like it before.

The Songs of Leonard Cohen is that rare thing, a perfect album, every song polished and lovely. He could have just left it at ‘Suzanne’ and I’d still be in awe, but then there are another nine little masterpieces… and she feeds you tea and oranges / that come all the way from China. I’ve listened to that album so often as I went to sleep that it seems entwined in the process of my consciousness unravelling. The strange, circular narratives of ‘Master Song’ and ‘Stranger Song’ that your mind struggles to hold as you go down, Please understand I never had a secret chart to get me to the heart of this, or any other matter. Well, he talks like this, you don’t know what he’s after. When he speaks like this, you don’t care what he’s after.

He had such beautiful words. He was so fine when speaking of love and of the beauty of women. Every poem I’ve ever written to a woman felt pointless when compared to Walk me to the corner / Our steps will always rhyme or:

Beneath my hands
your small breasts
are the upturned bellies
of breathing fallen sparrows.

Wherever you move
I hear the sounds of closing wings
of falling wings.

I am speechless
because you have fallen beside me
because your eyelashes
are the spines of tiny fragile animals.

I loved the way some of his songs would find me in unexpected places. ‘Seems So Long Ago, Nancy’ always put me in mind of a particular shade of green that I associate with my mother’s childhood bedroom in my grandmother’s house, and a picture of ballerinas on the bedhead there. It seems so long ago, Nancy was alone. A forty-five beside her head, an open telephone.

He had such power. I remember reading an anecdote about Nick Cave hearing ‘Avalanche’ when he was young and being stunned that music could be like that. Such violence and blackness, Your pain is no credential here / It’s just the shadow of my wound.

He seemed a remote figure when I first heard him, but then he began to turn up in strange places. Natural Born Killers, a cover on an REM b-side. When I became interested in Zen he’d already been there. When the poet Anthony Lawrence lectured me at university he knew his own debts. When I visit Greece I’ll make sure to go to Hydra. Once again it will feel like I’m following, but Cohen is always a path worth taking.