This hardhearted year keeps blowing old troubadours down like some tyrannical Baron striking Serfs with his blackthorn and it got Leonard Cohen last week. I was expecting Leonard to slip his way elegantly through the stage door, at the end of the year, as usual, doffing his cap, singing Auld Lang Syne, a song he could have written, waltzing wisely up the alley to 2017. But: no. If 2016 were represented by a Tarot card, it would be one eerie card.
Unlike Prince, Leonard’s music was appropriate for grownups (much of it, in fact, is indecipherable to kids) and, unlike Bowie, Leonard’s music actually meant something. Leonard didn’t conjure his lyrics with lordly disinterest, like Bowie, by tossing random phrases in a hat he borrowed from Burroughs. Cohen often wrote dozens of drafts of dozens of verses, trying to get it right. While I disagree with those who claim the results can stand alone as poetry (Leonard was a serious Songwriter but he was not one of the great Poets; his craft was perfected to the discipline of forging lines that can be comprehended in one listen, more or less, at a speed no greater than 120 bpm), the results stand out in the canon of great North American songs. Cohen, Mitchell, Strayhorn, Zappa, Gershwin, Holland/Dozier/Holland…
Unlike the case with Bowie but similar to my blippy little brushes with Prince and his checkered history, I had two second or third-degree brushes with Leonard Cohen, delivered up by happenstance, only one of which I’ll describe, in detail, in this letter. The moments of connection started in my very early twenties and ended when I was thirty one, the perfect interval for lyrical interventions from Fate.
By the time I left college, Cohen’s first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, was a big part of my love life, along with candles, cones of incense and the aforementioned Tarot, which I didn’t read but the reading of which was a standard prelude to seduction among sensitive, bookish, post-Hippie types of the late 1970s. Tarot, palm-reading, back rubs… that’s how we did it then. No one I know used alcohol to make Sex happen and very few of us had seen anything more pornographic than a Playboy magazine (or an Evergreen Review), so it was an innocent age… but with an innocence that was better, and more knowing, than the Puritans would have been able to deal with. Back then, Girls didn’t generally strip, shave their legs, wax their crotches, worry about AIDs (we hadn’t heard of it) or dream of breast implants: breast implants, like shoulder pads, were the armor of the Spartan 1980s. Boys (in my circle) dreamed of particular Girls (not “pussy”) and the contraceptive of choice was the romantically inefficient diaphragm. My first sexual experience (with the current Wife of the Ambassador to P____, a terrible Neocon) involved so much spermicide that the smell (and tongue-numbing taste of it) is all I can remember of that milestone. I could barely keep from sliding off. Oh: but I also recall quite clearly that I finished in twenty seconds, tops, and was ticklish as hell after my anticlimax.
I lost my virginity a few months before college, in my Great Aunt and Uncle’s bed, in their bedroom in the grand building housing The Family Business (Undertaking) in a casually integrated, middle class neighborhood with traces of Bohemia running through it. There were enclaves of Berryman-reading, whole-food-shopping, college-educated Whites around two corners, the parents of my school friends. I went to an all-boy, college-prep high school you had to pass an exam to attend and my friends were Black, Italian and Jewish American boys with high IQs and no clue what to do with the brainpower. Every morning, before school, we gathered at the foot of the great stone steps of our sister institution, the simply named Girls High School, which was right down a leafy lane, and pretended we had business there.
The parents of my Black school friends were all too successful and busy to hang out with, but the Bohemian parents of my Jewish and Italian friends often invited me to dinner or just hung out with us at the table, talking books in their shabby genteel, chicly-messy kitchens which streamed with tiny brown ants. One friend, in particular, whose father had died by falling from a ladder while scraping the dormers, lived in a big, untidy old tinderbox of a Beat-poet house and it was a dense dark library that represented more wealth, to me, than any yacht. His mother was an alcoholic in the grand tradition of literary alcoholics but I envied him. We’d be eating big buttered hunks of bread all slathered with honey and talking nonsense about Poetry or Philip K. Dick and Cohen’s music would be audible from some upstairs room in the house. Either Leonard Cohen or the Brandenburg Concertos or a Shakuhachi flute. Those days may actually have been the high point of Western civilization and I wouldn’t mind being able to step back for a visit to the East Coast of 1977. Though, on the other hand, could I bear meeting my furtive younger self?
We were all being shuttled toward higher and higher Ed and Corporate Success and we were all, at the time, resisting. At least, I thought we were. I know I was. Reading Berryman and Sexton and Hughes and all the others in those big fat anthologies… (I can still remember lugging those shaggy monsters of plain design straight home from the book shop with genuine excitement, every time; I can still remember coming to Hughes’ Moortown and Sexton’s Transformations as if a roulette wheel of print had finally trapped the marble)… reading that stuff did something to my mind that it didn’t do to the others, possibly. Certain poems, certain songs: I couldn’t see myself being “normal” and getting a “career” and all that “jive” after hearing them. The Pied Pipers got to me. Cohen among them.
Cohen’s “Goodbye, Marianne”: I can only think of beautifully awkward kisses in very strong sunlight when I hear that song. In Fellini’s witty Casanova (also of that era), the hero brings to every seduction a clockwork Venetian bird in a box he uses to regulate the tempo of his Sex; the bird is his mojo and his Familiar. Cohen’s Songs of Leonard Cohen was my version of that device, I guess. “Goodbye, Marianne”, “Sisters of Mercy” and “Suzanne”, especially, are the inlaid jewels of Sex/Romance/Love in the facets of my cleverly-crafted heart.
I took that album with me to college in the upper Midwest (I just wanted to go as far away from relatives as I could get; I had been offered places at Ivy League Schools because my SATs were so high, despite the fact that I blew off my senior year to fill my days with Experience) and I started kissing girls there, to it, too. I was still listening to Songs of Leonard Cohen, from a cassette, many nights, in Berlin, in the early 1990s, in the arms of my Persian girlfriend (now a dentist!) and in the arms of a German girlfriend (now a psychologist!) who was modelling in Paris and whose parents owned a cottage next door to Leonard’s on the island of Hydra. In a Vonnegutian Universe, I’d be a peripheral member of Cohen’s Karass. The tenuous connection, appropriately, was always Sex. The Poetry thereof, I mean. Not the standard brutal assignations of today.
I’ve only ever tried mixing music with Sex with three albums: Songs of Leonard Cohen (always apt), The Doors (esp. “The End”; again with the Persian) and Meet The Beatles ( a disaster). Before I got my bearings, in college, my first few weeks there, listening to Songs of Leonard Cohen by candle light was more about pretending to have sex, rehearsing it, blanket up to my chin and my eyes closed. Slowly, but surely, I added real partners but never changed the album.
I picked up the guitar in earnest that first year in college and that was that: I walked out before the year was over and started a parody of a commune with a gaggle of up-for-it friends, guys and girls, communal bed, synchronized periods, the dropping of acid (having never smoked, nor boozed, nor anything else psychoactive, except chocolate, before or since). I wrote songs, wrote poetry, painted and had increasingly good Sex quite often. This was years before I was finally (finally) driven, by a certain kind of ambition, to strip it all down, cut out the extraneous, until the only thing left (on the canvas or in the guitar or on the page or in bed) was what actually worked. I was undisciplined before that change but humming and fizzing with a radical sense of the possible.The foolishness of that period was heroic. I was wearing shoulder-length hair and embroidered shirts from the mandatory Import shop on the West Bank (near the University Campus); I was a perfect anachronism but I wasn’t alone: lots of us were perfect anachronisms: we were doing 1969 all over again, ten years later, fish out of temporal water. I moved out of the “commune” (which was three blocks from one of the mansions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s youth, on St. Albans) to the magical Dinkytown (a cross between Greenwich Village and the village of The Prisoner) and took a little apartment that was kitty corner to Bob Dylan’s old place, the place where he named himself Dylan.
From there I ended up in an old Mansion that had been converted to a kind of thirty-room Hippie Flophouse with an enormous communal dining room (adjacent to a hot tub/ steam room) in the basement. We had a juggler poet (a muscular guy with a well-developed upper body and a feminine, slender, shorter, Polio-created left leg which blessed him with a Byronic limp) and a mad, great, Artaud-esque painter who lived in the attic and a tabla-player from Chile named Pepe and way too many Tarot-reading, I-Ching throwing witches. There was a jolly fat bearded auto mechanic who looked like a red-cheeked, Satanic Santa in oily overalls and his petite blonde pixie girlfriend; there were all kinds of people (including a whole Cult, one summer) in and out. We had tribal get-togethers on the front lawn or the back yard (and the authorities were aware of us; I remember calling the phone company to try to get a line installed, in my name, because I was the only one without bad credit, and I was astonished to have the AT&T representative, who was on the line, identify me by my full name when I’d only introduced myself with my first). Among the characters flowing in, out and around this Hippie Mansion was Suzanne Verdal.
Suzanne was very pretty, dark haired, Gallic, big-eyed, with two fairytale children, dressed like a Medieval Prince and Princess (puffy sleeves, Guinevere dress, Prince valiant haircut and all), who were named, at the time, Romy and Karima. I was never sure of the spelling and I’ve heard they got themselves other names, eventually. But I had no idea who Suzanne was.
One late afternoon, during one of these get-togethers, after the third or fourth time I’d seen Suzanne, the Byronic Juggler took me aside and said, “Don’t you know who that is? That’s Suzanne, from the song!”
I’m sure my jaw dropped. I peeked around the corner and watched Suzanne dance, on the lawn, to Pepe’s tabla, while the Byronic Juggler filled me in. I was probably holding a paper plate of organic potato salad. Suzanne’s two youngest kids, Romy and Karima, were by a guy who was the current love of Byron’s ex girlfriend. The ex girlfriend’s young son, Nico, was the half-brother of Suzanne’s children. She was in town trying to sell a house of hers. She’d been a dancer on French television in the 1960s. She must have been in her mid-thirties then, an intimidatingly poetic “older woman” to my jittery 21. I went back out to the party on the lawn, armed with my brand new Awe. The sun was setting and I grabbed a guitar and played some pseudo-Flamenco nonsense that would have been gibberish to the ears of any real guitarist but, a bit later, Suzanne cornered me and suggested that we could form an act together: Suzanne dancing, idiot faking flamenco guitar. She then asked if it would be possible to borrow thirty dollars. Ah, Life! Absurd, no?
The next day at noon I showed up at the address Suzanne had given me (I had to borrow the thirty dollars to loan it to her), an apartment complex laid out like a California motel, two levels of white stucco units around a courtyard, a u-shaped catwalk connecting all the units on the second level. It’s possible I’m conflating the premises of Suzanne’s borrowed complex with one I visited in San Diego; all I remember of this building, for sure, are the external stairs and the white stucco. And the fact that when I knocked on the front door, a very soft voice called, “It’s open!”
The first things I saw in the dark living room were the posters and photos, some framed, of a younger Suzanne on the walls. Suzanne dancing on French Television in 1968, say. Dazzling to a 21-year-old, for sure. And then I looked down and to my right and saw Suzanne under a sheet on a futon. The sheet was pulled up around her neck in such a way to give the impression that the sheet was all that clothed her.
“I’ve just had the most terrible dream about my children!” she said, her eyes big, her accent perfectly French, her voice still very soft; just above a whisper. Actually, I remember thinking that her voice reminded me somewhat of the character of “Ginger”, the movie star, in the seminal show of my youth, Gilligan’s Island… that breathy, pouty, campy Monroe pastiche. I remember noticing but not thinking it was funny; maybe I liked it. She told me she’d dreamed that she and her children were floating far out at sea and her children were calling to her and she couldn’t see them. Where were her kids, by the way? I don’t think I wondered at the time but I wonder now.
We discussed the dream, Suzanne on the futon, sheet wrapped around her… and there was I, absurdly (slap-worthily) still standing, not three paces from the threshold I’d walked in through at noon. I stood and listened and added my distracted, heart-pounding two cents. And then the conversation shifted and tip-toed then bolted toward strange terrain. My ears pricked up, as it were, when I heard the beautiful Suzanne Verdal saying,
“…but you know, Steven, I’ve always felt that the only real men are the dark men.” Ze daaark men.
May the great god Pan Have Mercy on my Pathetic, Callow, Bookwormed Soul but it was at this point that I found myself handing Suzanne the thirty bucks and making my excuses and practically running out of the flat and down the stairs and away, away, away.
To this day I haven’t the slightest idea why I did that. Imagine the story I might have told.
Anyway: who’s next?
Seize the day, all. Seize it.