The greatest gift my dad has ever given me is a love of Leonard Cohen. When I heard on Thursday evening that the Canadian singer and songwriter had died, I immediately called my dad. "Say it isn't so," he said. "It can't be."
I had already put an album on: Songs of Leonard Cohen. The first song, "Suzanne," was playing in the background.
"I can't listen to his music tonight," my dad said. "I'll listen to his songs tomorrow."
My dad has always loved Leonard Cohen. Being Canadian, maybe it's his birthright. He was introduced to Cohen's music when he was in college. His friend brought over Cohen's first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and said, "You've got to listen to this." My dad was hooked.
My childhood memories are tied together by that crooning voice, which would drift out of the speakers in our living room most nights after dinner. My little brother and I would stand on the chairs and dance to songs from 1988's I'm Your Man. "Take This Waltz" was a particular favorite.
Now in Vienna there are 10 pretty women
There's a shoulder where death comes to cry
There's a lobby with 900 windows
There's a tree where the doves go to die
There's a piece that was torn from the morning
And it hangs in the Gallery of Frost
The lyrics may not have exactly been fit for an 8-year-old kid, but the combination of Cohen's dulcet tones and the airy lift of his backup singers had a hypnotic effect on my burgeoning tastes. My brother and I would do our best waltz impression, small steps and grand arms swaying in time, paying no attention to the words until Cohen's backup singers came in to harmonize.
This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz
With its very own breath of brandy and death
Dragging its tail in the sea
It wasn't just the music, though. It was the stories. One time, when my dad was in college, he took a pilgrimage to Cohen's childhood home in Montreal. He pieced together an address by combing the musician's interviews for clues. When he finally found it, he and his friend just stood outside for an hour.
Then there was the time my dad touched Leonard Cohen's jacket. It was at one of his concerts decades ago. As Cohen walked to the stage, he passed my dad, who reached out and skimmed the shoulder of the singer's leather bomber. It was the kind of story my dad would start up with, "Did I ever tell you about the time," not caring if he had or not. But this too was hypnotic for me. When I heard my dad's Leonard Cohen stories as a teenager — a time when what little you cared about was announced to the world in a mumble, if at all — I yearned to love something so much you'd go a little crazy for it.
Eventually I found Leonard Cohen on my own in college as well. I sought him out after a breakup.There was something about that rich baritone that matched my mood. While the sound of him indulged my aching heart it was his lyrics that grabbed it. I had returned to that album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and played "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye" on repeat.
I'm not looking for another as I wander in my time
Walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme
You know my love goes with you as your love stays with me
It's just the way it changes like the shoreline and the sea
But let's not talk of love or chains and things we can't untie
My dad taught me to pay attention to Cohen's lyrics, he was always quick to point out the poetry. "Listen to this," he'd say, pointing at the speakers as though the words were physically and visibly pouring out. It was the poetry that kept me listening, searching for the little treasures and secret messages hidden within.
I began to weave Cohen into my own life. He went on tour in 2009, making a stop in Chicago, where I was living at the time. I surprised my now-husband, Ronnie, who was visiting, with tickets. We ate at a cheesy Italian restaurant near The Loop, far from the neighborhood I lived in. It was pouring rain when we left and we didn't have an umbrella. Ronnie wanted to get a cab but I insisted we walk several blocks out of our way and up State Street. When we came upon the Chicago Theater and Cohen's name was on the marquee, Ronnie said, "Oh, cool, Leonard Cohen's playing." And I, unable to suppress a squeal, said, "And we're going!" It was meant to be a late birthday present for him, but it was for me, too. It remains one of my top three favorite nights, just a step or two below our wedding several years later. Cohen was just a speck from the balcony where we were sitting. But I sang along to every song. And when he played "Take This Waltz," I did my best waltz impression in the cramped space in front of my seat, swaying my arms in time with the music.
When we got married, it seemed only fitting that Leonard be a part of it. And so my brother read the words of his 1992 song, "Always."
The days may not be fair, always
But that's when I'll be there, always
Not for just a second, or a minute, or an hour,
Not for just the summer and the winter going sour,
In September, when Leonard Cohen released what would be his final album, You Want It Darker, I listened to it three times one night. More spoken verse than singing, his now gravelly tenor was saying goodbye.
I'm traveling light
It's au revoir
My once so bright
My fallen star
I'm running late
They'll close the bar
I used to play
One mean guitar
I had prepared myself for this moment. It seemed close. He was 82, after all. But I hadn't prepared myself for sharing Leonard Cohen's death with my dad, whose long pause on the other end of the line as he gathered his thoughts told me more than what he could say out loud. "He left a great mark," my father said finally.
We didn't know Leonard Cohen. But his music and his words, his voice as familiar to me as my own father's, was the binding agent that has always brought my family together. Whether we were in one room dancing on chairs, or listening to the same album hundreds of miles apart, Leonard Cohen was a part of our family. Maybe I would have found him on my own. But, like an heirloom passed down through the generations, he's so much more special to me because he was a gift from my dad.