When I was a student at McGill in Montreal in the early 1970s, alumnus Leonard Cohen had already begun his journey as a balladeer and writer. He was known to pop by the university periodically, and I did see him once talking with someone on Sherbrooke St. at a corner of the campus.
For any of us from the Montreal area, he was in the forefront of exploring themes relating to love, death, freedom, and contemplation.
By this time, in addition to poetry, his first two records had been released (the first with a back cover showing a beautiful young woman being burnt alive within a prison, the second’s back cover featuring a young woman sitting at a typewriter in a sparse room, presumably in Greece). As well, his first two novels, largely exploring a mix of history and sexual freedom, interspersed with irony and humour – not unlike, but not as pointed as contemporary Mordecai Richler – had expanded his audience beyond Canadian borders. (A memorable episode of historically based humour occurs in the novel Beautiful Losers: at a feast in Quebec in 1676, newly baptised Catherine Tekakwitha accidentally spills a glass of wine; the stain spreads through the entire tablecloth, causing diners to stop to watch, then a vase and flowers turn purple, then faces, clothes, and furniture are imbued, and even the spring snow outside takes on the hue; Catherine stands up slowly, and says “I guess I owe you all an apology”.)
Given the folk singing manner, and easy chord arrangements, of Cohen’s early songs, for someone like myself attempting to self-teach guitar, he served as both an inspiration and a learning tool. His early lyrics also displayed the themes and imagery which were ultimately hallmarks of his creative career. It should be noted that the quality of his singing voice, at this point, was at least somewhat melodic; the gravel was only starting to accumulate.
One of my favourite songs from the first album, somewhat forgotten through time, was ‘Stories of the Street’. It included the verse: I know you’ve heard it’s over now / And war must surely come, / The cities they are broke in half / And the middle men are gone. / But let me ask you one more time / O children of the dust, / These hunters who are shrieking now / Do they speak for us? Given what has transpired this week in the U.S., not to mention this work week ending on Remembrance Day, such a passage seems to echo even more wistfully.
Much of the initial tributes pouring forth in memory of Leonard Cohen have focused on his later career as songwriter and performer, especially in the context of his impact on generations of artists he has influenced. While important to acknowledge, we shouldn’t forget the seeding of his brilliance which bloomed early in his life; his exploration of the psyche and verbalization in sometimes bold, graphic expression still stand in many ways on their own terms, worthy of being remembered.