Monk-Cohen (My Leonard Cohen Short Story Tribute)

[This is fiction.]

 

I feel old.

My daughters are – of course of course – a different generation, and things young-me couldn’t help but find new and exciting (the first Compact Disk in its display cabinet on the record store counter – slice of silvery, rainbowy future) are relics that, to them, might as well be Victorian.

I will find it difficult not to try and impress upon them the importance, and even worse the superiority, of these bits of junk.

Not the CDs. The songs on them.

I still love pop culture, but what if everything I’ve invested in it was a mistake? As drummer in a mid-level Canadian rock band, this has been my life. The 4/4 beat. The insane volume. The screaming.

Wouldn’t it, after all, have been better for me to learn Latin and read the classics, or become an archaeologist and develop a relationship with the really old?

They will think me uncool, my daughters, probably using a less uncool word than uncool. Today, if they were tweens, I’d be so over. (Unless so over is so over and something new has popped up to take its place.) It’s terrible to know that, because I have a bit of money, they’ll end up speaking like spoilt Californians. Everyone speaks like that at the good Vancouver schools, that or like gangsta rappers

Spoilt – not a concept the kids spent time worrying about.

One night four or five months ago, when they couldn’t sleep, I was trying to come up with a new lullaby for them. There’s only so many times you can sing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ – and Esther, their mother, had banned ‘Chelsea Hotel No 2’ because of the oral sex reference. I wanted something long-lasting, something folky – a tribal gift. Halfway through ‘Rock-a-bye baby’ I realised how it ended, and stopped dead. I couldn’t remember more than the first couple of lines of ‘Lavender’s Blue’. Is this my culture? What kind of heritage to pass on! Pop and fragments.

I couldn’t remember what my mother used to sing to me, so I called her up. It was only just gone ten. She told me she couldn’t remember, either – then phoned back to say she’d remembered something. ‘When you were about five, you used to love “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”.”

Boy, that dates me.

Man, that depresses me.

What do I have? What do I own?

 

‘..wearing rags and feathers

from Salvation Army counters…

 

Is that it? The real thing?

Mom called back again, to say that when I was little I’d liked ‘Nights in White Satin’ and anything by the Mamas and Papas.

‘Thank you,’ I said, ‘that’s great. If you think of any more, please don’t tell me.’

‘I thought you wanted to know.’

‘I did. I don’t any longer.’

‘You sound tired.’

She was right. Tired is how old people sound, because the young are exhausting them. They use us. We buy them stuff for them to lose interest in, quickly.

It’s not that I don’t want my daughters to make the mistakes I did. It’s that I don’t want them to make the mistake I was – to go with a guy who is the contemporary equivalent of the guy I used to be.

So, should I send them to violin lessons, ban rap music, have a no tattoos no piercings until 18 rule? Should I install a smoke detector in their bedrooms?

(They are going to be two next week.)

I decided to reconsider Leonard Cohen. What was so bad about him? He wasn’t shallow – an advance on buying the world a Coke.

At thirteen years of age, Cohen was my God. His biography didn’t mean much. Born Montreal, 21st of September 1934 – that detail-crap. Author of esteemed books of poems with ornate titles, Let us compare mythologies. Not important. All I cared about was the Songs from a Room long-player, and the clues it offered a lonely boy of a possible future. I know now that it’s bad art whose greatest achievement is to make you envious of the life of its creator. Biggest clue was the back-cover photograph: a bare-bottomed blonde, dressed only in a white towel, seated at a typewriter, at a desk, in a white-painted, shuttered, pale-floorboarded room. Also present were a table, some books, a chessboard, a burnt-down candlestick, a sheep’s skull and a white-sheeted bed. To pick out the important details was not difficult. Here was a woman and here was a bed. The two things could be linked. The woman might get into the bed. The woman might just have gotten out of the bed. And then, above the desk, typed out life-size, perhaps even by that typewriter, were the ten song titles. One of them, ‘Seems so Long Ago, Nancy,’ contained a woman’s name. Yet somehow the information had reached me that the blonde at the desk was Marianne, not Nancy. On another album, his first, Cohen had bade her farewell – so long, so long ago. This was Cohen’s ex-girlfriend! Once upon a time, they’d had sex – probably in that bed. (And this did seem distant enough, from me, to be a fairy story.) I gazed at the back-cover and was all envy. If Marianne stood up and pulled at that towel, it would drop to the pale floorboards. (Women in Cohen’s early songs are more likely than not to get naked, even nuns.) Perhaps, after the photograph was taken, that’s exactly what she’d done. Cohen had then placed the camera down on the table, alongside the skull, and they’d had sex – or made love. At thirteen, I was still working on that fine distinction. Cohen, I knew, must have taken the photograph: there was a credit (John Berg) for the cover-photo but none for this. To be in that room with that woman and that typewriter and that bed, holding a camera! I wanted it all. It was an injustice that I didn’t live Cohen’s life. His ex-girlfriend! There is no expressing the glamour of such sadness, when it seems so unattainable. So long. Past-tense Marianne wore a white towel she could drop, and I wanted that sexual availability for myself. To live in the scent of women no longer girls, women with children by other men. (I’d learnt this information, too: Marianne’s son, not pictured, was called Axel.) Emotional complications far beyond those available in my suburb, to thirteen-year-old me – although my parents’ generation was deep in the blue tangle of them. Being young is all about wanting to be older. I wasn’t Leonard, eye watching shutter go click and Marianne reappear, still smiling, towelled. What more could life hold? What else could I aim for? One thing: to have had it and lost it. Typical for an envy-artist, Cohen’s song of total ownership was one of renunciation. With great contempt, ‘So long, Marianne’ wasn’t even on this album. The photographer was already gone from what I might never have. At thirteen-years-old, not confident in my looks, it seemed entirely possible that no woman would ever tell me she could take no more betrayals. I was so far from female embrace (not my mother’s), and I missed it so much – the fragrance and softness and cold burning of it. This was where one of Cohen’s other renunciation songs, ‘Seems so Long Ago, Nancy’, came in. That the young woman addressed had worn green stockings was neither here nor there. Bohemianism, in my future lover, would be desireable but I wasn’t going to make it a without-which. No, what really got my attention was the line saying that Nancy had slept with everyone. And if she really had done that, then, if I’d been around, she would have slept with me. This seemed an epic promise. All I had to do was put myself in the vicinity of such women and it would happen. Listening to ‘Nancy’, I felt a new hope. Previously infinite distances became at least imaginable, astral. Sex, as far as I was concerned, was the moon. Men had been there, young men, some of them I even knew. Romance, however, was Alpha Centurai. And regret, erotic regret, was probably a parallel universe. Yet, learning from my envy of Leonard Cohen, I desired erotic regret far more than I did sex or even romance.

And I sing these songs as lullabies?

Not any longer.

Not after I’d thought it through, done a little research.

My daughters weren’t called Marianne and Nancy, but imagine if I’d subconsciously insisted.

As a father, what I felt nostalgic for now was my ignorance and my idealism. I longed for my longing because all I had now was having. Unless I started having something else: affairs. Which would be having it all and more. I didn’t want more. Esther and two daughters was more than enough. I idealised my earlier lacks – and that’s what Cohen had done, too. He was such a fake, such a schlockster. It was all a line. He was saying so long to Marianne in the hope that, after writing such a sad and catchy ballad, he’d be attractive to a huge number of new women – all hoping he’d love them and leave them and immortalize them. Poet and novelist wasn’t enough. He wanted the more I didn’t. And I’m pretty certain he got it: singer-songwriter, modern-day troubadour, ladies’ man.

The Cohen of the photograph was, I now knew, the Cohen of the Greek isle of Hydra, 1961-1965. That came before Cohen the Rake. But I wasn’t interested in him: I’d been him, stroked the acres of smooth female flesh until my hands were calloused with it. Maybe his total was greater than mine; I knew the scented territory. No, it was a different, later Cohen that fascinated me –and almost as much as photographer-Cohen had: monk-Cohen.

In 1996, the ladies’ man retired up Mount Baldy in Southern California. He went zen. Entered the monastery.

Now, his biography began to fascinate. Born Montreal. Father dies when he is nine. After a lifetime’s sensual indulgence as a touring musician, gets Buddhism. What happened? Someone visit his dressing room and slip him some beads? He renounces it all. Is ordained as a monk. Is known, get this, as Jikan, ‘the Silent One’. And a couple of years later, he’s back on the angelic streets of Sin City. And enlightenment? What of that? Carried in his suitcase or left behind?

I wanted to talk with him. People I knew knew people who knew people he knew – Canadians in exile, snow-nostalgists. Messages were sent. Was I sure it wasn’t Joni Mitchell I wanted? Two weeks passed. Jikan stayed true to his name.

I wrote Mr Leonard Cohen a letter. One of my people had slipped me his email address, but what I had to say needed heavy laid paper and a smooth-flowing fountain pen. Courteously, I sent it via his management, marked personal. Then, a month later, I resent it direct to his home address, an address given me by one of the more sympathetic people my people knew. It was a letter about sensuality and Godhead. He had come down from the mountain. Was there any point me starting to climb it? Flesh of my flesh, daughters two. I live with three women, am outnumbered and loving every hysterical second. Had women, in the end, been a greater nirvana for monk-Cohen than the empty mind?

Jikan remained Jikan.

I took silence as my answer and was content.

Until I happened to find myself in L.A. with an afternoon free.

I went to his house, which was modest, and looked at the lawn out front. For the first time in years, I felt what fans must feel, approaching me: nerves like I was going to puke through my arse and shit out my nose.

Getting back in the rental car, I tried to calm myself down enough for a second try.

I could see the door, plain enough. There was the doorstep, where I would stand.

But I knew I wasn’t capable.

I’d opened my door often enough on People Looking for Answers – opened it whilst thinking maybe this was the pizza delivery boy, or Fed-Ex with those new cymbals I ordered, or anything but fronting up as myself.

How could I expect Lenny shirt-sleeves to be Leonard ‘Songs from a Room’ Cohen, on demand?

I of all people should see the unreasonableness of this.

I started the car.

And then I saw him.

He came out the door, let it close and lock behind him, patted his jacket pocket (keys? cigarettes?) and didn’t break stride until he’d reached his ride. Leonard fucking Cohen. His eyes were behind dark glasses. He stooped. This was the ex-monk. Those eyes had looked upon Marianne, through the viewfinder. He hadn’t replied to my question, my letter. Sincerely, L. Cohen.

The car started up and he pulled past me down the street. Without thinking, I turned the ignition and began following him.

A left, a right, another right, onto the freeway.

Has he seen me?

L.A. is not a place you want to be tailed.

I’d been followed, too, plenty of times, by People Looking for Answers and People Angry for No Clear Reason, and People who Think It’s Funny to Follow Minor Celebrities, and People with Cameras and Kids to Feed and all sorts of other People.

Whatever he did, wherever he went, I’d be disappointed. Unless it was right back to Mount Baldy. Unless he’d just that afternoon thought, I’ve made a terrible mistake. Unless I’d caught the issue of the epiphany. He was probably gone for groceries.

I slowed down and took the next exit ramp.

What if I’d tailed him to Walmart? Would that have been more crushing than if he’d wound up at a fantastic little kosher deli? Or a tittie bar? Or his record label?

Soberly, I completed my business in L.A.

When I got home, among my mail was a short handwritten note from Leonard. In it, he politely thanked me for my letter. These were deep questions. They took a lot of time, and he was a slow thinker – and an even slower writer, if that were possible. He was sure that when I needed to I’d make the right decisions. How wonderful to have twin daughters. He liked my band. Good to see some fellow Canadians flying the Old Maple Leaf. If I was ever passing, please to drop by…

This was a good man, a man whose songs any father could sing to his daughters.

Again, I sang them.

(..drop by, but call first.)

I don’t even know if I should record this next bit.

A few weeks earlier, my thoughts had become so Cohen-saturated that I even remembered him whilst changing my daughters’ diapers.

Infant sexuality is what I was probably thinking about. Their little slits look like boxer’s eyes, closed up so much the fight has to be stopped. But although they seem swollen they are not bruised. As I cleaned the mustard-poo off, wiping the cotton-wool in one direction, I thought of whether I would be happy for a young Leonard Cohen to witness the nakedness of a grown-up daughter of mine.

No, not whether I would be happy, whether I could bear it.

When the girls were just born, Syph – lead singer of the band, and world-reknowned groupie-magnet – came over and I gave him them to hold, took a few photos. ‘So beautiful,’ he said, like everyone else. Such an unholy terror, I felt. Those hands of his, and where they’d been, and what they’d done when they got there. Was this fatherhood? It was so violent.

My daughter’s cunts. Here, in future, young men I distrust and older men I fear will trespass – or be invited. It’s possible the older men may even be older than me. Imagine that.

We don’t take bathtime photographs any more, even digital ones, for fear that if someone official gets to see them we’ll be arrested as paedophiles. None of that smut on my hard drive. Looking at them, even as I wiped away their practical poo, my eyes felt guilty. I’ve thought such terrible things about women. The girls who slept with me, the underage-ish ones, wanted to – at least in the sense they were never drugged or physically compelled. But maybe larger forces were angry with them. Maybe it was a sky-high father with thoughts of previous wrongdoing.

Being Jewish, Cohen is big on atonement.

I try to be good, singing.

 

 

 

 

This story was first published in my short story collection I play the drums in a band called okay. I was never fortunate enough to meet Leonard Cohen myself.

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