I can remember the room I was in when I first fell for Leonard Cohen. I can also remember that it wasn’t the first time I had heard him. My first foray into Cohen was the record Songs from a Room. I partly bought it because his name was familiar to me. I partly bought it because I liked the title. I mostly bought it because I was in a voracious period of musical discovery. When I returned to my room in that cold, shared house, I remember my confusion as the first track, Bird on a Wire, came forth from the stereo.
I loved the lyrics. I found his voice warm and interesting, despite it being less immediately melodic than those I would usually take a shine to. I liked the apparent simplicity of it. What I did not like at all was the phrasing. It felt cold and it disconnected me from the music. The album was moved to the shelf and languished there for weeks. Then my next big obsession came knocking. Not Cohen, but Jeff Buckley and, more specifically, Grace.
Hallelujah sent my senses in to a swim. The sweeping melodies and the inventive vocal style had me hooked, but it was the song itself that reeled me in. I wanted to be able to sing it and I wanted to sing it the way that I heard it, not the way Jeff Buckley heard it. To do this justice, I would have to find out if there were other versions of the song. That’s when I listened to Cohen’s interpretation and discovered that he was the writer responsible for this masterpiece.
Suddenly, his phrasing fell in to place inside my head and I realised why it hadn’t done so the first time around. I was listening wrong. This was music you had to give yourself up to and, when you did, the prize was transportation in to a world of love, loss, desire, fear, loathing and joy. It was mesmerising. I couldn’t quite work out if his songs drew me in to a pit of misery, or toward the clarity of self-realisation. It was like some kind of group therapy, but only Leonard Cohen and I were invited.
Up to this point, I had been consumed with the way in which people sang. Now I started to delve in to the songs themselves and I soon knew that I wanted to write songs, not just sing them. Perhaps this epiphany would have come to me even without Cohen, but it was his music that happened to be the first to enlighten me. How ironic that someone that I initially couldn’t connect with would teach me how I could connect with music.
Of all his songs, Famous Blue Raincoat is top of the list for me. So much so that I find myself re-writing it by accident with infuriating frequency. Sometimes, it’s got it all; the meter, the phrasing, the melody. Sometimes, it’s a mere whisper of familiarity. Regardless, it is painfully clear to me that the song has set up camp in my head and there’s not a great deal I can do about it. I comfort myself in the knowledge that there are worse lifelong ear worms to have.
How can a man who emitted such a sense of mystery and enigma, find himself taken so firmly in to the hearts and minds of so many? Through poetry, beauty and magic. And through simply phenomenal song writing.
Aberdeen, November 14th 2016
One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong by Alasdair Roberts