I grew up in Sligo, way up there on the northwest coast of Ireland, during the 1980s, with a love of reading and books, and a love of writing - homework essays, for the most part. When I was 14, someone - I think it was an aunt - gave me a copy of Leonard Cohen’s greatest hits. Suzanne sounded like the kind of interesting girl we never saw in Sligo - half-crazy, living down near the river, with those tea and oranges all the way from China - but it was the second verse that blew me away:
And Jesus was a sailor / When He walked upon the water /Until then, I didn’t know you were allowed write like that, or sing songs like that. Hell, I didn’t know you were allowed to think like that …
And He spent a long time watching / From His lonely wooden tower /
And when He knew for certain / Only drowning men could see Him /
He said, ‘All men will be sailors then / Until the sea shall free them.’ /
But He himself was broken / Long before the sky would open /
Forsaken / Almost human / He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone … /
I’ve had plenty of musical love affairs since I was 14, anyone from the Pixies to REM, Dylan and the Tindersticks, Mozart and the Stones. The one constant throughout has been Leonard Cohen.
I even got to interview him once, albeit on the phone. Despite my star-struck babbling, he was lovely.
(A few minutes before the interview was due to start, I rang up a mate of mine for a chat, just so I could say, when the office receptionist rang through, “Sorry, mate, have to go - Leonard Cohen’s on line five.”)
I’d seen Leonard Cohen live a couple of years back, at Kilmainham here in Dublin, and wonderful it was too to see him in the flesh - laughing, humble, dark and funny. He does a mean live show, too - three hours plus, with most of the ‘greatest hits’ thrown in.
The gig on Saturday night was virtually identical to the one I saw in Kilmainham, which was a little disappointing, and there’s way too much jazzy noodling and virtuoso solos. He did cut loose in the second half with a brilliant version of The Partisan, and the second half was tighter all round, but I’d have loved something rawer, like Avalanche or a good old-fashioned blast of Please Don’t Pass Me By.
I guess the man is entitled at this point to do whatever he wants to do. Gavin hadn’t seen him live before and pronounced it all terrific, so there you go.
Anyway, it was fantastic to see him in the Lissadell setting, where I spent so many Sunday mornings on family breakfast picnics, with Benbulben away to the north and Queen Maeve’s grave atop Knocknerea away to the south across Sligo bay. Idyllic doesn’t come into it. Even the rain stayed away until the very end.
Leonard gave a nice little spiel to about Lissadell in the fading light, and two girls, both wearing silk, one a gazelle … and how he’d learned those verses fifty years before in Montreal, and never thought his steps would take him to Yeats’s spiritual home. Apparently he even requested that he sleep in Yeats’s bed on the Saturday night. All told, it was all very sweet.
Above and beyond all else, though, was how incongruous it all was. If you’d told me at the age of 14 that I’d be watching Leonard Cohen play Lissadell, that he’d sing Suzanne into the fading light still haunted by those young girls wearing silk … well, it was as likely as the possibility of seeing him play on the moon.
I haven’t a doubt in the world that I wouldn’t be a writer, wouldn’t be who I am today, if I hadn’t heard Suzanne at the tender age of 14, hadn’t had everything I’d thought and known and believed blown away in the space of a single song.
Maybe, being from Sligo, I should pretend that it was WB Yeats who first inspired me to pick up a pen. Why pretend, though?
It was just very, very nice to be sitting in the serried ranks on Saturday night while Leonard paid homage to WB Yeats, and in my own half-assed way, just by being there, pay homage in turn to Leonard.
Roll it there, Collette …