Inspiration From the Tower of Song: Remembering Leonard Cohen

"There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in"
– Leonard Cohen 

If, as a youngster, you are lucky enough to find that one teacher who inspires you, pushes your limits and alters your way of thinking you will carry that person with you all your life, placed inside one of those special rooms of memory and thankfulness. I was fortunate enough to have two of them. One I knew as a stern but kindly white-haired man in a multitude of sweaters peeking up over his glasses from behind his desk in my 9th grade English class. The other I only knew in words and music.

Like any pimply-faced 13-year-old I struggled to find identity in an adolescent world that while familiar also seemed to be shifting every day. You tried to grab onto anything that passed in front of you that made you feel like you fit in. Some kids clutched those brass rings firmly. Others, like me, felt them slip between their devastated fingers.

Music became an escape for me, a way to secretly define myself away from my peers and discover new avenues of awakening. Sure, I couldn't sink a three-pointer or afford the fashions of the day but I had a second-hand tape deck and a drawer of cassettes. Who needed popularity with that arsenal?

As it would be many times in my life, when in need of direction, music would show me the way. With the headphones on in the darkness of my room I could shut out the world and become lost in a universe of beauty punctured by stars and galaxies named Joni, Dylan and Springsteen. One blazed brighter than the others, however. It was a pulsar wrapped within a nebula that went nova inside an awkward, confused kid from Cornwall, Ontario. When that kid saw it, the light it threw would illuminate a path he would still follow nearly three decades later. 

That light was named Leonard.

4485389I didn't find Cohen in the Tower of Song. I discovered the weaver of words, the poet, the man with the golden voice in a discount rack collecting dust at the back of my small town used record shop. I still don’t quite know why I decided to leave with The Best of Leonard Cohen, an album released two years before I was even born, but I did. From the first listen, those first few guitar strums before Suzanne took me down to her place by the river, I knew –no, felt!- that this collection of 12 songs was more than a cassette spinning in my tape deck, moving melodies and lyrical poetry through wires passing through headphones and into my ears. This was a key to rooms I never knew existed waiting for me to explore.

I hid Cohen from my friends. I wasn't sharing this secret shaman with anybody. For all they knew I was still the lanky kid who loved glam metal and whatever one-hit wonder dance tune plastered all over the radio, here today but, mercifully, gone tomorrow. Really I was spending my nights with Marianne, "Lady Midnight" and the “Sisters of Mercy”.  I took to our little library and flipped through the cards to find more. I was surprised to see the man I had discovered in music also wrote poems and books. I took out whatever I could, musty books of poems that would reside in my backpack and at my bedside. Though I was going through the motions of a good Christian boy, these books were my bibles: Let Us Compare Mythologies, The Spice-Box of Earth and Flowers for Hitler. Considering many years later I'd compare finally seeing Cohen perform live to a religious experience, I don't consider this a blight on my saintly upbringing.

Discovering poetry in my early teens has become one of those pillars that hold up the foundations of what I have become. There would be others but this was the first. Discovering Cohen led to Frost and Yeats and Dickenson. This led to Atwood and Purdy and Bissett. This would all eventually bring me into the embrace of Kerouac, the open road and a world beyond my backyard. But Cohen was the first stop on that ride and it soon wasn’t enough that I just listened to his music and read his poetry. I wanted to write his poetry.

Cohen’s words and voice didn’t just touch my soul or heart but seized upon a piece inside me waiting to be awakened and inspired, a spot where the synapses were needing a nudge not in any direction in particular but in every direction creativity would take them.

With the master's words close at hand I started writing poetry in the basement…dismal, awful poetry. Yeah, the stuff was atrocious with rhymes that would make a seasoned veteran of the octagon wince, but at least it was mine, all my adolescent turbulence transformed into words nobody would ever read. We'll, almost nobody.

Then came John Firn.

I was a horrible student in almost all academic facets but English class was one place I thrived, not because I could adequately paraphrase King Lear or write an earth moving essay but, mainly, because I cared and I cared ,mainly, because of Mr. Firn.

home-photoJohn was a teacher who believed in me and that was really all I was looking for, somebody who would not only tell me I could do better but, also, show me that I just could! He would lend me books that were not assigned material, call me on my laziness and warmly guide in that way the best of teachers do. He gave me enough distance to fall firmly on my ass but, also, was still there when I dusted myself off to start again.

He was the only one I told about my love of Leonard Cohen happy to find her was an admirer as well. Sometimes I’d stay after class, leaning on his desk, chatting about our favorite songs and lyrics. It made me feel, well, adult when I was far from it.

It was Mr. Firn who told me a new book collecting much of Cohen’s works had been released. With my feeble earnings from a short-lived job washing dishes in a local spaghetti house I bought Stranger Music and read it three times in a row. It was the first book I'd own that didn't have the name Stephen King on the cover and it has sat on my desk here since the day I stepped inside my first office. The teenage me would take lines and paragraphs from that book and try to emulate them. While my friends were playing street hockey I was studying Leonard’s style and writing lines like:

I recently met an actor, who said he was married to you
I understudied his brother, who said he had loved you too
When they were gone I found you, a sculpture encased in a tree
Above it read: We are all dead but the woman you long for is free


I am now tired of love, and poetry and of me
All that matters is that you are combing your hair
With my fingers

I never became a great Canadian poet. The roads of life moved me in other directions, away from the dreams of youth, as they often will. Those words I once wrote remain piled away in boxes at the back of my closet, taken out every few years when I want to get nostalgic and wonder what might have been.

Though that life wasn’t to be, other journeys began there at my teenage crossroads. There was that love of music, literature and poetry, yes, but there was also that want to place my own words down. After high school, I would enter college to take journalism courses. My writing would continue there or in long letters to girls who would break my heart. Unrequited love has a way of becoming unnecessarily verbose. Eventually, after a few detours, the path would return me again to journalism here at Ottawa Life.

And now, with the sad news of Leonard’s passing, I reflect on his influence and remember, as well, John Firn and a moment that now brings tears to my eyes all these years later.

Here I was, that small town kid looking to break loose into something (anything!) but shackled by his own fears and lack of confidence, writing words by his desk lamp and thinking that they should join the egg cartons and banana peels in the curbside garbage. Firn had other ideas and one week forced me to turn in a collection of my “poetry” or risk a failing grade. I shuffled reluctantly to his desk, tossed the work down and mumbled something like “It’s not any good”. He peeked over his glasses as he often did, smiled and said: “We’ll see.”

One week of inner torture passed, waiting…worrying, and then, that morning in class, the papers were handed back. Firn hadn’t given me a grade at all! What was there united both those early influences in a single line of red ink. It is something I have not nor will ever forget.

He had only written four words:

“Leonard would be proud.”