Call me a late bloomer, or maybe just musically ignorant, but I came to Leonard Cohen very late in life. And indirectly, at that. The first time I heard a song called “Hallelujah” it was sung by k d lang, and it FLOORED me… and then and only then did I discover Leonard Cohen as the man who wrote it, and then I found the REST of Leonard Cohen, and basically fell in love. But “Hallelujah”… that was that first falling-in-love moment. That song. THAT SONG.
The Canadian phenom Choir!Choir!Choir! – the one where these two unprepossing guys take the stage, any stage, anywhere, gather up between a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand random people, and somehow teach them incredible harmonies in the space of a couple of hours and then have these random individuals unite into a mass choir which produces spinetingling covers of pop and rock cultural mainstay hits – has “Hallelujah” as one of its staples, and I was privilieged enough to be a part of one such gathering with that song front and center. It was unforgettable. I’d do it again in a heartbeat if the chance ever comes around once more.
When someone told me that there was a whole entire BOOK on that song, “The Holy or the Broken” by Alan Light, and that I really really should read it, I kind of said, hel yeah I should, and went out and got a copy. And the journey of “Hallelujah” – from its weird origins where it almost failed to exist at all and then its journey through Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, apparently every other singer known to man (Bono did a cover. BONO. Think about that.) – is deeply fascinating. I think that at the end of it all there are still more theories than there are answers but one shining fact remains. It doesn’t matter what you heard, the holy or the broken Hallelujah, but that song LODGES. Once you’ve heard it you can never quite forget it. And I still maintain that the final answer is that when Leonard COhen was judged as to his destination in any possible afterlife there was one word that guaranteed him immortality and that word was “hallelujah”. I commend the book to you, if you have ever loved him or his music. But in the meantime, Here’s something I wrote about going on a road trip to a writing retreat out by Lake Quinault on the Olympic Peninsula, and sticking a Leonard Cohen CD into the car player and letting myself get lost in that world. I’m with him. In his own words, even if it all goes wrong I too will stand before the lord of song with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah…
Travels with Leonard
I’m going to a writers’ retreat, held out-of-season in a somewhat rustic but somehow utterly charming place on the shores of Lake Quinault in Washington state. It’s March. The light is that earnest bright shade of springtime when I pack my paraphernalia into the trunk of my car, early on the morning of my departure. I slam the car door, turn the key in the ignition, and put in a single CD which will play on repeat all the way through the six-hour drive ahead of me. “The Eessential Leonard Cohen”
I discovered Leonard Cohen late in life – so late as to be practically afterwards, as a character in a favorite sitcom once memorably described the lateness of something. And indirectly, at that. I know I heard “Everybody Knows” as a background clue-music for a dramatic scene in a TV series I was following – but I didn’t really know who sang it, although I liked the song. But then, at some point, I heard k d lang perform a song that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Believe it or not, I had never heard “Hallelujah” before that moment. I listened to this version, and then listened to it again and again and again and again and then I discovered that it belonged to Leonard Cohen, and heard it for the first time in his voice. And fell in love. Hard. With his music. With the poetry of his lyrics. With his soul.
It was no accident I picked that particular CD to play me into a weekend at a writer’s retreat far away from the distractions of anything except the word. Leonard Cohen’s songs are something that stirs my mind and my heart, they’re ALL stories if you want to spend any amount of time thinking about them. Some of them aren’t even comprehensible at the level of the actual words of the lyrics because those words are just glorious jigsaw pieces in themselves, and it isn’t your brain that puts them together into the pictures and the stories which they end up making inside of you, it’s your heart, and your spirit, and your soul. I needed to put my writerly instincts into gear, to kickstart my inspiration for a weekend where I would have to wrestle with it and produce something worth being called a story, and the best thing I could think of to do that was Leonard Cohen.
“Suzanne” takes me out of my driveway and I’m on my way, the perfect body of those lyrics touching my mind, telling me to trust this, to trust the story that he tells me now and the ones that I will start telling when I sit down with my fingers on the keyboard of my laptop. “The Stranger Song” and “Sisters of Mercy” – the latter with its strange calliope music in the background that makes me think of abandoned carnival spaces after the carnies have left and all the lights have been turned off for the ghosts to start roaming free – follow me onto the highway, and then I pass the open fields which spill by the sides of the road, and slow down to pass through built-up areas along the way, while belting along with Leonard to “Hey that’s no way to say goodbye” and “So long, Marianne”. I remember reading about the real Marianne, Leonard’s love and his muse, and about the letter he wrote to her when she was dying, the letter that made my heart clench, because this man with his hoarse raspy voice and his half disillusioned and half angelically optimistic soul is a nonpareil poet and someone who truly understood love. All of it, even the dark side. I can sing along with him and laugh and cry about it all again, right there with him, with Marianne whom I never met but who is in the car with me, with Leonard and his voice and his poetry and his memories, with all the stories which are starting to bud and flower and intermingle in the car while I sing and weave southward through highway traffic on the I 5.
The CD is on repeat and songs start to blur and draw several different memories – but “Bird on a Wire” catches me in a slowdown through a city, and “The Partisan” with its sudden unexpected segue into French catches me in the midst of a sudden shower of rain with the windshield wipers thwapping disconcertingly out of time with the song. I have to force myself to stop extrapolating the story of the “Famous Blue Raincoat” while I am negotiating the passing of several large trucks which are slowing me down and driving me crazy.
At some point, I leave the highway and turn into the lesser roads, curving along the bottom of the Olympic Peninsula. Traffic is lighter, the roads are quite empty at times, and I get haunted by songs like “The Guests” and “If It Be Your Will”.
I stop for coffee and gas in Aberdeen, to the tune of “Who By Fire”, and remember the tales I was told about both the history and the current events of that city, while my road takes me directly through it – over a bridge, down one residential street then another, past houses which look like they have histories of their own, some decorated with kitsch and some so plain and suburban and poor and empty of any spark of creative life that they wrench your heart. There are businesses I drive by, some of them esoteric – this is Aberdeen, things like that happen here.
Somewhere past Aberdeen, back on the empty roads, I get hit by that song that is my anthem, “Hallelujah”. Somewhere near a place that rejoices in the queer name of Humptulips I pass a house with a sign that says “Three for $1”. Three what? I am writing a story about that in my head even as I drive by without stopping to find out. It’s much more interesting that way, anyway. It isn’t the first story I’m playing with on this long drive, with Leonard Cohen as my companion, and guide, and inspiration.
Getting closer to my destination, I struggle to understand the undercurrents of “Night Comes On” because there’s more there than ever meets the eye – and another story comes pushing forward, demanding attention. Another song tells me that “Everybody Knows” already – and it’s a familiar one, it’s that first one of his that I ever registered hearing, as something connected to him as an artist, and here too there is a story waiting for me, waiting to be found, to be shaped and reshaped, to be inspired by those words which are easy to listen to, easy to take in as though by osmosis, through the skin, and the fingers on the steering wheel, and my thighs on the seat of the car, and the ends of my hair, tucked into a braid, with curls escaping to the sides and tickling the back of my neck. The closer I get, the less I am human, the more I am story. I am changing. The music is changing me. “I’m Your Man”, Leonard tells me, and I whisper, “I know.” He’s more than that right now. He’s a somewhat unlikely craggy-faced raspy-voiced muse who is casting a hook into my subconscious and fishing out stories, one by one. Word by word. He might have ended up in the “Tower of Song” but he’s taking me to a place where all the stories live, and he will bless me with his music, and he will make my words live.
The songs repeat because the CD is set to simply keep playing. The stories the songs have to tell me solidify and set, and words march off in directions the songs themselves could not have imagined. After a long empty and solitary stretch of a narrowish country road, I see the sign at last, Lake Quinault to the right. I flick on my indicator, and turn. Leonard turns with me, insistent, quietly powerful, teaching me how to dream.
The road twists and turns through woods, with large cedars on either side, shadows on the tarmac. There are a few houses here and there – cabins – and then, through the trees, the glitter of sun on the water. Lake Quinault. A piece of quiet beauty. Waiting with its gifts of silence and solitude and sun and dappled shade, water and a lawn made of moss, the world’s largest spruce tree waiting in the back of the resort grounds for those who come here to go and make obeisance to there. It’s early afternoon but it’s also early spring and the days aren’t summer-long, yet. So by the time I arrive the light is already on the turn, starting for evening, with one of Lake Quinault’s incandescent sunsets to come.
I park the car, turn the engine off, and Leonard falls silent, his voice gone from the real world around me… but his words echoing, still, inside my mind, elbowed aside by the stories which they have rearranged themselves into, which they have made on this journey – stories which have (on the face of it) very little directly to do with the actual lyrics which have inspired them. But which are, nevertheless, the natural-born children of those songs which have been my companions for the last six hours in that car.
The lake glints in the sunlight. The trees are cedar-green and all around me. Soon, the fairy-lights on the restaurant building will go on as the day turns golden and then purple and then dark and the starts come out to play.
I take the CD out of the player and put it back into its case, safe for the return trip. But before that…
I’m here. It’s time to write.