“I cried for you this morning / And I’ll cry for you again”: Mourning Leonard Cohen
By Charlotte Fillmore-Handlon | November 24th, 2016
“Did I ever love you / Was it ever settled / Was it ever over / And is it still raining / Back in November” – Leonard Cohen, “Did I Ever Love You”
It was raining in November the night I learned Leonard Cohen had died: November 10, 2016. By the time the news broke, Montreal’s patron saint had been laid to rest. Our man was back home. I was playing pinball when I found out. I was having one of my all-time greatest games on Old Chicago, an electromechanical pinball machine from 1976. I had played three of five balls, had a score of over 75,000, and had earned a replay when I was ushered into the back room of the Montreal pinball bar my partner co-owns. “Is everything okay?” I asked with trepidation, unsure of what was going on. “No,” my friend Justin answered, “Leonard Cohen died.”
Cohen loved pinball. In Beautiful Losers, he paid homage to the “yellow pinball machines of ancient variety” of the Main Shooting and Game Alley, “an amusement arcade on St. Lawrence Boulevard” (253). It felt like my life was coming full circle when I rediscovered this passage. We had just opened a pinball bar on St. Laurent Boulevard, North Star Machines à Piastres. Cohen must come and play. I later wrote in my condolence message to Cohen at the Grande Bibliothèque, “I have been the one whispering ‘Come back home … we have pinball to play.’” The Columbia record executive who signed Cohen, John Hammond, related to Cohen as “a completely weird guy, who liked to go around the streets of Montreal and play pinball. And I liked to play pinball, too, so that was a great bond that we had.” I thought pinball could be part of our bond too. In the 1965 National Film Board documentary Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, Cohen enters an arcade on St. Laurent Boulevard and plays an electromechanical rifle arcade game. Perhaps it’s the same game mentioned in Beautiful Losers, Williams’ De Luxe Polar Hunt. A photo of Cohen playing a Monster Bash pinball machine while on tour in Copenhagen in 2008 circulates through Cohen fan circles and amongst pinball players. I like to think that pinball is actually Cohen’s favourite game.
“You got me singing / Even tho’ it all looks grim / You got me singing / The Hallelujah hymn”
– Leonard Cohen, “You Got Me Singing”
Cohen had been hinting at his pending death. First it was subtle, and then it became more overt. I was in denial. Rumours began gaining steam with the death of Cohen’s muse Marianne Ihlen in July 2016. Alerted that Marianne was in her final days, Cohen penned her a letter. His written words one of the last things Marianne heard: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” I don’t think any of us truly realized how close behind he was. The night we all caught word of his passing, I spun a narrative based on stories of soul mates that cannot face living after the other has departed. It’s a consoling, romantic story that eased our pain. After all, we are all just spinning stories; there’s no such thing as truth.
After Marianne’s death came Cohen’s 82nd birthday, a new album You Want it Darker, and an interview with David Remnick, published in The New Yorker weeks before his death. The article is extensive, beautiful, and touching. Buried at the end is a confession: “I am ready to die.” My denial remained unshakable, and I swear every time I read that article my brain refused to witness the phrase. It was only when “Leonard Cohen” was trending on Facebook that I became conscious of this confession. I refused to believe it. After all, fans have been worried about Cohen’s imminent death for decades. You Want it Darker was released shortly after the article was published. The title track contained the chorus, “Hineni Hineni / I’m ready my Lord.” I felt chills the first time I heard it. Still, Cohen has been writing and singing about death throughout his entire career. As Remnick reflected, “Cohen’s songs are death-haunted, but then they have been since his earliest verses.” I was reassured several days later when Cohen retracted his confession at a listening party of You Want it Darker in Los Angeles. Speaking in a deep whisper, his voice struggling for breath, he declared:
Uh, I said I was ready to die recently … And I think I was exaggerating. I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever … I hope we can do this again. I intend to stick around until 120. (qtd. in Willman)
He told me what I needed to hear.
“The party’s over / But I’ve landed on my feet / I’ll be standing on this corner / Where there used to be a street”
– Leonard Cohen, “A Street”
As the evening of November 10 wore on, I heard news of a vigil at the doorstep of Cohen’s Plateau home. Over the years I often altered my course so I could walk past his doorstep, wondering if he was home and if I should ring his bell; I was carrying a bottle of red wine after all. I moved back to Montreal in 2011 to pursue my PhD studies and write my dissertation on Cohen. I entertained romantic images of writing in Bagel Etc. Cohen would come in and I would smile shyly at him. He would nod his head. Of course this was all just fanciful thought and life happened – a wedding, a move out of the Plateau, a divorce, a reconnection with an old love, and now Cohen’s death.
“Let’s all go to Montreal and stand out outside Leonard Cohen’s house / If we stand there long enough, Leonard will turn on a light / Leonard turn on a light” –Rae Spoon, “There’s a Light (It’s not for everyone).
We arrived at the vigil in the early hours of Friday morning. A small group of people remained, camped out in the street. In cracked voices, they began singing “Bird on a Wire.” Someone had hung a string of letters across Cohen’s front door that read, “Hallelujah.” Candles were lit and flowers laid. Cohen’s death became frighteningly real. I hesitated to get close and hung back while tears involuntarily ran down my cheeks in an endless stream. It was powerful, the energy intense. After the singing of “Bird on a Wire” ended, I ached to leave. All of a sudden I felt raindrops mixing with the tears on my face. It was a warm night. As I walked back over to St. Laurent Boulevard to catch a cab, it began to pour rain. It was still raining in November.
“The birds they sang / at the break of day / Start again / I heard them say / Don’t dwell on what has passed away”
– Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”
Cohen, Leonard. Beautiful Losers. 1966. McClelland & Stewart, 1991.
Carenza III, Joseph S. LC plays Monster Bash – Front Hotel – Copenhagen, Denmark. 2008. Photograph. Flickr. Web. 16 November 2016.
“Interview with John Hammond and Leonard Cohen.” BBC 20 September 1986. Transcribed by Elizabeth Bacon-Smith. Leonard Cohen Files. Accessed 16 November 2016.
Kreps, Daniel. “Leonard Cohen Penned Letter to ‘So Long, Marianne’ Muse Before Her Death.” Rolling Stone, 7 August 2016. Web. 16 November 2016.
Willman, Chris. “Leonard Cohen Corrects Himself: ‘I intend to Stick Around Until 120.’” Billboard, 14 October 2016. Web. 16 November 2016.