Features

Tales of Work and Loneliness: What Leonard Cohen Meant to Me

"I wandered into Real Groovy Records on Queen Street in Auckland, and saw the vinyl record cover of Cohen’s 'Live Songs' album."

by Ben Stanley
14 November 2016, 4:12am

When I think of Leonard Cohen, I think of the back roads around Karaka and Patumahoe. 

I think of my black 1996 Toyota Levin and driving late at night back from the pub. I think of Songs of Love and Hate. I think of waking up and driving those same roads to work in construction worksites in Pukekohe and Papakura, with that same album on. I think of a uni drop out who thought he was about to blow everything, and an old Jewish bloke from Montreal who convinced him that he hadn't.

I was 22 when I first listened to Leonard Cohen, around ten years ago. There's nothing in the following lines about all the great words he wrote, how cool he looked and how perfectly he aged. There are plenty of other more intimate tributes. This is just a reflection of three months of my life.

I had been totally bummed out for a couple of years before I first heard Cohen. Just over a year before, I'd pulled the pin on my university studies. I'd been doing an engineering degree in Christchurch, and was hating on it. I was failing papers badly, while the booze and general hubris of uni life was bumming me out totally. I'd fallen for a girl who was not only way out of my league, but years beyond my romantic abilities. 

I had a gut and mind constructed by too much Speights and Pak N' Save mince, and an erotic approach that held no shape at all. Getting out of uni was a good start to solving things, but the hardest work was ahead of me.

Outside of long stints in the Kaimanawa bush, hunting, I worked in milking sheds and on farms around Taupo for the next year.

Then—through a mate of a mate—I got a job as a brickie's labourer up in South Auckland. It was a bitch of a job. I worked for minimum wage, which, back then was only ten bucks an hour. The days were back-breakers. The skin on my hands got tough, and any suggestion of the old beer gut quickly disappeared.

I made mix after mix, and carted bricks halfway around LA ("lower Auckland"). I hated it, but by Christ did I need it. My old boss, who I still see every now and then, likes to tell me how he turned me from a snail to a racing slug. He was right. Even when I was getting sharp at my job, I was still pretty blunt in other areas.

Somewhere around that time, I wandered into Real Groovy Records on Queen Street in Auckland, and saw the vinyl record cover of Cohen's Live Songs album. He's leaning back on a wall on the album cover, taking a long draw of a cigarette. He looked like the coolest motherfucker out. The needle hit my groove in the best possible way.

I picked it up to hang on the wall, along with a CD of Songs of Love and Hate. For the next three months, it was all I listened to. No more Stone Roses or Pulp. No more Clean or Straightjacket Fits. Cohen's darkness became my darkness, completely. Each line dripped with the longing and ominous unmoving frustration I found in myself. 

Through his words, I coveted my own demise and immersed myself in it, "shouldering my loneliness" as Cohen would croon, "like a gun that you will not learn to aim."

I drank a lot alone back then and thought more about the girl. I'd write letters to her I'd hate to read now. I knew that I had no chance in getting her or ever getting close, though I wouldn't realise how badly I'd transfigure it all in my head. The way I thought of her was like a burden; a slow heavy defeat of the heart that felt the way old movies of retreating World War Two armies looked. Muddy, depressed, and with eyes too tired to even really see. 

But Cohen carried it all for me, and it was something else: "myself, I long for love and light – but must it come so cruel and oh so bright?"

Around that time I was booted out of a flat that I lived in with two meth-heads in Mt Wellington, and into a converted barn on my bosses property out at Kingseat. There was a bed, a tiny fridge and a TV that wouldn't work. These were heavy times, dark ones. I hung with mates when I could, but I was a long way out of the city now. I had too much time in my own head, and too little company. 

Just Leonard Cohen. Songs of Love and Hate. The Levin. Cheap boxes of piss. The back roads. 

When Cohen died, I was back there again. 

I remember exactly what how much petrol cost, and where the cheapest scoop of chips in Papakura was. I can picture my old worksites I use to work now—the dank smell of weed and the slop of a bad mix in the mixer. How a bad a Flame hangover was. How serious I was and how much work I had ahead of me so that I could go from "racing slug" to something a bit sharper. I never got the girl, though I'd be bound to longing for her for at least another year.

I got out of it by hanging around and turning up to work. Turning up the stereo, too, to Cohen for those few months. I think Jarvis Cocker came next for me, or maybe Nick Cave. The baton was passed.

We all know that even the best music is merely just a travelling vessel for memory, and trying to dig back into it won't turn it into colour again. Instead, in its place is just nostalgia, and a texture now forever black and white.

But you can stay grateful. I have, and so here's a little thank you note, Leonard Cohen. Cheers for that "light that doesn't need to live, and doesn't need to die."

Follow Ben on Twitter.