It was in August 1967 that I first properly encountered Leonard Cohen. Of course I had heard of him before. In one of my seminars at McGill University, after telling us to go and read some of Cohen’s poems, my tutor proudly declared that Cohen used to study literature in our English department. I dutifully read some of his poetry, and his novel Beautiful Losers, and came to the conclusion that although he was not a great writer, he had a remarkable way with words.
In all likelihood, my engagement with Cohen would have ended when I gave up on Beautiful Losers had I not later worked as a guide at EXPO67: the world exhibition in Montreal. The best thing about working there was not the money, but the access we had to free concerts in the evenings. The night Leonard Cohen came to sing, the café was about three-quarters full. There were around 70 of us in the audience, drinking beer. It was when I saw a tear in my then girlfriend’s eyes that I realised I was listening to something very special. Cohen had just finished singing ‘Suzanne’. It was at that moment that we knew he had looked into our souls.
I spent the next couple of months hoping to see Cohen perform, but without success. Word got around the McGill student ghetto that he would soon show up at a well-known local folk club — the Café Prag — but we couldn’t find out when. I would not see him sing again until the Isle of Wight music festival in 1970, where, bizarrely, he came on stage after Jimi Hendrix.
His debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen, released in December 1967, remains his most powerful work. With that album, he gave an intensely sensual form to his poetic imagination through the medium of song. I have never heard anyone sing about human weakness and raw pain with such sincerity.
His song ‘One of us cannot be wrong’ self-consciously preys on our insecurity to remind us of a few unflattering truths. Its opening line, ‘I lit a thin green candle, to make you jealous of me’, confronts us with the uncomfortable truth that we devote far too much energy to playing games with each other.