I still remember the the first time I heard a Leonard Cohen song.
It was 1967 and I was 15. I was watching “The Tonight Show” because Leon Bibb, a folk singer whose music I liked, was going to be on that night. He sang a gorgeous, mystical song about a woman named Suzanne.
The beautifully sad music touched me, but the lyrics were like nothing I had ever heard. It was a love song written in the second person, and juxtaposed an ode to a woman who had a mystical effect on everyone she met with Biblical references. I didn’t understand it all, but it affected me deeply.
In 1967, of course, you couldn’t just Google a snippet of a lyric and find out everything you wanted to know about the song. The melody ran through my head, along with the few lyrics I could recall, for months. I just hoped to hear it again and find out who the writer was. When Cream’s “Disraeli Gears” came out late that year, I thought maybe the song “Tales of Brave Ulysses” was that song I had heard, in a very different version, but that my memory was faulty. The lyrics weren’t as poignant as the ones that had been running through my head, though, so I thought maybe I had exaggerated in my mind the beauty of those words I had heard. I learned years later that the lyrics to the Cream song were actually written as a parody of “Suzanne.”
I can’t remember how I discovered that “Suzanne” had been written as a poem by some guy named Leonard Cohen, and that he had later set it to music. It was those lyrics that I really wanted to re-experience, so the next year I found and bought a book of Cohen’s poetry. It was titled “Selected Poems, 1956-68,” and it included “Suzanne.” It was the first book of poetry I’d ever bought. I carried it around with me, along with my school books, because I was basically a pretentious teenage pseudo-intellectual twit who wanted everyone to know that I read poetry and that I was going to be a writer someday.
Much of his poetry wasn’t great, but some was. And the book included a one-act play called “The New Step.” It bowled me over when I was 16. I have read it over and over through the years and it has changed for me, in the way that great plays do as you get older and bring new knowledge and experience to them. But it never failed to make me laugh, and it always feels true. I’ve never seen it staged, but I still hope that I will.
In 1970, I started college. A few days after I arrived at school, 1,000 miles from home and desperate to make friends, I saw a kid sitting in the lobby of my dorm reading Leonard Cohen’s “Selected Poems.” I went up to him and said I’d been looking all over for that book and asked where he bought it.
That was 46 years ago and that kid — his name is Bill — has been one of my best friends ever since. Years after we met, I confessed that I had already owned that book, and that I had told him I didn’t just to start a conversation in the hopes of making a new friend. He told me he hadn’t been reading the book at all. He was just sitting there pretending to read it, hoping another Leonard Cohen fan would come up and talk to him. (He was hoping it would be a girl, I’m sure, but we’re both thrilled with the way things worked out.)
Bill and I became roommates in the summer of 1971. Cohen’s “Songs of Love and Hate,” which still might be his best album, had just come out. It was the soundtrack for our summer. I’m sure we listened to at least one side of it every day.
Leonard Cohen’s lyrics and music remained part of the fabric of my life through the decades. He had stopped touring, though, and I thought I would never get a chance to see him perform live. But money troubles caused him to go out on the road again. He stopped at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts twice, most recently in 2013. He was almost 80 and had had some health problems, but he played long, beautiful and even wryly humorous shows. They may have been the two finest concerts I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been going to concerts frequently for the past 52 years. The musicianship was impeccable, the songs were perfect and everyone in the audience felt the communal spirituality that Cohen and his songs created in that theater.
I checked his website nearly every day in the three years since his last show in Tampa, hoping there was one more tour that would be announced. Nothing, nothing and nothing, day after day and month after month.
Then, on Thursday, I got a text message from a friend saying Cohen had died. He just released an album a couple of weeks ago, so even though he was 82, his death still shocks. In a year that was already notorious for being the last for so many music legends — David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, so many others — Leonard Cohen’s was the one that I felt most personally. His work was glorious and impeccable up until the end, and it’s difficult to face the fact that there will never be another new Leonard Cohen song.