I do not know who Kenny Richmond is. We’ve never met. But he got rid of a bunch of his records, and I bought them secondhand. One was a copy of a Dylan bootleg called Stealin’ that had a bunch of songs on it that I would only hear legitimate copies of a decade later when he began digging in his vaults for his Bootleg Series. The other is my most cherished copy of Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room, a soul-gripping album, as poetic as any of the actual Poetry I was studying towards a degree in English, and beautifully simplistic, hokey almost, but endearing.

Most people, probably an overwhelming amount know Leonard Cohen through the many various covers of his song “Hallelujah,” which is an excellent song. I, like many other music lovers first looked up the legend with the words from Nirvana’s “Pennyroyal Tea”: “give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/so I can sigh eternally.” Being thirteen is miserable enough, but I decided that wasn’t enough, I wanted to hear that eternal sigh. Fortunately, maybe, I wasn’t cool enough to get it yet, and cast it aside, something I often do for many bad reasons, some good, and wouldn’t revive the interest until college.

It was Kenny Richmond’s recommendation, presumably from beyond the grave that willed me to give it another shot. Something about the starkness of the cover and Marianne Ihlen, his then girlfriend, smiling coyly back at me that drew me in. Judging music is their album covers is something I also often do, and I suppose this time it worked because for the first month I owned it I cycled it over and over again, “Bird on the Wire” to “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy;” “The Old Revolution” to “Tonight Will Be Fine,” and back again.

That first song is the one many people know, probably after “Hallelujah” and “Suzanne” and maybe “I’m Your Man,” depending on what decade they were born in. The song, inspired by Marianne, is a heart-stopper. What a way to start something, by killing you, but it works. “Like a bird,” each word taking months to get out there—the polar opposite of Dylan’s rolling stone—“on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.” That’s the first line.

And just the way the anapests fall in “I have tried/in my way/to be free.” The slowly lilting, always moving compositions fall hard like waves. It moves gently over you as the strings buckle up, the fourth, the fifth, “I hope you know it was never to you.” There’s something in his voice, in his composition, even in the silliness of the mouth harp (also known as a Jew’s harp) draws you in. That mouth harp though, on every song. I imagine everyone hates it.

No one ever gives him enough credit for his guitar playing. Leonard Cohen wasn’t out there trying to impress, but on a song like “The Partisan,” a cover of an older French song, has some of the most beautiful guitar playing. The same right hand finger picking pattern only changes with the left hand changing his chords, falling from the major to the minor, proving that simplistic doesn’t exactly always mean easy.

The infinite power of Songs From a Room is enough to sustain a lifetime. They never get old like soldiers cut down before their time: “I like to tell my stories before I turn into gold.” I often go to this album, or any of his albums when I need something, but I don’t know what it is. Or in the darkness of our lifetimes, Leonard Cohen’s music is the light. Which is why I was heartbroken when I learned that Leonard Cohen had passed away at the age of 82 last night, but not before releasing one more poetic masterpiece in You Want It Darker.

Cohen knew it, like Bowie earlier this year knew it, “Hineni, Hineni, I’m ready my Lord,” he sang on this newest album’s title track. He’s ready, but we weren’t. with four years of darkness to face, we have lost a man who radiated so much light, so much energy that he himself became a man of darkness. Sigh eternally. It’s easy to say that with artists as indelible as Leonard Cohen that we will always have their music. Just because he’s died, doesn’t take away anything. But we say it because it’s easy to say it, not because it’s true. Leonard Cohen is gone, turn to gold, and it’s hard to say that tonight will be fine, will be fine, will be fine, for even just a while.


Article: Christopher Gilson


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