Music by VICE

What Leonard Cohen Taught My Dad (and Me) About Being a Man

The intellectual, detached masculinity of Cohen's music bridged a gap between generations.

by Phil Witmer
Nov 14 2016, 3:40pm

When my father and I went to see Leonard Cohen almost exactly four years ago at Toronto's Air Canada Centre, it was easily the quietest show I've ever been to. I don't mean that the boomer-age audience was silent – they clapped and cheered politely – I mean it was literally mixed at a way lower level than any concert I've seen before or since. For someone used to the at-times obnoxious volumes of rap and local rock shows, the ability to sit down(!) and enjoy a legend work his enchantment on the crowd was valuable. And Cohen was in full flight, kneeling reverentially before his instrumental soloists, bounding away from and back to the stage as the multiple encores carried on, and, of course, he was possibly the funniest frontman of all time. Cohen approached the end of his life with the same wry bemusement he'd used that night, quipping during a listening session last month that he'd rather choose to live forever. I remember reading that quote and chuckling to myself. "That's the Leonard my father introduced me to," I thought, impossibly hoping that the joke would be reality.

My dad is a profoundly chill human being. He's not a tall man, nor an especially powerful or imposing figure. I can count on one hand the amount of times I've seen him get visibly, uncontrollably angry or sad. As my first male role model, he set a default of stoicism that I've continued to follow to this day. He also set my musical template, introducing me to the entire world of popular music through 70s prog rock. As with the rest of these dad-rockers, Leonard's music wasn't foisted on me, I was drawn to it. Specifically, it was "First We Take Manhattan," that vampiric voice speaking of conspiracy and dark things to come. It was scary, but also – and this is the most common element in all the Cohen eulogies – badass as hell.

In my mind, Leonard Cohen and my dad aren't exactly one and the same, but more like close relatives. Leonard has always been like a distant uncle to my family, an infrequent visitor but someone who brings with them a familiar quirkiness that's comforting. That feeling won't vanish–his music and image will live on indefinitely–but the fresh loss is a persistent ache for now. What I'll miss most, what I associate most with my father, is how Leonard set a path to manhood that didn't rely on aggression or force, instead focusing on quiet presence.

Cohen's brand of masculinity was always heavily intellectualized. He wrote about carnality with a frankness that became so awkward in his later years that it looped back around to being endearing. Who else would sing the extremely anti-erotic words "anal sex" in a song that otherwise dealt with a vague, impending apocalypse for humanity? When he wrote of the women in his life, he did not treat them as trophies to capture or vile temptresses that had betrayed him, as many male rock songwriters in the era did (and still do). Instead, they were spiritual beings, entangled with his own cosmic destiny as they were with his physical body. Cohen's famous meetings with Marianne and Suzanne are written as serendipitous and mutual.

If there is one song that serves as a mission statement for the Cohen brand, it's "I'm Your Man." Granted, much of the song's eponymous parent album serves as the ultimate crystallization of Fedora Cohen, the sharply-dressed doomsayer who grumbled over chintzy karaoke instrumentals in the 80s and 90s. This is the Leonard I knew the best: funny, unflappable, and constantly, deeply self-aware. "If you want a boxer, I'll step into the ring for you / and if you need a doctor, I'll examine every inch of you," he intones as the canned jazz backing swings along. The juxtaposition of Cohen pledging his loyalty to a partner even as his stereotypically masculine roles and sweet-talk (not to mention the music) become more ridiculous is the artistic intent of a man who knows what it means to be a "traditional" man but didn't care for it. Sex was not a power ploy for him, it was a ritual. The trappings of the gentleman were played with and ultimately used in service of a character that was able to traverse Cohen's thematic obsessions with ease of slipping in and out of a suit.

The night the world found out that Leonard had died, I thought of my dad before anyone else. He was his typical reserved self when I talked to him about it. His sole statement was a matter-of-factly delivered "I'm upset." My mother would tell me the next day that he'd been up for most of the night browsing Cohen videos on YouTube, quietly reflecting on the impact this man had on his life, perhaps. I know I was doing something similar, marvelling at the tower of song that would now have no new floors added to it. My dad has been listening to Leonard Cohen longer than any musician in his life, since he was a teenager working on his parents' farmhouse in a tiny Swiss village. He's 62 now. I'm 25. I hope to keep learning from Leonard as long as he has.

Phil is waiting for the miracle to come. He's on Twitter.