remembering leonard cohen
By Tasha Fischer
I used to breathe fog onto the cold window, drawing small birds with my equally small fingers against the wintery landscape we whizzed past in our car. It was Christmas, and to me, more than anything, Christmas is a thick mishmash of reliving the 60’s and family fights over the real rules for Around the World. My parents' first car was a beat up second-hand Mercedes-Benz W201. His name was Frutz. Realistically, nothing about Frutz was really all that functional; except for the cassette player. Family road trips could never be complete without an extensive selection of all the classics stuffed in the glove compartment. But there was one song in particular that I could never truly get out of my head. And even at the ripe old age of 5, a part of me could never truly stop loving the faintly-strained banjo lullabies of Leonard Cohen. A song like Bird on a Wire has taught me more about forgiveness and strength in 3 minutes and 26 seconds, than the first quarter of my life has.
Cohen embodied a sensuality of balance and wisdom. His songs were like sermons to an audience who sought out a glimpse of beauty in a breaking world. Something about his lyrical lessons seem obvious without a trace of condescendence. Rather, they guide you to the same emotion and uplift he naturally came to himself. Cohen refuses to accept sin as a feat, and instead uses the idea of darkness to inspire transcendence. His faults were harnessed in a way that made simple happiness seem too cheap for him.
‘Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free’. There is seemingly nothing more innocently intentioned than those words reaching for independence. Cohen was keen on the journey it took to discover identity. Whether it be through God - which he sang about often - or fault, he uses lyrics to apologize for his actions without regretting them. With this, his audience is able to walk away with the lesson of being unapologetic for doing something that you need to do. His lyrics have faith that generally don't mean to hurt those around us, but that we must continue to have faith in self preservation.
What’s funny about Cohen is his ability to have a conversation during the song. He doesn’t tell you how to do it, or when or even why to do it - just that you should do whatever ‘it’ is that you need to do. Hallelujah in particular, is seductively accusative. Because rather than feeling tainted with the disparity of death and heartache, he stared it down full-on with more vigour and satire than most creative minds of his era. He grumbles into your ear without so much as any tonal direction or particular rhythm. And then, all at once, you feel the strength of the gospel-like choir in the background. There is something terribly heart wrenching and similarly elevating about the community he creates within the song. It’s a melody that can bring you to your knees whether it be in vain or desperation. No one else could truly capture the heartache of Pixar’s best Ogre so perfectly; don’t worry, we all know you’ve just got something in your eye.
When I was 12, my hippie parents threw me in the car and we once again rumbled off into the depths of Canadian rurality to the Nelson Folk Festival. Looking back, I realize I’ve spent too much of my youth saying ‘Howdy’ instead of ‘Hey’ and wearing tie die matching shirts with my family. We planted ourselves down into fold-out chairs on the grass. It was nearly night time, and you could start to see the stars in the dusk if you looked hard enough. Suddenly, a grumbly voice came on: “I think this might be appropriate.” Night Comes On suddenly rang out from the guitar of the solitary old man standing on stage with a retro-chic fedora. I lay with my head on my mother’s lap counting all the stars I could see. In that moment, my world consisted of everything I had ever needed it to: my family, music and being outdoors. I fell asleep curled up as my father belted Hallelujah in the grand finale, Kokanee raised in his hand.
Leonard Cohen wasn’t just a founding father of music as we know it today. He was a road trip that took too long, he was a calm summer night, he was a relief from self criticism and he was every lesson my parents had raised me on. And now that he’s passed, there’s something slightly unbelievable about it because like many legends, in a way, there really is no way he could ever truly pass. Because even if I’m not in the backseat of a breaking down car wondering if we’re there yet, I’m now in the front seat, ideally alone with my windows rolled up, and you can be absolutely sure I’m belting out every single word of Hallelujah at the top of my lungs.