I remember the cool November morning my father wanted to show me something he said would change my life.
“Al, sit down a second, right there,” he said as he pulled out his vinyl copy of Songs from a Room. “You just can’t make this s*** up.”
A nasal, ashy voice came through the tweed speakers.
That first word landed defeatedly in my ears, and the shoulders of my 13-year-old self slumped, felt the lonesomeness, the tortured soul that is Leonard Cohen. From there, I was hooked.
Since that day, I’d imagined love through the eyes of Cohen before ever having a true experience, and adopted the pessimism of such anthems as “Everybody Knows” through my formative years. The generally simplistic song structures taught me that true emotion requires no dressing, no flair, or musical acrobatics. True poetry, I also learned, comes from a place many of us will never know.
Songs like “Democracy” not only informed me about Plato (“Sail on, sail on, oh mighty ship of state…”) but lent beauty to the oftentimes sordid ugliness of politics and history.
My father often referred to Cohen as a master “…of word, song, and manhood.” In his early years, John Dominic Gentile used to frequent Boston-area folk clubs in the 1960’s where people declared him a spitting image of the man.
Cohen taught my father, and myself, about the weakness, and power, of human fragility.
Much of who my father is, from his general pessimistic worldview to the artist-writer which laid dormant in him most of his life, was due to Cohen. All his life and work, my father once said, was a tribute to the man. I realized this at an early age, and in many ways felt a deep connection to Cohen through the most important man in my life.
Many times, Cohen’s messages felt universal, as if he was your congenial, wise grandfather who saw too much in his life. So often we believe art which has widespread appeal and applicability is crap, yet songs like “Hallelujah” are so ingrained in western musical vernacular I’ve met many people who didn’t even know it was a Cohen tune (this song song being covered more than 300 times by various artists).
So a man whose influence spans generations, artists, and worldviews proves to me great artistic endeavors know no bounds.
But beyond being the quintessential artist through his work and life, Cohen was a philosopher. A social commentator. A therapist, and a romantic muse. An author (I’ll be giving his book Beautiful Losers another try). Someone who in all seriousness is more relevant than ever in our age of millennials.
The “millennial generation” stands for individuality in the face of reform, self-identity without regard to quality of life, and art-for-art’s-sake. We have had our hero since before we were ever born, and I think it’s time we all took another listen to the man.
“Bird…..on a wire…..”