Commentary – ‘Closing time’ for a master wordsmith

Joe McWilliams
Leonard Cohen died the other day. A lot of nice and interesting things are being said about him.

It’s often the case you don’t really learn anything about a person until they die, and you wonder why you didn’t make more effort to get to know them, or their work, while they were alive.

But of course taking people for granted is what we do. It’s one of those perplexing aspects of the human condition that Mr. Cohen made a living exploring, metaphorically, in verse.

Was what he did important? Was he important to Canada and Canadians, as many have been saying?

If he’d stuck to publishing poetry – minus the music – I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. But he did, and we are.

Cohen wasn’t much of a singer; musically, his stuff was pretty ordinary – especially when put against contemporaries such as Bob Dylan or Paul Simon, not to mention fellow Canadian singer/songwriters Gordon Lightfoot or Neil Young. But he had a way with words – mystical, evocative, maybe even inspiring.

Or – as my mother once said, when the subject of Cohen came up, “pretentious.” That was her opinion, and it stuck in my mind. Cohen was ‘in the air’ when I was growing up.

It was a name you knew, even if you didn’t know anything about his work. Then one day a record by an American singer named George Hamilton IV showed up in my parents’ collection. On it was Hamilton’s version of Cohen’s ‘Sisters of Mercy.’ To my 14-year-old ears it was beautiful, haunting, puzzling, suggestive – and possibly several other adjectives. What was he getting at?

Three years later, there I was in Grade 12 English in Fort St. John. Our teacher that year gave the impression she thought us a bunch of uncultured hicks from the sticks and herself (I went to Radcliffe College. You’ve probably never heard of it.’) something superior. Her attitude was kind of annoying, even if somewhat justified. Let’s face it, back in Cambridge, Mass., she probably had never seen students show up in class with cows*it on their shoes.

But I wanted to prove her wrong, so one day when she asked if any of us had a Leonard Cohen album, I stuck my hand up and said, ‘I do!’, even though I didn’t.

She looked surprised.

‘Good,’ she said. ‘Bring it to class on Monday.’

Oh geez. Me and my big mouth.

Long story short, I managed to buy a Cohen album and showed up in class with it. Then Ms. Whatsername had us analyze the lyrics of ‘Suzanne,’ as a class project. I found myself unequal to the task.

What in the world was he getting at? Why was she punishing us like this?

Forty-odd years later, I’m no wiser on what Cohen was getting at, nor do I care very much. But I do appreciate the man, his music and his lyrics. Rest easy in the Tower of Song.

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