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Published: 2004/12/01
by Benjy Eisen

Dear Heather – Leonard Cohen

Columbia Records 92891

Dear Leonard:

What did you want me to do? I got older and you got old. It's been awhile since we've been in touch, dear sensei, but I still recall the words you gave me to recite to girls by candlelight when the moon alone wasn't enough. And I remember how your Towers of Songs comforted me during those cold New England nights when I sat alone in my apartment contemplating the stars and the great loss of fall. And you asked "Who By Fire?" And I said I didn’t know.

I remember too, Leonard, how you said, "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye," the day I left Northampton, Massachusetts to come back down to Pennsylvania to say farewell to all that I knew when I was younger. Your words read like open letters to closed affairs. And they spilled over into my affairs. And into the affairs of others.

So, Leonard, I was not surprised to learn that your new album would be called Dear Heather. No sensei, after all the letters that you’ve written into song, this was not new. And although it is not illogical, it does seem a bit depressing that most of these letters are to the departed (or departing). You’re what, 70 years old now? Yes, it’s about that time, I suppose. Tell me what it’s like to be that old. I want to know before I get there, so when I’m there, I’ll know.

The day that I became a man, you know how I knew? Because you told me what it would be like. You sang of its charms and snags, its responsibilities and burdens. So when I got there, I knew.

"You can add up the parts

But you won't have the sum

You can strike up the march

There is no drum

Every heart

To love will come

But like a refugee."

Now you're teaching me what it'll be like to grow old…even though I have another 40-some years before I get there. It's as I feared — not everything ages like wine. Your voice, well, I knew that would go. But your words, have they begun to fail you too? And your ideas, Leonard! Why do you falter and place your songs in other people's hands now, as if you were some teen pop star with 50 years less experience and lifetimes less wisdom than you had just five years ago? You always collaborated, but now it appears you've taken the passenger's seat. Maybe that's for the best, I don't know. Maybe your eyesight is going too. I mean no harm by this, dear mentor.

But, ah, it does not matter, I suppose. I can only imagine that age has taught you to pick fewer battles and let more things slide. For in my short time as an adult I've learned this lesson well. You're the one that warned me of it.

"Everybody knows the fight is fixed

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

That's how it goes

Everybody knows."

Anyway, put on your reading glasses old man, let's have a look at this new album of yours. Ah…ah yes. It was as I thought. On Dear Heather, you have, what, a dozen new songs? In addition to the title track, there’s "The Letters" and "To a Teacher." As I surmised, these are letters put to poem put to song. There you go again, letting us into your affairs. Three of these songs are dedicated to those who, as they say, have gone on to their reward (or are on their way). Yes, sir. With lyrics like, "Fare thee well my nightingale / I lived but to be near you / Tho’ you are singing somewhere still / I can no longer hear you," I think I know what this disc is about. But are you writing these letters to those who have left you, or are you writing to us to say you’re leaving? Goodbye? I should hope not!

And there's still one thing I just don't understand — "Go No More A-Roving." It's the best track on the album. When you sing its mysteries, through the music I can hear your resignation — even though you seem to be calling out to your youth, as much as to old pals.

"So we'll go no more a-roving

So late into the night

Though the heart be still as loving

And the moon be just as bright."

Powerful words, Leonard. But they aren't your words at all this time, are they? No, you turned into song what Lord Byron first wrote as a poem in the 1800s. Two other songs on the album come care-of someone else's pen. That's fine and all… but it's not very characteristic of you. Especially when it was your words that made you immortal; that make you immortal still. Yes, and just as my letter to you will quickly fade into oblivion, by the time new album reviews come in next month, your words will live and breathe beside me forever.

But when I approach the age you're at right now, dear Leonard, and my memory starts to fade, Dear Heather will have long been forgotten. I’ll turn to you then, as I do now, and recite pound-for-pound the lyrics to "Death of a Ladies Man"...and hope that the title to that song is wrong.

Sincerely,

Your fan

PS I like the album anyway.

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