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Dancing to the end with Leonard Cohen

Photo: Michael Putland/Getty
Photo: Michael Putland/Getty

During the year I tried very hard to kill myself, I listened to a lot of Leonard Cohen. I’ve always been very ritualistic about sadness, particularly when it comes to music. I spent most of my sophomore year of high school, brooding over some vague adolescent angst or moping over some girl whose charms I only half-remember, burying myself in the shroud of the same black hoodie day after day while listening to R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People on repeat. When Kurt Cobain committed suicide just before my senior year, I spent the summer that followed acting out a (very corny) ceremony of lighting a candle and putting on Nirvana’s Unplugged, blowing it out just before the final verse of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” And for the year and a half I spent committing slow, methodical suicide while deep in the grips of heroin addiction, I listened to Leonard Cohen’s Songs Of Love And Hate for nearly every single day of it.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to write this story. While my close friends already know about it—both the ones who witnessed it firsthand, and the ones I’ve told since, with the detached sense of it happening, long ago, to someone else—I’ve never written publicly about those 18 months or so I spent in the lowest tide of my life. (My parents don’t even know; if they’re reading this, now they do.) There’s also the fact that writing about my own misery doesn’t give you the comprehensive look you were promised at Leonard Cohen’s long life, career, and immeasurable influence on the music, literature, and general worldview of several generations. For that, I apologize. If you’re looking for that sort of thing, I can recommend any of the many dozens of biographies and critical studies that have been written about him since the 1970s—Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man is particularly good—or the 2005 documentary/tribute also titled I’m Your Man, or any of Cohen’s own, numerous novels and poetry collections. If you’re pressed for time, there’s also Wikipedia.

But ultimately I decided that this remembrance demands to be personal, because listening to Leonard Cohen is an unusually personal experience. My first glimmer of that came before I even knew who he was, via that oft-quoted joke on The Young Ones: “No one ever listens to me anyway. I might as well be a Leonard Cohen record!” Before I’d even heard a note of his music, I got the sense of what that meant. Leonard Cohen must be dull and unenjoyable, and people only pretend to like him. It was only a little later that I understood that—the mordant synth-pop of I’m Your Man or the Phil Spector clangor of Death Of A Ladies’ Man aside—most of Leonard Cohen’s music doesn’t exactly lend itself to throwing on at parties or in polite company. No one ever listens to Leonard Cohen unless they’re able to give him the space his music deserves. Or if they need it.

In 2003, my own need grew out of a prolonged spiral of feeling lost and hopeless, a feeling I dealt with by numbing myself with increasingly dangerous drugs. At the time, heroin was not so secretly seeping its way through the Austin music scene, as those of us who’d spent years at parties, popping hydrocodone and Oxycontin obtained from just across the Mexican border, turned to heroin—first as a cheaper alternative, then out of sickening necessity. As with all drug addictions, it was fun until it wasn’t. I wasted untold hours waiting in some parking lot for my connection, sweating and nauseated from the ever-present creep of withdrawal. I also wasted most of the money I earned from my job at Apple tech support, where I’d snort “monkey’s blood” (tar dissolved in water) in the bathroom. I never messed with needles, and in that, I was luckier than the several people from our circle we lost that year to overdoses, as well as the many more I knew who came dangerously close, only to be saved by paramedic intervention or quick thinking from friends.

But lurking beneath, there was always the sense that we were flirting with death. With my own music career flailing in fits and starts, and any other prospects seeming laughably out of reach (I have a B.A. in English literature, the college equivalent of a participation certificate), there was a part of me that didn’t mind the thought so much. Then my girlfriend left me—the first girl I’d ever really loved, and the drug buddy whose mutual enabling had earned us the mocking sobriquet “Sid and Nancy”—saying she had to get out of here and get clear, or we were both going to keep doing dope until we died. After she left, I wasn’t just flirting with death; I was beckoning it. I walked away from Apple in the middle of a call helping some poor soul set up their WiFi, went straight to an ATM, withdrew as much cash as I had left, phoned my dealer, and proceeded to dive even deeper into the hole. A few days later, around 3 a.m., I walked out onto the I-35 overpass and dangled my head recklessly over the side, daring myself to let go, until a passing cop car pulled up alongside and scared me into moving along. I never came that close to actual suicide again, but for that entire winter of ’03 to ’04, inside me it was like I’d already jumped.

During that time, Leonard Cohen was the artist who sat with me there on the edge, the way he’s done for so many locked inside their own misery—and especially for those who, like me, are given to romanticizing despair. There’s a reason Cohen was called, among many other ominous names, “The Bard Of Bedsits.” His music is made for ruminating in small, closed-off rooms, alone with your pain. At my lowest point during that time, I would start off the agonizingly long days by doing exactly that: getting high and staring glumly at the floor of my locked bedroom while listening to Songs Of Love And Hate, an album Cohen wrote during his own spiritual crisis. The album kicks off with the opening lines of “Avalanche,” which Cohen sings in a tone that’s filled with spite and self-loathing, and that articulated the nihilistic despair I was feeling, down here in the rubble of my own making: “Well I stepped into an avalanche / It covered up my soul.”

Cohen follows this up with “Last Year’s Man,” a song that captures an artist who’s paralyzed in his inability to work, time already passing him by and erasing his past accomplishments, mired in sorrowful contemplation of all he’s lost. I wasn’t an “artist,” really. At the time, I fronted two post-punk bands of modest local renown and medium talent. But sitting there on the floor, wasting even these meager creative outlets, I could relate to Cohen’s feeling of being too overwhelmed by apathy to make something beautiful of it “if he only gives the word”—and meanwhile, “an hour has gone by and he has not moved his hand.”

And hey, if you really want to wallow, daring yourself to do something about it, there is “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” the most harrowing, candid song ever written about suicide. Cohen himself knew its power, initially banning himself from singing it in public, except for the “extremely joyous occasions when I know that the landscape can support the despair that I am about to project into it.” He then removed it from his repertoire altogether, saying he felt it, after further reflection, too intensely private. To someone who’s already teetering on the edge of doing themselves in, that intimacy is terrifying. It feels like its narrator is right there in your ear, reminding you of your many failures and the loves you’ve lost, taunting, “Now if you can manage to get / Your trembling fingers to behave / Why don’t you try unwrapping / A stainless steel razor blade?”

But there’s another aspect to this aural Russian roulette that can’t be overlooked, here or in the rest of Cohen’s music: the catharsis of hearing all this anguish laid bare before you in such unflinching detail—and the bitter tonic that is Cohen’s wry gallows humor. In “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” the narrator soaps his face up for a shave and scoffs, “There, now you’re Santa Claus.” Later he suggests finding a new reason to live by joining “the Rosicrucians,” or sending away for things from the backs of magazines. And of course, the punchline of the entire song, as laid out in the title, is that this is all just a practice run—a melodrama staged for unseen cameras. As someone who thought about suicide as a sort of performative purge, but always stopped just short, I shared in its morbid little laugh.

There’s also the fact that the album’s not just called Songs Of Hate. After reaching the pinnacle of loneliness on “Diamonds In The Mine,” his sarcastic, quasi-reggae about an empty world seemingly beyond redemption, the second side begins with the glimmer of hope that is “Love Calls You By Your Name.” It’s a tune that Cohen himself said “searches out the middle place between the beginning and the end of things,” when the hint of new love most has the capacity to upend and surprise.

The rest of the Songs Of Love that follow are far from wide-eyed about it—the doomed Shakespearean romance of “Sing Another Song, Boys;” the mournful love triangle of “Famous Blue Raincoat;” the idea of love finally consuming your tired-of-fighting body the way the flames do “Joan Of Arc.” But their melancholy romance also reminds you that love and hate, happiness and sadness are forever intertwined. And if, like me, you’ve been listening with balled fists, it’s the moment you begin to unclench—to begin to long to feel that way again, or just to feel anything at all. Songs Of Love And Hate was a cycle, like the stages of grief. And going through them again and again was all that kept me hanging on in my darkest moments.

Eventually, I got all the way through. I resolved to clean myself up and live again. I spent the absolute toughest week of my life puking and shaking and sweating into my bedsheets like Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting. While I was kicking, I refused myself the balm of any music at all; instead I rented the entire season of Band Of Brothers, hoping that by watching a bunch of soldiers starve and freeze their way through the Siege Of Bastogne, my own little drug problem would be put in perspective. (All it really did was make me hate Band Of Brothers.) I emerged on the other side feeling lucky; I’d beaten it without having to fall into the methadone trap so many of my friends did. Best of all, I wasn’t dead. There would be many, equally hard months to follow of trying to shake the longing for the warm, easy, fuck-it-all embrace of heroin. But by that summer, I was dating the woman who would become my wife and, eventually, the mother to our two daughters. Life slowly got easier and the yearning for heroin faded. I got a good job and, with it, some new direction. It’s been more than a dozen years now since I touched the stuff. Now it’s just a story I tell to people who don’t fully know me yet, my own tiny little dalliance with the dark side.

But even now, it’s still difficult for me to listen to anything from Songs Of Love And Hate without being right back inside those feelings. These days, if I listen to Leonard Cohen, it tends to be just about anything else from his catalogue. The wistful love and loss of Songs Of Leonard Cohen; the rich, somber, synthesizer hymns of Various Positions. This past year, I’ve returned often to the two albums that introduced me to Cohen when I was a teenager, whose angst was a lot more unspecific and hypothetical: I’m Your Man, with the sardonic defeatism of “Everybody Knows” (thanks, Pump Up The Volume), and the caustic, cautiously hopeful paean to the post-apocalypse that is The Future (thanks, Natural Born Killers). I still regard Songs Of Love And Hate as my favorite Cohen album; I even have a T-shirt bearing its cover, purchased during the 2009 concert where I was fortunate enough to see Leonard Cohen in person. But the record itself mostly sits on my shelf. It often feels like it’s waiting there, for a moment when things are once again so bleak that I need it.

There’s a lot about 2016 that’s come pretty close. In many ways, it’s fitting that this is the year Leonard Cohen left us, as it’s the year that feels most like a Leonard Cohen song. For many, it’s been a relentless procession of loss, teeth-gnashing, cruelty, and end-times omens, to which we prophets—as Cohen once called every one of us—have mostly responded with numbed, ironic laughter at the compounded misery of it all, recognizing that “Things are going to slide / Slide in all directions,” but shrugging whenever talk of repentance comes around. We’ve seen the future, brother; it is murder.

When Cohen’s latest, now last album, You Want It Darker was first released, we were cautioned at taking his talk of dealing himself “out of the game” and being “ready, my Lord” too literally, as such funereal imagery has always been part of his music—and come on, he’s not dead yet. (My pal Steve Hyden wrote an excellent piece to this effect that is, unfortunately, now colored with a sense of denial.) But if you’ve been feeling defeated lately, you can’t help but look at the album now as a farewell and good luck, just one of several in a year when we’ve said goodbye to other previously immortal heroes—its sting particularly felt in a week when many of us feel like we could sure use old Field Commander Cohen to guide us through what feels like another looming war for the soul. Or at least, sing us a reassuring song.

Those songs are still there, of course. As is the spirit of them—broken but resilient. I’m probably not the first person who turned to “Anthem” while pondering what to do in a world that suddenly feels torn apart, finding solace in its bleak yet hopeful lines: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Like so much of his work, it reminds me that, as it was in my time of crisis, right now we may be stumbling about in the darkness, but as long as we still want to, we can find our way out again. And whenever we need him, Leonard Cohen will be here to dance us to the end, one more time.