When I was a teenager I got my first Leonard Cohen CD on a whim: Songs of Love and Hate. This album, as you’ll recall, is not exactly inviting. The first line of the first song is “I stepped into an avalanche / It covered up my soul.” The most accessible number is Diamonds in the Mine, where he sings as though he has just swallowed a mouthful of steel wool. It was so intoxicatingly bleak that I could only listen for small stretches at a time, but I kept returning because it was all unlike anything I had heard before.
Once I had backtracked to his first albums and started surveying the rest of his long career, I realized that the darkness of his stuff came also with a sharp sense of irony and an unflinching ear for the beauty found in even the most fraught and painful places. He was tuned to the extremes of human sensibility, but came at them with such a nuanced genius that he often seemed like some kind of holy man or a shaman. The one time I saw him in concert, during what would turn out to be his last tour, was one of the most intimate performances I’ve ever seen: he made the 10,000-seat Bell Centre feel like a three-table coffee house. I’ve never heard a stadium so quiet as when he spoke to us that night, during a warm, generous set that ran through 29 songs with three encores.
The nice thing about Leonard Cohen, what gave him that edge of artistic credibility even when he was cutting records with Phil Spector and touring the world, was that he was an established talent long before he ever put a note on record. Cohen published his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies in 1956 (by comparison, Bob Dylan started high school the year after). In 1963 came his first novel, The Favourite Game. And in 1965, two years before Cohen would record his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, the documentary filmmaker Donald Brittain captured the charismatic young writer in the film Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen for Canada’s National Film Board.
It may seem weird to celebrate Cohen’s 60-year (!) career by going back to an obscure film made as he was just getting started. Yes, you should go listen to all the Cohen records you can, including his last, You Want It Darker, released only three weeks ago. But this film has always been a favourite of mine, a youthful snapshot of Montreal’s favourite son just before he was embraced by the rest of the world. Although he was famous for his dense songs of pathos and despair, he appears here as a charming and funny, if enigmatic, young writer. He quickly became a national treasure, and when he died on Monday the world lost an incomparable voice in literature and music.