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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2009/05/26
by Mike Gruenberg

Leonard Cohen: A Poet for My Generation

In My Life

Emotional pain never heals as quickly as physical pain. A broken heart may never heal, whereas a broken arm has a definitive healing period. Getting over the sorrow felt by the death of a loved one may never occur as many people take the scars of such an event to their own demise. There are many who still longingly remember their first love as the one that didnt work out and fantasize as to what might have been. Emotions associated with your heart have been studied and written about for years with little agreement as to how to cure a broken heart.

For those of us who came of age in the 60s, the music at that time was extraordinary, filled with new bands of musicians and poets. We were treated to lyrics that in some cases we didnt quite understand, but at the time thought we really did know what was being said. To go along with the music, we were treated to philosophers, writers, charlatans and poets to help us navigate through the murky and unsettled waters of those times. Poetry readings at coffee houses in places Greenwich Village and Berkley were as common as seeing bands at the Village Gate in NYC and the Troubadour in L.A.

One such poet/philosopher whose works became the derigueur to any self-respecting young citizen of the 60s was The Prophet authored by Khalil Gibran. The Prophet, written in 1923 was a series of philosophical essays written in English prose. If you didnt have a copy of this publication in your possession as a teenager in the 60s, unless you purchased a copy, you could undoubtedly expect it as a gift from one of your friends. It was described as inspirational fiction.

In addition to all the new bands that were exploding on the music scene, a Canadian born poet and fiction writer named Leonard Cohen released an album in 1967 called Songs of Leonard Cohen. The album was released prior to Cohens first trip to the U.S. where he hoped to carve out a career as a folk singer. The album, masterfully produced by John Simon showcased a man whose lyrics would become the anthem of a generation. While the songs on the album were not considered mainstream (top 40 playlist), in spite of this, Cohen was immediately embraced by folk music aficionados throughout the world. Contained within the album were the complete lyrics of all the songs. This lyric sheet took its place proudly on the book shelf within a close proximity to The Prophet.

Prior to releasing the 1967 debut album, Cohen was a popular writer in Canada. Although he wrote folk songs at the time as well, he made no attempt to record those songs. He was introduced to popular folk singer, Judy Collins who was so impressed with is work that she recorded Suzanne," "Sisters of Mercy," and "Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye" which appeared on her Wildflowers and In My Life albums. Judy continues to make Leonards songs an integral part of her recording and performing repertoire to this day.

Over the years since the release of his first album, Leonards songs have been used as themes for many motion pictures. His songs have been sung by a wide variety of artists. One of my favorite albums is the 1986 release by Jennifer Warnes, Famous Blue Raincoat on Cypress Records. Ms. Warnes sings nine Cohen songs and Leonard guests on Joan of Arc.

Given the success and public appreciation of Leonards songs that were sung by other artists, the 1967 debut on Columbia Records was released. Today, over 40 years after that release, Cohen enjoys universal appeal and adoration from his long-standing fans and his many new ones. My wife and I along with a full house of Leonard Cohen fans were treated to an evening with Leonard Cohen and band this month on a fittingly rainy night at Merriweather Post in Columbia, Maryland.

Dressed in a crisply fitted suit and fedora, Leonards voice was in deep and rich form as he ran though his hits, chatted with the audience, introduced his incredible band more than once and looked adoringly at his collaborator and backup singer, Sharon Robinson. (By the way, the 2001 Cohen release Ten New Songs prominently features Ms. Robinson as co-writer, singer and producer. It is a gem of an album!)

This tour is the first one Leonard has done in fifteen years. As is the case in concerts of this nature, the fans that have seen him many times in the past, have come to see him yet again. I met a guy at the concert who last saw Leonard Cohen in Dublin in the 70s. Each member of the band contributed solos and was so incredibly talented that each one could have given their own concert. Of particular interest were the performance of two of the backup singers, Charley and Hattie Webb, sisters also performed a version of the psalm-like "If It Be Your Will" that was amazing.

At the beginning of many of the selections, Leonard begins by kneeling down on one knee as he runs though the opening verses of the songs. The three hour concert contained one intermission, a series of encores that continually delighted the crowd and a prayer at the end with the nine band members and Cohen holding hands in a circle.

As the concert continued, I was swept up in his mellow voice that sounds like a person who has smoked his share of cigarettes and yet it was a voice of calmness and serenity exploring everyones inner feelings that encompasses a range of emotions from pain to exultation. It came back to me why Cohen was such an instant hero to the folk scene in the 60s who first heard this poet from Canada. He is primarily a poet and an author. He is also a songwriter than blends all of his writing skills. Cohens poetry evokes emotions that most poets/songwriters can only touch on a surface level.

At one point in his life, Cohen entered a Buddhist monastery. He stayed there for five years. In that time, he further explored his inner feelings. You truly know that he understands the human condition and as you listen to the lyrics, you truly know that he is your guide and that he understands your feelings.
Leonard Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.

Discography
2009 Live In London
2004 Dear Heather
2002 The Essential Leonard Cohen
2001 Ten New Songs
2001 Field Commander Cohen Tour Of 1979
1997 More Best of Leonard Cohen
1994 Cohen Live
1992 The Future
1988 I’m Your Man
1985 Various Positions
1979 Recent Songs
1977 Death of A Ladies Man
1975 The Best of Leonard Cohen
1974 New Skin for the Old Ceremony
1973 Live Songs: Leonard Cohen
1971 Songs of Love and Hate
1969 Songs From a Room
1967 Songs of Leonard Cohen

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