Birthday Letter to Leonard
It was the fall of 1966, New York. I remember it well. I had not met you and I had not written a song of my own yet, although Iwas keeping journals already, some of them terribly dark. I lived on the upper west side of Manhattan and had been making records for six years, mostly the songs of city writers-Dylan-Seeger-Malvina—Reynolds-and haunting melodies from antiquity. I searched for writers unknown and songs that were timeless. I had been sick with hepatitis and, as I recovered, I did a lot of thinking about directions in my music. I knew I was at a point of transformation in my music, metamorphosis. I could feel it coming.
While you were writing poems and books and songs in Montreal that summer, I memorized Brecht and sang Beatles songs, went to see Peter Brook’s “Marat / Sade” and was so taken with Richard Peaslee’s music, I put the score on tape and edited it to hear what it might sound like. I planned the new album. “InMy Life” was going to be something theatrical, something different, I began to play the piano again. The scales and Czerny and Hanon filled the apartment, all those years of Mozart came flooding back.
My friend Mary Martin told me about a man in Montreal.”Poet,” she said, “novelist, his name is Leonard Cohen. He’s written some songs, and I like them a lot,” she said. “And I think you should hear them.”
You came down from Montreal on a Thursday according to my diary. We talked that night, Earl Robinson was visiting and we went out to dinner with Earl and some other friends, and you were charming, easy, very striking looking and you did not sing that night. I think you were living at the Chelsea Hotel then. I remember I wasn’t drinking.
The next night you came back and sang me two songs—”Dress Rehearsal Rag” and “Suzanne.” I was amazed and changed by these songs. It was as though I had ordered them up and some mystic muse had brought them, with your voice, your lyric, your music.
I recorded both songs, and convinced you to sing at the benefit at Town Hall in New York that winter. You were a new face, a new name, and I think my record of your songs had just been released. You came out on the stage with your guitar and began to sing “Suzanne,” and then froze mid-verse, petrified, and walked off the stage.
I think of that as one of your finest moments. Because you came back. And kept coming back. You went on to become one of the most magnificent performers I have ever heard. One of the books that has most affected me is Flannery O’Connor’s collection of letters, The Habit of Art. You have a habit of art, you move me with all your songs, whether I record them or not.
“Sisters of Mercy” always reminds me of that time in Newport when I had arranged the first singer-songwriter afternoon with you and Joni Mitchell and Mike Settle and Janis Ian. And that young man named Douglas who slept with me in the same room where you were busy writing in your diary, or perhaps writing “The Future.” You Inspire Trust.
‘Joan of Arc” has come back to me again recently in another incarnation, speaking to me of the elements; earth, fire, water ,stone, fragility and power that speak through your lyrics. I still sing “Bird on the Wire,” which I think of as a blues. I don’t sing many blues. I live the blues, but you write the blues I can sing. I eat the black Abaddo dates you sent me for Christmas and go over the list again-“Priests,” “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “Story of Isaac,” “Blue Raincoat,” “Bernadette” which I will record someday but haven’t yet. So many songs. In all I have recorded a dozen.
Since this is your birthday, I would like to give you a gift of gratitude, a present, as you have been present in my psyche for all these years. I remember years before I heard “The Future” that night at a party when you took me aside from the swirl of guests and bullshit, off to a corner where you told me all the lyrics of “Democracy.”
But the gratitude I extend to you cannot be thanks for your even more real and true gift to me.
You were the one who told me to write songs.
You said “If I can do it,” braving the stage at Town hall, petrified, singing “Suzanne,” “you can do it.”
And so I took my dark journals, my threads and wisps of poetry in search of life, of melody, and I risked the leap you didn’t say would be safe, into the arms of my own muse .She is different from your muse, of course. And she has tantrums and walks out of the room after an argument, but I think she’s getting kinder. Or maybe tougher. She doesn’t drink. And sometimes I imagine our muses are at least sisters in some ether in the other plane in which they dwell with all the other muses swho live and breathe, mustering the force to fill our hearts with fire. Like “Sisters of Mercy.”
When I sing my songs-“Since You’ve Asked,” “My Father,””Houses,” “The Blizzard”-they reverberate with that enchanted gift you were the first to give.
On your sixtieth birthday, know that you have been an ageless inspiration to me. I sing your beautiful, moving, timeless and transformational songs.
And I sing my own songs. That is your gift to me.
Happy Birthday, dear Leonard.
Text is taken from the book, “Take This Walz, A Celebration of Leonard Cohen.” Edited by Michael Fournier and Ken Norris, published by The Muses Company, Ste. Anne de Belleview, Quebec, 1994.