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I was fifteen when I first became aware of Leonard Cohen. He’d always been there really – a part of my father’s holy trinity alongside Dylan and Springsteen – but it was only then that I could finally put a face and identity to the deep muffled baritone I heard coming through my floorboards most nights.
Back then, I’d barely lived at all. I’d never been in love, experienced heartbreak or even heard of the Chelsea Hotel. All of that would come later. But there was something in the music I couldn’t help but gravitate towards: the melancholy, the humour, the fragile hope that existed between the plucked Spanish guitar figures. Unlike many of my other teenage obsessions that fell by the wayside, this was one that stayed with me.
In third year of secondary school, drunk on counter-cultural ideology and with a temporary distain for all things modern, I met one of my best friends – one of the few other teenage Cohen fanatics doing the rounds in the midlands at the time.
On weekends, we would sit in parked cars, engulfed in the cheap fug of soapbar resins and listen to ‘The Partisan’ or ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, stare out the rain-streaked windows and imagine we were in war torn France or ‘70s New York. Anywhere but Longford.
My friend’s mother had well-thumbed editions of Cohen’s poetry books Flowers for Hitler and Beautiful Losers which she had passed down, and we read them religiously while neglecting the stuffy old poets on the Junior Cert syllabus. He was our secret at that point and we were happy to believe he belonged only to us.
Older then, seventeen, we started to make the first tentative steps towards adulthood which at the time seemed to mean drinking more, attempting to talk to girls and feigning interest in post-secondary school life. It was around then that I met my first serious girlfriend.
It was at the sort of house party that seemed to happen every week back then. I was dressed disgracefully in flares snipped at the boot, a lumberjack shirt and Adidas runners that looked as though they had been soaked in bleach – a getup the always suave Leonard would no doubt never have been caught dead in. We talked about music over the blare of The Kooks’ debut album in the main room. She told me ‘Suzanne’ was her favourite song. We instantly hit it off.
A little more than a year later, we went to see him live together at Kilmainham, his first tour in some ten years, and we watched as the audience cheered and clapped until tears ran down his cheeks.
A couple of years later, in San Francisco, a J1 and a summer I wished would never end. Songs of Love and Hate was my soundtrack as I tramped the streets and handed CVs to disinterested hipster baristas and it provided much some needed respite from the EDM explosion and the totalitarian dictatorship that LMFAO had exerted over US airwaves that year with ‘Party Rock Anthem’.
We lived in a creaking old house, seven to a room, ate one square meal a day and I was never happier. I fell in love that summer, despite being aware we were all going home once our visas expired. September came and we said our temporary goodbyes; a result of circumstance and geography.
In the taxi on the way to the airport, the sound of ‘So Long, Marianne’ in my headphones was enough to make it bearable somehow, to frame it in a positive light and act philosophical about it – regardless of how I really felt.
Two years down the line, with college ended and the Irish economy in a state of perpetual collapse, it was announced that Cohen would return to Kilmainham for a run of gigs that September. With no tickets and empty pockets, myself and a friend made off in the direction of Kilmainham running on nothing but hope.
Thanks to some dubious wrist bands from our friends working the beer tent, and some unexpected lenience from security, we were able to stand at the back and watch as Cohen, then 78, played for more than three hours, skipping to and from the stage with the grace of a man half his age. It is, to this day, one of my favourite gigs.
Every time he visited these shores, people speculated that it would be his last. But seeing how full of life he was on stage, it seemed impossible. It was only a couple months ago when a letter he had penned to the eponymous Marianne from the famous song was printed that his mortality finally came into focus.
I’ve loved other bands and performers much more than Leonard Cohen over the years, but there are few artists who have had more of an effect on my world view and whom I come back to more regularly. As I sat on the bus this evening and stuck on Songs of Leonard Cohen, I realised that there’s every chance he’ll be my soundtrack for many years to come. Sometimes he’s all that will do.