In the summer of 1970 I stayed with a Parisian family at their house in Normandy. They were friends of my parents and I there was in to improve my French.
That August was rainy so killing time between breakfast and lunch presented a problem until I discovered a record in my host’s collection: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. I was taken by this LP and I played it repeatedly while looking at the singer’s unhappy face and reading the sleeve notes. I was thirteen. Quite apart from the physical changes I underwent that year, there was a growing, open-minded curiosity about what happens over the horizon.
Cohen’s voice and imagery pulled me into a world I’d never known. It was a period when he was very popular in France but barely known in England. I certainly had never heard of him.
The two songs I remember also happen to be his most enduring: Suzanne and So Long Marianne.
Suzanne often pops up in poetry anthologies and I used to remind myself of that long-ago summer by singing it to my young children. And how I loved it when the backing singers came in on the second chorus in So Long Marianne. Cohen’s world-weary voice gave me an insight into an adult world which I was just about to enter.
I’ve always seen myself as a musician first, and that words merely garnish the melody. I don’t think I have ever actually bought a folk album so I surprised myself by liking this album so much. In my later teens I became obsessed with the rockier part of the spectrum and in adulthood, the jazzier. In later years, especially with Chico Chica, I have taken a greater interest in appreciating and writing song lyrics. So I was perhaps better in tune with my true self as thirteen year old than I was as a young adult.
Cohen’s career and his later work never made an impact on my consciousness and is almost completely unknown apart from Hallelujah and Dance To The End of Love. Leonard Cohen was a very personal discovery. None of my friends and family knew about him so I as unable to discuss or share . It was all so personal and direct. But now it’s different and after his recent death he has been much lauded and many are saying what I have always believed: he was a greater song-writer than Bob Dylan.