Leonard Cohen and Me

Here is the memoir of my lifelong relationship of admiration with Leonard Cohen, from a personal and artistic level.

1988-92: SONGS FROM BEYOND

In the late-eighties of the last century, I was a teenager lost in illusions, dreams of guitar grandiloquence, platonic romances and (for the relief of my family) some good academic results. I enjoyed many songs that came out of the radio. My main kicks at the time were Dire Straits, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and other Spanish and Catalan artists. I had no real talent or music knowledge but some tunes stuck to my head and there was no way taking me away from that.

I had no clue about who Leonard Cohen was or what poetry was all about, but somehow the words “lover” and “boxer” sounded intriguing and promising, and I was hooked up with those songs which became very popular in the spring and summer of ’88. The album “I’m Your Man” had just been released and that guy who reminded me of Peter Coyote or some James Bond baddy showed up insistently on television. I liked him (and his female companions too) so I bought the cassette as a cover-up present for my grandmother (she was quite fond of “Take This Waltz”), but the truth is that it didn’t leave my tape deck for many weeks.

The years rolled by and the memory of the man who once took Manhattan and Berlin gently faded at the expense of Dire Straits’ Alchemy, EC’s Journeyman, Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven, etc. I was in an early rock band with school mates and my main preoccupation was making out some sense out of those tablature transcriptions. Not strangely, my personal success or popularity in that band was not really making up to my expectations regarding music or girls, so I faced the last section of my teens with some clouds above my soul.

I spent some summers in Great Britain, staying with English families, and that was always a welcome opportunity to hear and listen to more music from a privileged position. In July of 1992, I was staying in Chester and the hosts, a middle-aged couple, were very sympathetic with my absolute worshipping of pop-rock music in general, and Dire Straits to be more precise, because they too were great fans of a certain gentleman called Leonard Cohen. In those evenings of tea and biscuits, they showed me a BBC documentary they had videotaped about the life and songs of him, and I watched it with renewed interest. In that programme, I could appreciate the live renditions of songs that were already familiar to me and, moreover, I got some great insight on the career of their creator. And there and then I got to know the classics like “Suzanne”, “Chelsea Hotel”, “Bird On The Wire”, “The Partisan”, “Hallelujah” or “So Long Marianne”.

But it turned out that he not only had a past, Leonard Cohen was about to release The Future.

1993-98: THE FUTURE BEGAN

News came out that Cohen was going to tour Spain in the spring of 1993, promoting his latest album. And I was quick to get my ticket because I did not want to miss on that.

I was seventeen by then and already had some experience going to concerts, because I really enjoyed immersing myself (with friends or alone) in the crowded arenas and the decibel power, escaping for a few hours of the troubles of exams, family affairs or virginal worries. Around that time in Barcelona there were many major artists which I had the opportunity of enjoying live: Sting, Joe Cocker, Tina Turner, Bryan Adams, and the beloved Dire Straits.

In the previous months, my bond with the songs and life of Leonard Cohen had strengthened considerably. I now knew by heart some of his lyrics and chords. Probably my very early attempts at strumming an acoustic guitar were with the aid of “First We Take Manhattan” and “Who By Fire”, besides “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan, and obviously “Sultans Of Swing”.

So there came May ’93 and for the first and probably only time in my life I could watch Leonard Cohen performing live in person. The concert at the Palau d’Esports was recorded for radio and television broadcasting, so that was really an immortal evening. I remember that the sound was very neat, and the voice sounded really clear and deep, as a difference to other gigs I had attended where most of the musicality had to be more imagined than perceived due to the inconvenient loudness and hall reverberation. It was a top-class performance of something I would not dare call pop-rock, that was pure Song.

In the next years, Leonard Cohen had retired to a monastery but he was not totally out of the media eye and record company products. He had turned 60 (and me, 20) and there were some newspaper interviews, along with the release of a tribute album by some major artists I knew as well (Sting, Elton John, Billy Joel). And most importantly for me, a live album came out (“Cohen Live”) capturing some wonderful performances from the 1988-93 concert tours. Around that time, I was very keen of buying bootleg records to enjoy the magic (and sometimes the distortion) of live music in my Walkman through the day. But having an official and good-sounding record of a concert was always a great relief and source of enjoyment. It was here that I discovered the ballad “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”, live from San Sebastian ’88, and it was an instant love strike for that song and version that would last to this very day.

In 1998, a “More Best Of” album was released but the news from the master were scarce. It seemed unlikely I would ever get to see him in concert again, but in the meantime maybe myself I could impersonate him in my own amateur live gigs or late-night ramblings. There did not seem to be a great future for me in the artistic front, but I could sense that those melodies and poetic phrases had a level of gravity and meaningfulness that would accompany me from then on and on.

2001-06: JORCX PLAYS COHEN

At the beginning of the new millenium, I started my very own project as a singer-songwriter under the pseudonym (or more exactly, the acronym) of Jorcx, later to be known as George Busker. And so I released some demos recorded pseudo-professionally with the aid of colleagues and musical partners.

The truth is that if Leonard Cohen is known for being slow and meticulous in song-writing, so I am. But even though I never had plenty of songs to choose from my own catalogue, I was hungry for recording and playing, and it always helps to stand on the shoulders of giants. So in my early demos, besides some personal compositions, I had a tendency towards recording covers and adaptations of my favourite tracks from other artists, which were not necessarily their most well-known songs. In that vein, I made a demo CD called “Històries Alienes” (Alien Stories) which included Knopfler, Dylan, Bruce, Paul Simon and Cohen material, early in 2001. It included my version of “One Of Us”.

In 2003 I released my first official album of original songs. I was very happy with the experience though it was not really a commercial or media success in any sense. So for the follow-up record in 2004, I made room for showing up some of those adaptations I had done before, side by side with some of my compositions. There I included a take on “Waiting For The Miracle”.

Surprisingly, my album “Doble Joc” (Double Game) was somehow better appreciated than my debut. That was encouraging but discouraging at the same time. I say encouraging because that was an album that I had done with absolute liberty and lack of pretensions, recorded mainly by myself as a means to keep practicing and enjoying music. So if that was well-received and validated, for me it was an open road worth taking, with a lot to learn along the way. But on the other hand, it was a little discouraging that my first record, which I had worked on for almost a year (and a life) with a complete band and production team, was so quickly vanished and replaced for another one which I had done in so amateurish circumstances. But anyhow it is possible that those more spontaneous and heartfelt renditions of my latest songs and all-time favourites contained more truth or emotional value, or at least that was what trascended.

In any of my concerts, I always played covers beside my own songs. And Leonard Cohen was a sure bet. In fact, he had not disappeared completely from the business, he even had turned out a couple of new albums in the 2000s (“Ten New Songs” and “Dear Heather”) which I made myself learn, as some newly discovered scriptures from the prophet. Maybe those new tracks were not as enlightening as the old ones, at a first glance, but I was really fond of “In My Secret Life”, “A Thousand Kisses Deep” and “Alexandra Leaving” from the start.

Leonard turned 70 in 2004 (me 30 in 2005), and that was a chance for a celebration. Having played and even recorded some of his songs, in Catalan adaptations, I got in touch with local fans from Barcelona and around Catalonia (via a Meetup group and the Leonard Cohen Files Forum) and together we organised a small tribute concert in a bar, the legendary London Bar in the heart of my city. It was a very pleasant evening full of good spirits and some long rehearsed covers and others just arranged.

I already had a dozen of my Catalan adaptations of Cohen classics ready to be played. Consequently, the prospect of making an album (my third one) took shape, as a collection of those songs that meant so much and I had been singing for so long in my life. And after a couple more concerts where I was asked to play the Cohen repertoire, it was clear to me that probably there was more demand for it than my own compositions.

The making of the CD “Jorcx Interpreta Cohen” began early in 2005. In that time, I was working in a small music studio as an assistant. Though I had my own motivation and hopes for that album, in reality I had not any budget or record deal to back it up. But I worked on it in my spare hours, and got the help of some musical colleagues who were easily persuaded to come on board for a collaboration in the name of Cohen. I am forever grateful to Uri, Lluís, Jorge, Xavi, Gemma, Cristina, Yolanda, and others, for making it possible.

The album progressed slowly as I cut some basic tracks just me on guitar and singing, and afterwards some participation of piano, violin or female choruses. Early in 2006, I had a handsome of songs that I considered finished while others might require some uplifting from good production and band support. So, best of both worlds, I finally booked some dates in my old-friends Blind Records studio to make the final touches and mixing of the album. And I had the privilege of adding the touch of great guitarist Jordi Mena to some of the tracks. My Leonard Cohen tribute album was now a reality, and it sounded quite decent.

In the summer of 2006, Alberto Manzano organised a string of proper tribute concerts (“Acordes con Leonard Cohen”) with local and international artists (including John Cale, Jackson Browne, Adam Cohen, and Javier Mas on guitars). Additionally, the film “I’m Your Man” was about to be released capturing the same sprit with the man himself. All of this obviously interested me greatly and made me more confident about my own modest but heartfelt tribute project. But no record company seemed to be very interested in it. So for the time being, I made a few copies for myself and to send them out or sell at gigs. Finally, I reached an agreement with a label and they released it officially, but in truth not very enthusiastically.

I’ve made a few more albums afterwards but probably “Jorcx Interpeta Cohen” is my most (or the only one) celebrated of my records. It was basically all thanks to the magic of Leonard but for me it was surprising and satisfying to receive praise from all around my circle of relatives, friends, friends’ parents, and beyond. Yes, beyond. Because thanks to Mr.Jarkko and his web of Cohen connections (LeonardCohenFiles.com) my album even reached the ears of Leonard the Man. That’s been my closest link ever to the master himself, and all this long post should just be summed up with the lines he wrote to me.

Fraternal greetings, and an eternal gratitude.

2008-14: COHEN LIVES AND LIVE AGAIN

All this tribute business, from me and all the others worldwide, was far from being a final word to the works of Leonard Cohen himself. For well-known reasons, he was not ready to retire yet and a couple of years after the publication of “Book of Longing”, the longing was in fact over for many fans like me. He was back on the road and in the coming years I would be able to see him sing live again on undreamed occasions.

The Tour began in May 2008 and I hurried to the first European date, in Dublin in June. That was a memorable and magical evening, but just one of many other nights (Lucca, London, Cap Roig, Barcelona…). In September 2009, Leonard was going to be 75 on the day he played in my hometown. That was certainly a special occasion and the bunch of people who had organised the anniversary tribute five years before, put together again our best effort to make this one a bigger event. Certainly, the concert and celebration brought to Barcelona many Cohenite fans and we planned a couple of days of pure enjoyment including another tribute concert by this same blogger, a premiere of the Live At The Isle Of Wight DVD and a book presentation by Alberto Manzano. That was probably one of my most concurred gigs and a memorable milestone for me, thought it was just an appetiser of the real treat (the concert at Palau Sant Jordi, the next day).

The following years, Leonard continued touring and released the “Old Ideas” album in 2012 with another visit to Barcelona. In a smaller scale than 2009, there was also a nice gathering of Cohenite people and a musical evening with me playing in a pub.

It seemed having Leonard Cohen release new records and doing concerts was something we could now take for granted, even when he was almost 80 (and I was almost 40), as if it had always been that way. By the way, I played another small poetic venue the day of his 80th birthday in 2014 on his behalf.

I haven’t got a clue whether there is any future or substance for myself as a singer-songwriter. But the fact is that my life experiences behind the shadow of Leonard Cohen account now for good three quarters of my years, and they constitute a considerable part of my identity. I do not pretend (and sincerely, never did) to be like him, imitate him or become entitled to speak about him with any kind of authority. I just love and cherish all what I have learned and shared through his songs, poetry and wisdom.

Hey, I remember now I even lost my virginity with the background sound of “Bird On The Wire”, ages ago on a hot summer night… Yeah, this man got me singing.

2016-17: YOU WANT ITS LIGHT

In the fall of 2016, I didn’t know what to expect from another album from Leonard Cohen. The previous one (“Popular Problems”) certainly had not grabbed me as intensely as I had hoped for. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see him live in concert again at such an advanced age, though I secretly wished his zen powers and abilities would keep him going on forever and amaze the world.

But the signs seemed to indicate that the new album was a very good piece of artistry. And I listened to “You Want It Darker” online early before its release, and I was overtook by a flow of pure emotion that made me feel uneasy, because the album was so deliberately sombre that I was uncertain if it had to be taken seriously, as a fatal signpost, or with a twist of dark humour and dramatised irony. Anyhow, this album has a lot of magic in it. Not necessarily for the production (austere and elegant) or the grave vocals (delivered under painful circumstances), but for the spirit of the songs that shine really brightly and genuinely. Hats off.

And then, in the cold of a November night, I get the news. At three in the morning in Barcelona, I receive notification that Leonard Cohen has passed away. Unable to sleep, I get up from bed, light up a candle and reach for a beer and the guitar, and I mumble something over familiar chords. And of all this and the other does not make any sense. What now?

The following days are obviously filled with lots of articles and programs about Cohen and his songs. And I’m asked again to play for him on different tribute events and concerts, and I face his songs once more with all the profound admiration and sincere thankfulness after all we have travelled. Now that he’s gone, the world is indeed darker. But the legacy of Leonard Cohen is immense in the realm of song and poetry, and the world will rejoice in its light, for generations to come.

And this is the story of Leonard Cohen and me.
I know for sure I never had his sweep
but once or twice he lets me sing,
a thousand kisses deep.