On Friday before guests arrived for Shabbat dinner I set up a simple shrine with my 1969 edition of the “Songs of Leonard Cohen” songbook and a candle in the common house lounge. Dan brought his guitar and we sang several of my favourites from Leonard’s earlier days – before his baritone dropped to a bass where my tenor fears to tread.
As the Montreal Gazette reported, “His funeral took place Thursday afternoon in Montreal, at the Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery on the slopes of Mount Royal. As had been his wish, Cohen was laid to rest in a traditional Jewish rite in a family plot, beside his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.”
It was such a double whammy this past week. First the unimaginable shock of the U.S. election Tuesday, then the news on Thursday about Leonard, although he had actually died in Los Angeles on Monday. Thursday evening some of us sang a few Leonard tunes at the piano in the lounge.
I blogged about Leonard when the Nobel Prize for Bob Dylan was announced last month. I was first exposed to Leonard when I was high school age, to his poems in “Love Where the Nights Are Long,” the first anthology of Canadian love poetry. I bought it for $2.50 at Duthie Books with a gift certificate won at a public speaking contest. “Leonard is now 82,” I wrote, “and I hope he lives long enough to be receive such an honour as the Nobel Prize. To me, his books, poetry and songs add up to a body of superb work greater than Dylan’s.”
One of his poems from that 1962 book offers a hint of his future direction toward songwriting and singing, a shift he made to make a better living than from writing prose and poetry.
I almost went to bed
the four white violets
I put in the buttonhole
of your green sweater
and how I kissed you then
and you kissed me
shy as though I’d
never been your lover
You can hear the music in those phrases. When I read those words in 1962 I was hooked on Leonard Cohen, especially because I fancied myself a poet too. Here’s one of mine from 1963.
Just remembering when I was Lead Bunny
in the Grade One pageant.
I was loud, my folks were proud,
even louder than the crowd, I was.
Louder than the Third Rock.
I sat on her, she cried.
Sure don’t make rocks like they used to.
My favourite 21st century Leonard song is “A Thousand Kisses Deep” from the 2001 album Ten New Songs. I treasure having seen Leonard perform in 2012 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver with my friend Ellen. He was so generous, seemingly singing forever, frequently dropping to his knees to croon – he absolutely rocked on stage.
But my all-time favourite Leonard song is “Hallelujah,” (the word is Hebrew for “Praise God”). We sang it at Shabbat dinner, and Shabbat morning at services to the Hebrew words of Psalm 150. And then on Saturday Night Live, Kate McKinnon, dressed as her Hillary Clinton character in a cream pantsuit, played piano and sang “Hallelujah.” And when she finished, she said, “I’m not giving up. And neither should you.”