| After being away on a silent retreat, Leonard Cohen came over to my house wearing an old beige MacGregor jacket, and his face was radiant. There was a little leap inside him. It's impossible to be sad around Leonard when he is filled up like this because his smile comes from deep places. He came over to share a brand new song, called The Ballad of the Absent Mare. Not every day this happens.
I was sitting at my little rented piano, (the same piano where David Shire finished the beautiful Theme From Norma Rae; where John Cale destroyed perfectly decent melodies...) as Leonard's twelve elegant, spartan verses unfolded. I remember thinking......something miraculous is happening, right this minute, in my stupid little living room.
In 1972, Leonard was the surprise God sent me, to wake me up. Our friendship has disturbed my sleep for a good many years, but now I feel a great peace and fulfillment knowing he is out there, never too far away, like a lighthouse.
Leonard had found some old pictures somewhere. They were called The Ten Bulls, old Japanese woodcuts symbolizing the stages of a monk's life on the road to enlightenment. These carvings pictured a boy and a bull, the boy losing the bull, the bull hiding, the boy realizing that the bull was nearby all along. There is a struggle, and finally the boy rides the bull into his little village. "I thought this would make a great cowboy song", he joked.
There are moments when in Leonard's company, doing something otherwise boring and simple, like sharing a cup of coffee, when I am struck by the possibility that ordinary life itself is also art---- art not something we do, but something that we ARE, and then the "product" we create flows outward from this place. My conservative upbringing and the lawless recording industry had taught me to become diligently fragmented.
Leonard taught me how to unlearn the fragmented part. "Embrace the life of a singer and all that this requires" he advised. (MORE of what's already happening might be another way to say this) Commit yourself, get off the fence, he was saying. My music changed rapidly after I got off the fence.
After Famous Blue Raincoat was released, bass virtuoso Rob Wasserman invited me to make a recording for his album Duets. This new recording was intended to be empty, except for Rob's bass and my voice. Leonard's gentle cowboy story, that "old silhouette on the great western sky" had haunted me from that moment I had first heard it in my living room, with all those visual images, and twelve slow verses. We hadn't included this song on Famous Blue Raincoat because the narrator was a cowboy. But this elegant song was too beautiful to bypass, so I asked Leonard if he would bend the lyric in a couple of places, for a cowgirl, and he sent me this new version, now titled The Ballad of The Runaway Horse.
Rob and I didn't discuss an arrangement, we just "got in the boat and started rowing". As sometimes happens when I step inside Leonard's verses, I got lost out there, midsong. I got drunk on the scenery, and "left the building". A clue to recognizing great music is that a third element or event .....not just one's personal feelings, not just interesting material, but a third magical element starts happening. Like a marriage, not just two anymore, but a third magic begins shimmering. What is that? Grace or intoxication or alchemy perhaps, or something that must remain nameless. Like when you're in an airplane looking out the window at a city below, and you know that two people must be making love down there, and God is with them, and God also with you and your airplane in these very clouds, and oh yes, everywhere else too. These complex thoughts feel quite natural in one's heart but we need poetry, song and prayer to accurately express them.
Leonard lyrically opens the fearful boundaries of my heart, so that the big natural thoughts can blow around within me like leaves on an autumn day, so that the beautiful nameless thing enters me. I wonder sometimes if he has learned how to harness GRACE. No I guess not. But he does position himself with open arms. Whatever spiritual positioning might be required to write like Leonard does, it is probably better left unsaid. Most songwriters allow their songs be born prematurely, before the songs are fully ripe and fleshed out; before they are accurately complex, like the human heart is complex. They let the old cat out of the bag too soon. Impatience causes this slippage. Leonard will set a song aside until it grows deep roots and huge wings. Ten years maybe. To sing these songs is a great privilege.
I was recently asked to write something about Ballad of the Runaway Horse. "Tell them it's not about a horse," a friend advised, tongue in cheek. But Leonard was a member of a teenage band called The Buckskin Boys. Maybe his song is about a horse, I don't exactly know. Best to ask Leonard.
But what makes me feel drunk, why I get lost and "leave the building", is because Leonard's spacious and roomy point of view, his understanding of the alchemy of words, surpasses any songwriter alive today, and a whole bunch that are dead, too. Leonard looks at life from far away and up close at the same time. He stands above and below, looking around and through, opens his arms and sometimes that nameless grace enters. Find lyrics for THAT if you can. Leonard finds them. Rumi, Lorca, and Rilke found them. Not without sweat, though. Don't be fooled by genius, sweat is as unavoidable as labor pains.
As a singer, I bring my complicated heart to his well seasoned lines and all my various parts have been given something to sing. "Non-Cohen" songs often leave me wanting, unless their simplicity is quite profound. Leonard refers to Blueberry Hill as one of those great simple/profound ones. During those many long hours in silent retreat, Leonard must have refined his understanding of the power of little things, how these fit into the big picture, and how the delicate timing of words can release this understanding to others.
My admiration for Leonard happened in my life alongside my devotion to my mother, my beautiful charismatic "significant other".
I phoned Leonard on the day that my mother died, wanting to talk.
"Was that somehow strange, giving one's life to one's mother?"
Leonard's response was impeccable:
"Jenny, never question where love comes from. We have no control over these things.
From a stranger, a mother, a dog, or that perfect mate, it comes from wherever it comes. You were lucky in fact, everyone hopes to find love in the place that you found it."
"I have a concert coming next week, but there's no way I can sing without her."
"Absolutely do not cancel.
Show up and let the grief inform your throat.
Remember Jenny, everyone has a mother, and audiences love the truth".
Leonard is in good health, and his new writing rises seamlessly above previous peaks. I am no longer that young girl who fell in love with him on the cobbled streets of Dublin. I'm grown up now, and his influence has taken root in my life and work. Rather than treat him like a saint, I just say thanks and leave it at that. He's busy. Thank God he's busy, his is a life lived in service to the work. Send him a flower. He's busy showing up for his life. That's what we all must do. All the legendary stories we hear about him, end at that solitary road which leads to his "day job." Who else is going to investigate the messy corners of the heart, to sweep out a little twinkling clue? Lest we assume this stuff falls out of the sky onto his lucky desk, remember, great writing is hard work, even for the gifted.
October 25, 2004