I’ve never doubted the power of books to transport the soul. But time travel, that’s something new. A few weeks back I started listening to Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen and at about a third of the way through I realize I am currently trapped in the late 1960’s.
I’m not all that big on celebrities- you won’t find me clicking on anything Kardashian – but Leonard Cohen is more icon than celebrity, so I’ve taken the deep dive. I’ve had “Suzanne” on repeat in my head now for at least ten days. Skip the ad and prepare to be gobsmacked:
In the late fifties and early sixties, Cohen was an emerging Canadian poet and novelist of middling note. Then he got serious with his guitar with the encouragement of Judy Collins and others, and the rest is musical history.
I hadn’t realized that Leonard Cohen was part of the Andy Warhol/Patti Smith/Lou Reed scene at the Chelsea Hotel because I was a very young twelve in 1967 and not yet listening to songs like “Chelsea Hotel #2” where Cohen famously celebrated his one-night stand with Janis Joplin. Should you foolishly think it’s no longer relevant, Lana Del Rey did a cover of it in 2014:
And everything old is new again anyway. The Chelsea Hotel – which variously sheltered Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Edith Piaf, Sid Vicious (he stabbed his girlfriend Nancy there), Robert Mapplethorpe and, more recently, Madonna – has recently re-opened for business. Not sure I could sleep there with all the ghosts, but it’s an option for those less faint of heart. By the way, Patti Smith’s autobiography Just Kids is a magnificent survey of the heyday of the Chelsea Hotel.
Musically, we all seem strangely locked in our own generation. Just as I was never to appreciate the “big band” music of my parents’ era, I got a blank stare from a 20-something when I mentioned Leonard Cohen the other day. I should have thought to ask what music she listens to. I know she will remember every word of every song when she’s 70 and no one younger than her has ever heard of her favorite singers.
There’s actually a name for it: “neural nostalgia”. As Mark Joseph Stern wrote in Slate magazine (August 12, 2014) “researchers have uncovered evidence that suggests our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers more tightly than anything we’ll hear as adults.” Musical nostalgia, he explains, “isn’t just a cultural phenomenon: It’s a neuronic command.”
So, when I hear Leonard Cohen sing about Suzanne feeding him “tea and oranges that come all the way from China”, I get a surge of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and other neurochemicals that transcend the discovery in the book that what the real Suzanne was “feeding” him was a cup of Constant Comment tea. (This also, by the way, explains why certain members of our family have an affection for Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler that borders on obsession 😉 …but I digress…)
For me, the dopest dopamine comes when Joni Mitchell steps on stage, and discovering that she and Leonard Cohen had a thing in the late 60’s is a rush of pleasure, indeed.
If, like me (come on, there must be at least three or four of us weirdos out there…) you’ve memorized every early Joni Mitchell lyric, you’ll remember her lyric in the song “A Case of You”
“I drew a map of Canada,
With your face sketched on it twice…”
Guess who’s face she sketched? Yup, Leonard Cohen’s.
And, mystery solved, Leonard Cohen is also the subject of Mitchell’s melodic “Rainy Night House”
Leonard Cohen died in 2016, but of course his music lives on. In fact, even the 20-somethings probably hear it without realizing whose it was – I was standing in an elevator the other day when a Muzak version of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” snaked through the speakers. Maybe not the legacy he would have hoped for, but Leonard, you still give me that dopamine rush and I’m grateful for it.
I like the Jeff Buckley version of it:
I’m afraid I’ve fallen hopelessly back into the late ’60’s. Don’t help me out just yet – I’m enjoying it immensely!