I don’t need a reason
For what I became
I’ve got these excuses
They’re tired and lame
I don’t need a pardon, no, no, no, no, no
There’s no one left to blame
I’m leaving the table
I’m out of the game

I’m leaving the table
I’m out of the game

            Leonard Cohen, I’m Leaving The Table, 2016


Yesterday, battling with my emotions, I listened to one of Leonard Cohen’s last interviews, while walking down a Wintry Lavitt’s Quay*. It was cold, it was cold – we’ve had a Northerly wind since Thursday, pushing a white Artic chill down over the country, and I had my head down, my hoodie up and my hands firmly in my pockets. Traffic was light and I was on my way to an early film in The Gate.

At the end of the Summer, the great Jewish Canadian poet spoke with David Remnick of The New Yorker, at his home in L.A. He was 82, fragile and dying of cancer, in great pain from compression fractures in his back and very thin. But although he had to sit in a big blue medical chair to ease the pain, Remnick describes Cohen’s mood as one of ebullience, and defiance – looking ahead to where he was going with a knowing acceptance. Full of hospitality and grace, and cutting a dash in a dark blue suit; the great man was ready.

I found the interview very affecting, I have to say. It may have been because of Cohen’s death last week, it may have been because my feeling of vulnerability due to the new Regime of Trump (RoTTM) that has just befallen us, a discussion upon which preceded the Cohen piece in the podcast. It may be because I’m getting old. I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter.

I do know that listening to Cohen’s latest album, You Want It Darker, which he recently recorded, while sitting in that same blue medical chair in his modest living room, has been revelatory for me. My three brothers and I talked a lot about Cohen last month when we were walking in France and while we were talking I realised that when I was young, his music didn’t really sing for me at all. I think I know why, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is now, and now he’s become of great significance and solace, and I’m just glad of it.

Cohen talked about his childhood in Montreal, the death of his father at eight, and his ritualistic response to that impossible event. Remnick narrates his early poetry; his first songs, songs like Suzanne, which was hewn out of the monumental stone of his own inner life and the lives of those around him in New York City at that time; his crippling stage-fright during those early years and how he coped with the help of drugs and drink. Cohen tells a great story about quitting a concert in Tel Aviv in 1972 because it wasn’t going well. Then, back stage, he drops a tab of acid, and hears the audience singing to him – they were singing to him because they knew how disappointed he was. So he goes back out and begins So Long Marianne and then the acid kicks in and he looks down and sees Marianne sitting there in the audience so he begins to weep.

Like I say: emotional.

I crossed the street and passed the Opera House. A squabble of black-headed gulls were, well, squabbling, over some bread being thrown over the limestone wall outside St. Mary’s Church across the river. Yes, Winter has come to The Mediterranean’s most Northerly city (according to Kevin Barry) and the girl in JJ’s yesterday told me that there was snow in Donoughmore and snow in Watergrasshill. Well, I wanted to say to her, you know, it even snows in Venice, sometimes – but, surprise surprise, I didn’t.

And Cohen was also funny and self-deprecating. After he began to cry that night in Tel Aviv, he describes how the whole audience then turned into one big Jew, one gigantic, sceptical being who said to him: ‘show me what you got, kid, ‘cos I’ve seen a lot and this don’t really move the dial.’ He speaks of the value of invalidation, of his own nerve in standing up in front of others, the arrogance of it, as if his sensibility should be more significant than anybody else’s. And I heard something similar from John McGahern recently.

And Cohen’s response to this was that he needed to dig deeper into his practice, and to take ‘this thing’ more seriously. And that was very moving. It was all about the work. Everything was about the work, the writing. And he said that for every three verses that he has used, he may have discarded das many as 30 or 60 or 80 more and each of these has to be finished before it can be discarded. And that was reassuring, in a way. And now, at the end of his days, he was working almost frantically, finishing poems (50 or 60 new poems, never published, imagine), writing new songs, and ‘tying up strings’ – in a way, Remnick said, that was a model of how we should all live our last days.

I have a soft spot for Lavitt’s Quay. I’ve been thinking a lot about it over the last couple of years, I’ve been writing a book, about a guy who lives in an apartment there, looking across at St. Mary’s Church’s statue of the Blessed Virgin atop it, and over to Shandon behind it and then at the Church of The Assumption up in Farranree on the hill. I got a call from Ciara near Vibes and Scribes, maybe my favourite shop in the city. It’s always good to talk to Ciara.

Cohen was a funny guy, they played a clip of him at a concert in recent years when he described the different stages of men, in relation to their allure to the opposite sex, as being: irresistible, then resistible, then transparent (not invisible but as if you’re seen through old plastic), then actually invisible, and then the amazing transformation to becoming repulsive, and then, finally to where he felt he was now: cute.

Leonard, you were always irresistible, and always will be, even if I didn’t get you when I was young. I hope I do now.

Cohen talked about his Jewish roots, the rituals, and how spiritual things have fallen into place for him in a timely way, and for which he was deeply grateful. His own time with Joshu Sasaki Roshi practicing zen meditation, he said was all about not whining anymore, that the practice was all geared to making whining the least appropriate response to suffering.

Imagine a world with no whining. There would be no need for the RoTTM that has just befallen us, for starters.

Leonard, you taught us, in many ways, how to live.

Then you taught us how to die.

Thank you.

And then, just after the car park, before The Coalquay I saw this little sheela na gig on a wall, near the ground, by some weeds and cigarette butts and flattened chewing gum, and I laughed. A Pagan or early Christian symbol of fertility, of the power of the hag, there on the side of the city centre street, as people rushed past doing whatever they do on Saturdays. I think Leonard would have enjoyed the incongruity of it all.


So I went to a café around the corner, to write some notes, because it’s all about the work, isn’t it?

But then, what do I know?

Listen to the hummingbird
Whose wings you cannot see
Listen to the hummingbird
Don’t listen to me.

Listen to the butterfly
Whose days but number three
Listen to the butterfly
Don’t listen to me.

Listen to the mind of God
Which doesn’t need to be
Listen to the mind of God
Don’t listen to me.

            Leonard Cohen, Unfinished Song, 2016


Top photo: Graeme Mitchell, for The New Yorker, September 2016

* It’s on The New Yorker Podcast if you’re interested, you can download it free from iTunes.