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Leonard Cohen at 30

Revisiting ‘Ladies and Gentlemen … Mr. Leonard Cohen’

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Leonard Cohen died this week, as though humanity could stand to weather one more blow right now. Although it seems cruel that we lost him in the same year we lost David Bowie and Prince, two other musical giants/possible benevolent space aliens, grieving for them has provided some useful guidance in how to grieve for Leonard Cohen. As in, don’t grieve — rejoice. This might sound impossible but it is actually very easy if you engage with their art: watch them, listen to them, read them. They were so much funnier and more jubilant than you even remember. I know there is a conventional wisdom that Cohen’s music is super depressing, and plenty of it is. But so much of it is also hilarious, light and funny in the most unexpected places. Joyful in the strangest ways. The same goes for his poetry, and basically any interview with him ever recorded. And so I offer a suggestion guaranteed to make you feel a little bit better: Take 45 minutes out of your day and watch Ladies and Gentlemen … Mr. Leonard Cohen.

In 1965, the National Film Board of Canada produced this short documentary film about Cohen, then a 30-year-old poet. I have seen it classified as a “rockumentary,” but that is inaccurate; the film was made a few years before Cohen released his first album, or was known as a musician at all. And so Ladies and Gentlemen is an invaluable snapshot of a less celebrated but totally fascinating moment in his long and unclassifiable life, the literary celebrity that predated his recording career. This also means that, yes, in the mid-’60s the National Film Board of Canada put up the money to make a droll, 45-minute film about a young poet, and because it was state-funded you can still watch it for free on the Film Board’s website today. O Canada indeed!

The film begins with a poetry reading that seems more like a stand-up routine: “The other time I was in corridors such as these,” Cohen begins, “was in the Verdun Mental Hospital, in Montreal.” He lets the laughter die down before he adds, “I was visiting.” In the story, Cohen takes off his jacket and leaves it with his friend, then sets out in search of the cafeteria. He gets lost. Suddenly he runs into two guards who take him — devoid of the jacket and perhaps its accompanying badge that marks him as a visitor — to be a patient, and ask him where he’s supposed to be. It’s a darkly funny but also horrific story, Kafka-esque in tone. Just at the moment when we fear the worst for our hero, the story ends with a deus ex machina, and an absurd punch line: “It was only when a guard had identified me that I was able to go back to my friend.” Pause. “Who had eaten my jacket.”

This is a very Leonard Cohen story; it’s about the fluidity and even the inanity of roles, the trivial piece of clothing or flimsy plastic badge that purports to separate the crazy from the sane. It has the kernel of the ideas — the liberating emptiness of the self, the futility of grasping too tightly to any particular identity — that would draw Cohen later in his life to join a Zen monastery in Mount Baldy, California. But it also shows how adept he was at translating big, spiritual concepts to a mass audience, and even getting them to laugh about them. (Or, much, much later, muse on them while watching Shrek.) The crowd is young, hip, and laughs at Cohen’s jokes as though he were Lenny Bruce. Maybe a well-told joke can be a koan for the modern age.

Toward the end of the documentary, the filmmakers play Cohen some of the scenes they’ve shot of him, including a tight close-up of his face while sleeping. Cohen watches it raptly. “It’s a very privileged thing, to be able to see yourself sleeping,” he says. “I think it’s an experience very few people have.” He watches himself wake up, fumble with the shades. “I look much more like a man than I thought,” he says. “In fact, I think I’ve had a very, very mistaken conception about what style of man I was. I think the whole thing is changing now.” That may affect your whole life, one of the filmmakers says. “Oh, I hope it affects my whole life,” Cohen replies. How freeing, to admit this more than a third of the way into this adventure of living.

Thursday night, the songwriter Carl Newman tweeted about Cohen: “He left his mark. He made it to 82. An amazing life. We only get one and he nailed it.” That’s because Cohen got to be so many different things — and he only got to be so many different things because he never clung too tightly to any one of them in particular. Poet, dilettante, rock star, monk, Buddhist, Jew, stand-up comic, guy who did that song from The Watchmen, oracle. The cool thing about watching Ladies and Gentlemen now is knowing how many of these things he was still to become, how few of them he was yet. I’m about to turn 30, the age that Cohen was in this film, and even five decades later it’s an age our society considers some kind of marker of fixity and “adulthood,” when so many parts of our identity have calcified, when the paths of our lives have narrowed. Cohen’s wild, meandering life proved that none of this has to be true. The man we watch watching himself sleep was still three years away from releasing his debut album, and nearly three decades away from writing some of his most iconic songs. In a society that fetishizes youth and stability, Cohen left behind a blueprint for how to live a rebellious, beautifully mischievous adulthood: Never stop becoming.