On a balmy summer’s evening in August, I walked with friends over to Avenue Fairmount Ouest in Montreal. We were headed to a local ice cream shop, lured there by the heat and the promise of rose flavoured ice cream.
It was a warm evening, and although it was around nine o’clock, the queue was still wending its way round the block, but we joined it and stood happily in line. Sometimes it’s okay to just hang on the street and wait, and listen to the people around you chatting and laughing. Everything was relaxed, it was that kind of evening, that kind of neighbourhood.
As we stood in line, my friend pointed out a cafe Leonard Cohen had frequented when he was still just a young poet, and I looked across the street and tried to imagine him sitting there writing.
Marianne Ihlen had only recently died, and as I thought about that, the strains of that song filled my head, and I had to swallow down a little tinge of something sad I felt didn’t quite suit the moment. Then my friend started humming the melody, quietly, subconsciously, and when he caught my eye I smiled at him, and told him I was thinking the same thing.
It felt a little strange, as if we were standing on that street corner saying ‘so long’ to someone we had never met, but whose passing we nevertheless needed to acknowledge.
And I was reminded of something which happened years before. Something I hadn’t thought about in a very long time.
When I was a teenager, my mum became quite seriously ill, a psychological decline that was terrifying at the time, and very difficult to comprehend. For some reason, she sought solace in Leonard Cohen, and for months his songs were on a constant loop at home. This was an exceptionally unusual thing. My parents were not prone to playing music in the house, something which always perplexed me, because they seemed to enjoy music and I used to hope that maybe they carried it with them in their heads, or put on a record when my sister and I were not at home.
So the sound of Cohen’s voice filling the living room was disconcerting, and I came to associate his music with my mother’s decline. It would take years before I was able to listen to his songs on their own merit, and without that painful association creeping in.
Eventually though, my mother started to improve and this musical interlude came to an end. Leonard’s voice was stilled.
For me, at that time, it was a relief. I was still young, but I understood enough. There was something in those lyrics and melodies that resonated too sharply – a truth that my mother needed then, but which I was too young to be capable of contemplating. Leonard Cohen overwhelmed me, I suppose, and I simply wasn’t ready for him.
Fast forward a couple of years and I’m in Edinburgh in another long queue, waiting with a friend to visit an exhibition of the Chinese Clay Army. It’s one of those dreich Scottish summer days, and the line is long and slow, and the question is starting to arise: ‘should we just quit and go do something else?’
Then – joy! – a busker arrives and sets up his stall on the pavement, carefully opening his case and strapping his guitar over his shoulder. He’s a dark haired guy, good looking in a melancholy sort of way, his brown eyes deep set and knowing, the sort of eyes that compel you to look at a person. Perhaps all of this should have provided me with a clue as to what was to come. But I’m oblivious as I stand and watch him tune his guitar.
Then he bows his head, breathes and begins to sing.
‘Come over to the window, my little darling …’
I don’t need to hear the rest, the song sings itself in my head and I don’t hear the busker. I hear Leonard Cohen. And I laugh. Big and loud and irrepresible.
My friend asks me what’s so funny and I tell her.
‘That song. Leonard Cohen. I’ll never escape him.’
She doesn’t understand why this should be so funny of course, and I am not inclined to explain myself. We’re friends, but not that close. And besides, it feels like a little joke only me and Leonard are privy to, and I quite like that, as imagined as it may be.
I’d like to say that this was the moment I fully embraced Cohen’s music and lost my fear. That I dived into his songs then, and tried to seek out whatever truth it was my mother seemed to have found there.
But it didn’t quite work out that way. Such searching would begin only years later, and it is still not over. Is it ever?
Which is the point, I guess. Some art, be it music or poetry or painting, sets you on a journey, and the first step is often fearful and difficult to take. And it’s only art that can take you by the hand and show you the way towards joy, towards life.
Then up the mountainside, to wash your eyelids in the rain.