Saturday, November 12, 2016

Like a Bird on a Wire

I started my Friday holiday yesterday morning by going online and learning that Leonard Cohen had died at some point the day before. His passing, says this news account, was announced on Facebook. Of course, it was.

I had the good fortune to meet/interview Cohen on more than occasion while I worked in Germany, the first time when Bettina at CBS in Frankfurt arranged for us to talk when he was doing media in support of his recent Death of a Ladies' Man release.

I had wanted to meet him since a listener in (West) Berlin, Michael, many years before had sent me his copy of Cohen's Beautiful Losers published a decade and a half earlier (mine had an off-red cover with white lettering) and his printed words had staggered and stunned me with the beautiful violence of the story he told.

I had listened to his music growing up but hadn't fully appreciated how you could paint with that many colors until the novel. It was decades later before I was to encounter anyone else whose written words had the same impact and, ironically, that meeting happened through Facebook.

When I wrote back to Michael to thank him for his gift and to tell him about its import, by return letter, his brother, Stefan, shared Michael had killed himself in jail after his arrest for heroin possession and use. I still have the book though I've not opened it for decades.

For his part, Cohen was delighted to meet someone from American Forces Radio as he had listened to AFRS Athens when he had lived on Hydra, an island off the coast of Greece, and was a huge fan, not so much of the English language news but the rhythm and blues records played on-air.

It was there, he told me, he had decided to concentrate on writing and recording music, undeterred by a voice that sounded lop-sided under the best of recording circumstances and how he listened to Ray Charles' records on the veranda in the sun until they warped from overplaying and perhaps too many extremely warm days.

The next time I met him a few years later, I had a Ted Nugent story for him that made him struggle for breath as I told it because he was laughing so hard. Ted, whose personae at the time was the Motor City Madman and whose live shows featured people handing out buttons that said "If it's too loud, you're too old" (and it was a more than fair warning), had just finished a German tour with Mother's Finest that left few eardrums untouched.

The same Bettina, along with her colleague, Dagmar, had arranged for me to interview The Nuge (even then rhymed with yuuuuge; who knew?) in Mannheim before the afternoon soundcheck. The interview was postponed until after the soundcheck, then after the evening meal, then after Mother's Finest had performed and then, finally, after Nugent himself had come off stage.

All in all, lots of waiting, never anything I've been good at it. As Nugent was decompressing backstage after a very energetic set, he spied my "Recent Songs" tour jacket that I wore so long I wore it out and started taking Cohen and then me, for wearing the jacket apart by the numbers. Turns out I was the only one who knew how to count.

Long story somewhat shorter, he and I had a loud, short exchange of opinions (to our credit, we kept one another's mothers out of it) after which we both took some deep breaths and then actually had a very informative and informed conversation that produced a well-received interview to (at least) my complete and entire surprise.

Years later when I next saw Cohen, I recounted the story of that tactical exchange (still wearing the tour jacket I should note), and he insisted I go over the details three or four more times laughing harder at every telling, gasping for breath finally telling me he should have made me wear a Nugent jacket because turnabout is fair play.

Torrents of words, hours of music, afternoons I remember sitting in the coffee shop of Frankfurt Interconti looking out over the Main River from a window watching the barges and boats and listening as Cohen spoke as carefully and as elegantly as he framed his song lyrics about all the people and places who helped make him who he was and how profoundly grateful he felt every day to have yet another day of life.

I wonder now how much more he had yet to offer and hope, somewhere, there are albums and albums of archive material that have yet to heard and enjoyed because otherwise all that's left is the sudden swiftness of the saddest of endings, and that's no way to say goodbye.
-bill kenny


Lee Hilliard said...

Well, Now! There's a column!!! Thanks (sincere) for the memories.
Made me forget all about Hrumpf-ers for a bit.

William Kenny said...

I'm too ugly to be decorative and too useless to be functional so I figured I'd try helpful and hope for the best. Glad you enjoyed; really sorry I had to write it.