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Death of a Ladies' Man: Time Defies Leonard Cohen

There was that night when Phil Spector had a bottle of Manischewitz in one hand and a gun in the other. He put his arm around Leonard Cohen’s shoulder and leaned in, pointing the gun into his neck and said, “Leonard, I love you.”

Cohen, who had taken an interest in Zen Buddhism, was calm under duress. He moved the gun away and replied, “I hope you do Phil.”

It all had been a little bizarre when Cohen entered the legendary producer’s mansion for the first time in Los Angeles. As guests began to leave, Spector locked the door and Cohen wasn’t allowed to leave. Cohen later told an interviewer what he said to Spector: “Rather than watch you shout at your servants, let’s do something more interesting.” They sat down at the piano and began writing songs.

The songs eventually found their way a year later to the album Death of a Ladies' Man, born out of bizarre sessions  and what Cohen would call Spector’s “post Wagnerian, I would say Hitlerian” state. It was a fate the Ramones would later experience, promoting End of The Century in interviews that were most like post-Spector therapy sessions than press briefings.

And when Cohen went out on a press tour that year and asked what it was all like, it was an odd thing that your lead was, well, it was a catastrophe. Cohen's voice was mangled within less of a wall of sound than the echoes of a tunnel. It was in sharp contrast with the clarity of his the smooth and mysteriously dark spoken words built around the arrangements of his renaissance years--the seemingly eternal youth reborn in his seventies and that carried into his eighties and suddenly stopped on a Monday in November. “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld,” Kurt Cobain once sang in “Pennyroyal Tea,” “so I can sigh eternally.”

I guess we all have our first thoughts when we hear that someone has died. And for me it all went back to the saga of Spector and the striking photo of the album cover. There’s Cohen in his prime, with a more muscular build, still looking youthful with his boyish face and surrounded by two beautiful women, including Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his two children Adam and Lorca. The photo has a bit of mystery purposefully so in the credits. There's no photographer named, just an "Anonymous Roving Photographer At A Forgotten Polynesian Restaurant."

Onstage at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thirty-something years later, the author and poet seemed an unlikely entrant. But then again he’d only started singing and making records in his early thirties. Standing at the podium in his trademark hat and svelte suit and tie, he put things in perspective in a self-effacing way, recalling the prophetic “quote” written by journalist Jon Landau:

“I have seen the future of rock and roll and it’s name is not Leonard Cohen.”  

Landau, the longtime manager of Bruce Springsteen, was all smiles.

In a week in which the presidential election called into question the aspirations he wrote about in "Democracy," the reality of mortality hit us once again. Perhaps I had convinced myself that, like Pete Seeger before him, the rules of time didn’t apply to Leonard Cohen. After all, still touring and recording at 82, there were two albums being planned. As he danced with death as a favorite topical subject, he had talked of living to 120.  

Earlier this year the woman he had lived with for most of the Sixties, Marianne C. Steng Jensen Ihlen, passed away at the end of July. He’d once penned “So Long Marianne” for her. A letter he wrote was read at her funeral.in which he wrote what sounded like prose from his next spoken song:  “Our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

There’s a certain song that I took to provide comfort this week. As I reached to play it, it was like I was reaching to an old friend. It was not written by Cohen but by Amanda Shires. It’s called “A Song For Leonard Cohen” and it’s a wistful, whimsical reverie in which Shires imagines meeting the mysterious man with the dark voice.  

 

I wish that I could buy you a drink
And then more and then five
I'd get you drunk and I'd get me outgoing
All week or just this one night

 

Her mind wanders. They are kindred spirits. He is taking her to Barcelona while reveling in the tales of nights with Spector and his revolver, the famed producer serving him ceremonial wine.

We'd compare mythologies

And toast those friends that never believed

That our voices ever had much to offer

And then, maybe, we could go for a walk

And I'd just listen while you talk

 

There’s Shires, misplacing her wallet so Cohen could buy all the drinks. They walk together under the moonlight, their dark shadows getting along. It almost felt real, in her mind as much as ours. 

Leonard Cohen, the once and seemingly forever ladies man, gone now, just like that.