Leonard Cohen was a staple in our house growing up. I would sing along with the backup singers on Marianne, and learned the French words phonetically in The Partisan. I loved it when there was a woman’s voice I could sing along with. His words were so evocative and his voice spoke directly to my imagination – I could sense the woman spinning a spider web around a man’s ankle, and felt the loneliness of Jesus in his tower, surrounded by a dark ocean. I wondered why he was saying goodbye to Marianne when he felt such tenderness for her. His words fed my young imagination and my love of music, and years later those same songs still strike me with their depth and move me to tears.
When I went on my first ever road trip with Lung Liu to the Salton Sea, we stayed in a city of squatters called Slab City. There, I met Charlie, an artist and composer who had created something of a live-in art installation there. We camped in the wash near his sculpture garden, and every morning my friend and I would look over at the morning sun shining on the glittering bits of metal and wonder if we were welcome to go stroll through it.
One night, Builder Bill managed to solder a power supply to an old synthesizer he had kicking around and got me set up to play on his stage. It was a magical night, full moon rising, and even though there were only a few friends in the audience, I felt so connected up there. I left for a little walk, and as I walked away I noticed a man slowly and very methodically unpacking his guitars. When I returned, he was singing in a slow, meditative voice and I felt called to join in. I climbed on stage and slipped my voice in with his. At the end of the song, I asked him who wrote it, and he answered, “Leonard Cohen”. I lit up. When I asked what other songs he knew by him, he replied, “oh, everything”. And so we played into the evening, under the moon, and there was magic in our voices and those songs that I have yet to experience again.
Charlie and I were fast friends, and each night we would stay up late around the campfire passing his guitar back and forth and sharing the songs that were most dear to us. As the sun neared the horizon I would say goodnight and walk back to camp to join my friends. “Famous Blue Raincoat” was the first complete song we ever sang together.
Charlie and I weren’t friends when he died, though I always thought that we would be again someday. Whenever I sing this song, I still imagine him in the desert, unreachable, playing his own song under the night sky. I still miss him.
Meeting Charlie shook me to my core and changed me forever, and now that he is gone I am even more grateful for the songs that we shared, and which I still hold dear to my heart. I always meant to write a letter to Leonard Cohen thanking him for the songs that brought us together and fed my love for music. Now that it’s too late for that, I’ll just leave this here. Thank you, Leonard Cohen.