I have said that Leonard was a bizarre kind of guru for me, and so he was: and not so much for his art as such (though that has influenced me like a virus in the blood) as for his manner. The way in which he dealt with success has been something I’ve sought to emulate, above all because of his graciousness.
Leonard is gracious to his opponents. In the early days, as many of you will remember, it was hard to be a follower of Cohen. Along with others, I got a lot of stick for it: my parents unkindly called him ‘old groaner’ and people would trot out the usual tropes about ‘music to slash your wrists by.’ It was most unfair on someone who had a bleak and authentic beauty and a wicked sense of humour. But things changed, and by the end of the 80’s, after ‘Hallelujah’, it was OK to like him. He became mainstream – or almost – and everyone you met had heard his name.
You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
I went to see him at some point around then and there was a sense of total triumph; not against his critics, but against those dark forces which had held him back for so long: depression and – yes, his unfortunate tendency to pursue women. Deciding that this was no longer making him happy, he became celibate and entered a monastery; photographs of him were issued with a shaven head and wearing monks’ robes. He embraced Zen and paradox as he had earlier embraced the poetry of Lorca, but without betraying any of his former influences, and this above all, is I think the reason I admire him so much. Many artists go through phases where they renounce those things which influenced them so deeply before: Leonard never did that. He wove it all into one amazing tapestry; past loves and past lovers, poets and philosophers, Judaism and Zen – it was all one.
And this led to an extraordinary grace in his public dealings. I never heard him slag anyone off: when Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize which some thought should have gone to Cohen (not me, I don’t think it’s appropriate for songwriters) he said ‘It’s like pinning a medal on Everest for being the highest mountain.’ I think Cohen’s lyrics are far superior to Dylan’s, but that’s not the point. He is always gracious in defeat; and when personal and financial tragedy struck with one blow and his agent and lover, Kelly Lynch, absconded with savings amounting to $5 million; all he said was, ‘We understand that these things happen.’ Despite a court order, Lynch never paid back any of the money, so Leonard was forced to go back on the road. But he shows no bitterness, no condemnation, no vitriol. And that is why I admire him so.
On stage he is unfailingly gracious too. When I first saw him he was almost alone, sometimes accompanied by two or three women, but nowadays he has a raft of backing performers; usually a band and two or three singers. He not only acknowledges them at the end, he gives them time and space to perform in their own right. When we saw him in 2008 he gave ‘If it Be Your Will’ to the Webb Sisters to perform, and they were sublime.
This graciousness extends to the audience, too. Leonard never, ever took his audience for granted, and I have read that when rehearsals are over and the stage is set, Leonard and the band sit down together for a meal and a drink wherein they toast the audience. You can feel this appreciation for your presence when you are there, too.
We will never see his like again but as I said we can best honour his memory by following our own voice.
Here’s his best-known song: one whose rights, ironically, were stolen from him. Later he said it should belong to everyone; and so it does.
Listen to Leonard’s comments about the song at the beginning, too.