I first heard Leonard Cohen growl in 1968. My brother came home with The Songs of Leonard Cohen, and said, ‘You have to listen to this.’ My mother, sister and I plonked down on the sofa as he pulled the album from its sleeve and placed the vinyl on the turntable. I can still hear that faint crackle and hiss in my mind’s ear. Then…that voice. Nobody said a word. We were entranced, hypnotised.
Listening back, it seems strange for an eight-year old to fall in love with such a songsmith. Yet tracks like Teachers, The Master Song, and The Stranger Song burrowed into my psyche. His music became the soundtrack of my life.
I saw him live just the twice. Once in the late seventies in Manchester and then again, a few years back, in London. He made even a huge arena feel like an intimate space. When I heard he’d died, I cried. To be fair, I’d been crying a lot back then. I was in Wales at The Path of Love and had spent the week delving deep. Our phones and laptops had been taken away so I had no idea what was going on in the outside world. Cohen’s songs punctuated the week, a lodestone for me. When the course finished I said how wonderful it had been to hear so much Leonard. They said, ‘Well we had to, given what happened…’ And, of course, then I realised.
Not so long ago, Adrian bought me a copy of the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets of LC. Reading the lyrics of the songs I loved so well and so long was curious. Some felt diminished, laid bare and strangely fragile on the page. I felt uncomfortable, as if I had caught them undressed.
Then the book fell open on something I had not read before – coming, as it did, from one of Cohen’s books, rather than his albums. The Asthmatic.
“Because you will not overthrow your life. You cannot breathe. Because of the panic of homelessness. You cannot breathe. Because you have begun to worship time. You cannot breathe. Because you will never have the beautiful one. You cannot breathe. You cannot breathe.”
The words bludgeoned me, smacked me between the ribs. As I read back the words I’d typed I realised I’d typed “workshop time” in place of ‘worship time’. Gotta smile at the subconscious.
“Because your sorrow will not return to its birthplace. You cannot breathe. Because you believe you were not meant to be so far away. You cannot breathe. Because you let the world come between you and me. You cannot breathe. Because this is the valley of the shadow of death. You cannot breathe. Because you cannot be here.”
I was diagnosed with asthma, aged ten, directly after the death of my father. Over the last couple of years, my doctor keeps pressing inhalers on me. It is a mysterious illness, skating the edge between psyche and soma. Loss is its bridegroom, I feel. Unexpressed grief is its veil. In Cohen’s commentary he says asthma is probably the ‘condition of profound indecision’. Is it? I’m not sure. Then I think again. That line: ‘Because you cannot be here.’ Asthma, just maybe, is a sickness of soul – a profound sense of indecision about life itself, about breathing itself. Fanciful?
Anyhow, here are two of my favourites from that first album. Curiously, neither is included in the book.