Why I Love Leonard Cohen


At Cambridge University in the 1960s, we marched against the Vietnam War to the songs of Bob Dylan, but romanced young ladies to the poetry and songs of Leonard Cohen. Together, the poetry of Dylan and Cohen was the epitome of good taste—demanding political commitment, spiritual yearning, romantic obsession, and a great deal of intense discussion.

I was introduced to Leonard Cohen’s music by a friend the day I arrived at Cambridge in September 1968. I immediately went out and bought his first long-playing record, The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Then I listened to him obsessively, every night for three years—always waiting for the next album like a child. Yet I never saw him perform live until this fall, forty-four years later.

Cohen, now seventy-eight, has just finished a European tour and begun a thirty-five city American tour—a coup considering that American audiences have been on the whole less appreciative of his work than their European counterparts. The performance I saw in Madrid was heart-rending, pure euphoria and exultation. He played for four hours and the Spanish audience would not let him go. At the end he skipped off the stage like a young man. His latest album, Old Ideas, reached number one on the charts in eleven countries, from Belgium to Poland to Canada. Many of his most ardent fans do not speak English but learn the words of his songs nevertheless.

Cohen has a special affinity for Spain. Last year, he was awarded the Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts, Spain’s top intellectual prize, and at the ceremony he explained how a Spanish flamenco guitarist in Montreal gave him his first guitar at age fifteen and taught him how to play. His first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published in 1954, when he was just twenty years old, and was inspired by Frederico García Lorca, who was killed in the Spanish civil war. The book was republished on its fiftieth anniversary and is a continuing point of reference for Cohen fans:

Then let us compare mythologies

I have learned my elaborate lie

Of soaring crosses and poisoned thorns

And how my fathers nailed him

Like a bat against a barn

To greet the autumn and the late hungry ravens

At a hollow yellow sign.

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