Leonard Cohen is gone. It was an inevitability, telegraphed by the man himself in recent months, but seeing the official status at the top of my Facebook feed was an unwelcome surprise tonight. Right now, it doesn’t feel much like the big loss I expected to feel; in a year that already claimed David Bowie and Prince, where voters in the UK and US legitimized hatred and resentment of the other, Cohen’s death almost seems anticlimactic. Just another light gone out after our eyes already adjusted to the darkness.
My introduction to him came via a country music station out of Selkirk, MB in the early 90s. They mostly played new country (Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, etc.), but had a few weekly shows outside the regular format, including one that played a lot of folk and bluegrass. It was that show that exposed me to John Prine and Emmylou Harris, and long before I knew his name, I remember hearing a spare and muted synthesizer-based track where a gravelly voice man invoked Hank Williams, women cooed scat vocals, and a ghostly piano played after every few verses. By the time I heard the song again a few years later during a family camping trip to Hecla Island, I knew Cohen’s name but not his work, more familiar with the exaggeratedly dour impression Roger Abbott did on Royal Canadian Air Farce than his words and music until my first year at Mount Allison University.
A borrowed greatest hits compilation was my first conscious exposure to Cohen’s music. It took; I bought I’m Your Man before the school year was out, and Songs of Leonard Cohen and Recent Songs over the summer. My friends Scott and Jay helped fill in some of the gaps of my Cohen appreciation (they also developed my fondness for tea and good beer). By the time I finished my degree, Cohen became one of the cornerstones of my music taste, and a bonding point with many friends. I’m not always in the mood to listen to him, but there have been many times I sought solace by quickly losing myself in his words.
I’m glad to be able to say I saw him in concert. He played the Scotiabank Centre (then called the Halifax Metro Centre) about six months after I moved to Halifax. The tickets were a birthday present from my younger sister, who came with me to the concert; they were cheap seats so we were all the way up in the nosebleeds, our eyes going back and forth between the action happening below and the screens projecting the close-up camera feeds. He was 78 at the time, but spry, seemingly growing younger from the point he skipped on stage for the first time, still able to kneel and climb back up many times during a multi-hour set. For all his reputation as a depressing artist, he exuded a lot of joy that night.