A few months ago I tried writing a Tunesday but became so overwhelmed by emotion, I was never able to complete it. I actually think it was a combination of sadness, and the fear that some wouldn’t understand why the story of two people who I’d never met could mean so much to me.
On July 28 of this year, a woman named Marianne Ihlen passed away, and as soon as I saw that headline, I felt a tinge in my heart. A person can have many loves; some relationships work out and some do not, but the love itself, can still, absolutely, last forever.
For Leonard Cohen, Marianne Ihlen was one of those great loves. Brought together by a time and place where art and passion were in full bloom, she served as the inspiration for one of his most recognized songs, So long, Marianne.
Cohen was once quoted as saying “‘I wanted many women, many kinds of experiences, many countries, many climates, many love affairs;” and then later that he saw life as a ‘buffet’ from which to pick experiences.
Many artists have written many songs about many women, but the story behind this particular relationship (and the turbulent yet unwavering love behind it) does something to me that not many other songs do.
Eventually they grew apart and lost touch: “I don’t remember how we split up, somehow we just moved and we just separated. The periods of separations became longer and longer, and then somehow it collapsed. Kind of weightlessly, like ashes falling.”
But, when Marianne was in her last moments, Cohen was alerted by a friend and he wrote her a letter that read as follows:
“Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.
And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and for your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey.
Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
With such sincerity, it is almost as if he truly felt that he was almost at the end of his journey on earth as well.
I know they both lived lives separate from each other, but I have always loved him as an artist for his unique sound and wholehearted, raw depiction of love and life. This is particularly true of his time in Hydra and with Marianne.
Another of his most popular songs, is Chelsea Hotel #2. Like the once permanent residences in Carnegie hall, countless writers, poets, musicians, actors and other artists lived there, creating one of the most concentrated creative environments of the 60’s.
In 1988, at a performance in NYC, he had this to say about the song:
“A thousand years ago I lived at this Hotel in NYC. I was a frequent rider of the elevator on this Hotel. I would continuously leave my room and come back. I was an expert on the buttons of that elevator. One of the few technologies I really ever mastered. The door opened. I walked in. Put my finger right on the button. No hesitation. Great sense of mastery in those days. Late in the morning, early in the evening. I noticed a young woman in that elevator. She was riding it with as much delight as I was. Even though she commanded huge audiences, riding that elevator was the only thing she really knew how to do. My lung gathered my courage. I said to her “Are you looking for someone?” She said “Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson “I said “Little Lady, you’re in luck, I am Kris Kristofferson.” Those were generous times. Even though she knew that I was someone shorter than Kris Kristofferson, she never led on. Great generosity prevailed in those doom decades. Anyhow I wrote this song for Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel.”
He later admitted to sincerely regretting revealing Ms. Joplin’s role in the story behind the song, in a BBC interview:
“There was the sole indiscretion, in my professional life, that I deeply regret, because I associated a woman’s name with a song, and in the song I mentioned, I used the line “giving me head on an unmade bed while the limousines wait in the street”, and I’ve always disliked the locker- room approach to these matters, I’ve never spoken in any concrete terms of a woman with whom I’ve had any intimate relationships. And I named Janis Joplin in that song, I don’t know when it started, but I connected her name with the song, and I’ve been feeling very bad about that ever since, it’s an indiscretion for which I’m very sorry, and if there is some way of apologising to the ghost, I want to apologise now, for having committed that indiscretion.”
I have actually had a soft spot for Leonard Cohen, ever since I first heard Hallelujah (well before Shrek). Many people believe Jeff Buckley created the song but, although he can be credited with it’s ultimate and widespread acclaim, Mr. Cohen was the masterpiece behind it.
Just as I remember the moment I wanted to be a photographer, inspired by a photograph I saw, I remember knowing that music would always play a special role in my life after hearing Hallelujah. For that I am eternally grateful.
I am not an especially religious person, but I do believe wholeheartedly in love. I mention that because Hallelujah is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful love songs. Profound in both its complexity and the alternation between a man and a woman’s love for each other, and the love between man and God.
He narrates the idea that both can be your impetus, but also your demise.
“Hallelujah is a Hebrew word which means “Glory to the Lord.” The song explains that many kinds of Hallelujahs do exist . I say : “All the perfect and broken Hallelujahs have an equal value .” It’s, as I say, a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion” (1985).
Leonard Cohen passed away on November 7. The lyrical world was a better place because of him and there will forever be a hole where he stood.
Listen below to some of my favorites.