In Memoriam: Leonard Cohen

 Tribute: Leonard Cohen

September 21, 1934, Westmount, Canada
November 7, 2016, Los Angeles, CA

 by Ron Boyer

I knew Leonard Cohen through his music, which I discovered as a teenage rock ’n roller growing up in the turbulent 60s. I bought his LP, Songs of Leonard Cohen, at my favorite record store. I’d never heard of him, but his photograph intrigued me. Then, I fell in love with his soulful, often depressing melodies and poetic, sensual/spiritual lyrics, sung in his unique deep voice. Listening to Cohen helped me through a suicidal period during the depths of the Vietnam War. I was seriously depressed at the time, and his lyrics and mood so fit my mood that he actually gave me hope. My friends didn’t appreciate his songs, but for me, it was like the title of Richard Farina’s book, “I’ve been down so long it looks like up to me.” “I stepped into an avalanche, it covered up my soul,” Cohen sang. “Oh the Sisters of Mercy, they are not departed, nor gone.” “Hey, that’s no way, to say, goodbye.” I still recall these lyrics like yesterday.

I bought all his albums in those early years. I bought his novel, Beautiful Losers, which didn’t grab me, and his poetry books, too. But his songs haunted me. “She loved me so well, at the Chelsea Hotel.” And: “Like a bird, on a wire, like a drunk in some old midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be free.” His song, “Suzanne,” was my wedding song: “Suzanne takes you down, to her place near the river. You can hear the boats go by; you can spend the night beside her.” For me, he was part of a small pantheon of Canadian folk rock icons. Only Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot were his peers as singers, musicians, and lyricists.  I ranked him right up there, as a lyricist and songwriter, with the best, including Bob Dylan and John Lennon. It took a long time for audiences to catch up with his genius, but in his later years, he found the recognition as a “musician’s musician” that he always deserved. Famous rock bands did Cohen covers. His concerts were packed. And he finally became mainstream popular with his hit single, “Hallelujah.”

Finally, I had an opportunity to meet him briefly, at a concert in Minneapolis in the early 70s.  By then he was a devoted student of Zen Buddhism, living in the Zen community of Joshu Sasaki-Roshi. I had moved to Minneapolis to study Zen with Dainin Katagiri-Roshi, a Soto Zen master who came from Japan to help Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi build the Soto Zen community in America. I learned about the concert from Roshi; he had been invited by Robert and Nancy Pursig (Bob had just struck literary gold with his bestseller, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). Bob and Nancy were members of the Minneapolis Zen Center community who were friends with Cohen. I encouraged Roshi to attend, as I did, and during the half-time break at the concert, Bob took a small Zen entourage up to meet Cohen at the stage. It was a terrific concert, though Roshi told me he was most impressed with Cohen’s chorus, a trio of dynamic black female blues singers. When I heard of his death last November, at the age of 82, I was deeply saddened. I lit a piece of Japanese incense to commemorate his passing, and bowed to his spirit. Gassho, L. Cohen, gassho. “Hallelujah. Hallelujah./ Hallelujah. Hallelujah,” I hear him sing. “Hey, that’s no way, to say, good-bye.”