Hallelujah Suzanne

 

1968-1969. Grade 10. I was 15 when I was first introduced to the “poet laureate of pessimism”, Leonard Cohen. It was English class. Our teacher was Miss Hunt. She was young and fashionable, more cute than pretty, and she had her finger on the pulse of the late 1960’s. I loved English class, I loved the way she taught—yes we tore literature apart, but she put it back together for us in a way we understood—and we did not resent her for it.

I have the ballad “Suzanne” tattooed on my memory. It was exotic and dark, truth telling and honest. Here are a few of the lines that fed my developing mind at 15, and continue to satisfy almost five decades later:

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then he gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover

 

Chorus: And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.

 

I loved that she was half-crazy, and that she chose to serve tea and oranges that came “all the way from China”. I know that this is only one of his ballads, but it is the one that introduced him to me, and will live on as my favourite.

I heard snippets of an interview with him on television when he was asked if he was a pessimist, and his reply was wry and funny. He said that a pessimist is “someone who thinks it is going to rain” while he is “soaked to the skin.” He also wondered at receiving a Juno award, and said that only in Canada would a voice like his be rewarded.

An article I read in the Saturday National Post part of the Windsor Star by the Canadian Press (no name was on the article) listed a few of his nicknames, the above-mentioned “poet laureate of pessimism” being only one. He was also dubbed the “godfather of gloom”, the “grocer of despair” and the “prince of bummers.” His songs did not escape his reputation—one of the most memorable descriptions was: “music to slit your wrists by.”

He was aware of his reputation and joked about it, according to the article. At a sold-out concert in 2012 he admitted that, “Sometimes, I stumble out of bed, look at myself in the mirror and say to the mirror, ‘Lighten up Cohen’.”

My second favourite ballad of his is haunting. It is phenomenal in that it makes you feel so deeply it touches bone. Depending on the way the song is used it can be triumphant or chilling. I have heard it used in a couple of death scenes on two different programs—and of course whenever I hear it now I am reminded of those two scenes. On Saturday Night Live, Kate McKinnon, famous for her portrayal of Hillary Clinton sang Hallelujah dressed as Clinton in tribute to her (and I believe him too). We all have our “feelings” about the way the U.S. Presidential election turned out but perhaps Cohen’s song can lead the healing:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah….

 

It is no surprise that he was a 2003 inductee in the Order of Canada, or a 2008 inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When he was asked “the location of the creative well that spawned his offerings” he said “If I knew where the songs came from, I’d go there more often.”

Admittedly, Cohen’s songs were not “toe tappers” but I would like to leave you with the words of Diana Bass. Her husband owned the Montreal deli that Cohen frequented. She called him, “a lovely man…”

 

*info for last two paragraphs derived from Canadian Press article

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Published in: on November 14, 2016 at 3:24 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What a lovely evocative piece you have written here capturing the essence of this ‘lovely man’. I love his music too. Bill and I were newly married in 1967 and loved the poetry and the music and The amazing voice that brought it all together. My choir sings’Dance me to the end of love’ which is another brilliant poem.
    Thank you for this. 🙂

  2. By the way, that was some English teacher you were lucky enough to have! 🙂

  3. Although his music was not my top ten list….his prose as you said, touches bone. The world and especially Canadians have lost a unique voice. Thanks for a wonderful tribute.

  4. I’ve learned more about Cohen today. Thank you.
    Lovely esssay


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