"The lyric dissolves into the music, and the music dissolves into the lyric and you are left with fresh air. You are left with a sense of invigoration."
I get very restless when I hear people I have come to know these past few years in Boston talk about leaving to live in warmer places. In the dead of a very cold December I was at a bar listening to a girl talk for half an hour about how excited she was about moving to Miami. After 20 years of living in New Jersey and Boston she spoke about uprooting and moving to the Sunshine State as if it were the end of a long bout with the flu. It was unsettling for me because after an especially long and harsh winter like this past one I can't articulate my reasons for wanting to stay in this climate.
But today, on the edge of spring, I remember why I love the changing seasons in New England as I look out on to a rain-soaked alleyway outside my apartment: Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time. The Canadian native has already left us four decades of incredibly moving poetry and songs that delve deep into the human condition. Love, lust, faith, God, man-made power, divine grace- all of these are under the microscope and lovingly described by a deep voice that is beautiful in its stark delivery of carefully-chosen lyrics.
I have spent hours listening to Cohen as the New England rain, sleet and snow fell outside whatever window I am living behind. His songs are, for me, like black and white photography. The beauty lies within the vocal simplicity.
His voice can provide the same intimate satisfaction you get from walking the docks at night or from the soft glow small lights cast on Christmas trees. He provides the solitude one finds in lamplight that illuminates newly fallen snow or a fresh cup of coffee provides as you awake at dawn on a bitter winter morning and look out at the street traffic caught in a flurry.
One of the songs that I think captures this artistry particularly well is "Famous Blue Raincoat." It is a slow and evocative ballad sung in Cohen's signature low register. It is the voice of a contemplative lover coming from deep within the stairwells of New York City's Chelsea Hotel.
It's a letter to a man that has stolen Cohen's love away from him. Just read for yourself the crystal clarity of the opening stanza that establish the setting for the listener.
"It's three in the morning, the end of December/
I'm writing you now just to see if you're better/
New York is cold, but I like where I'm living/
There's music on Clinton Street all through the evening."
The words are delivered softly, as if each line were part of a hymn. The acoustic guitar that opens the song and flows beneath the vocals is played like a piano. My favorite part may be when the lines build to the third variation (Part C) in the melody-
"Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair/
She said that you gave it to her/
That night that you planned to go clear/
Did you ever go clear?"
And then it returns to Part A. The melody is just like the beginning, but at this second go-around the backing vocalist, reminiscent of some North African Sufi singer, spreads her sound out and creates a foreboding undercurrent.
"Ah, the last time we saw you you looked so much older/
Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder/
You'd been to the station to meet every train/
And you came home without Lili Marlene."
The image is so simple. It is like a still from some classic noir movie. A man in a blue raincoat walks the rainy streets of 1960s New York City, past the love-stricken strangers and through the shadows of a quiet neighborhood where poets have been charged with turning rundown hotel rooms into temples. It is a musical photograph.
Cohen write to this faceless man who wears an unforgettable raincoat, a "Gypsy thief" and someone Cohen accuses of treating his lover and all women as "a flake of your life." Still, in a dark hour for Cohen, for friendship and for deep romance, Leonard is ready to put down his sword and his pen.
And what can I tell you, my brother, my killer?/
What can I possibly say? /
I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you/
I'm glad you stood in my way."
He leaves it be with one final warning- that should the man in the blue raincoat return, Jane, the woman connecting the two men, is "free" while his "enemy is sleeping."
And after the lovely repeat of the stanza describing how Jane presented Cohen with a lock of the man's hair he gave her before he "went clear," Cohen finishes his song with one of the most unforgettably simple endings we may ever hear.
"Sincerely, L. Cohen."
The letter is complete, and the final line is spoken like a prayer as the guitar line continues the simple exploration of loss and sadness. The door to the past is forever closed along with the book of memories.
A postcard featuring a beautiful black and white photograph is signed and sealed.