I don't know if the music of Leonard Cohen helped save my life. All I know is that I came to him late - almost too late.
I was 26 or 27 when I fell hard for New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Cohen's darkly gleaming 1974 masterpiece. As I played, replayed and overplayed those 11 songs, I asked myself - as lovers do - how it had taken us so long to find each other.
Maybe it was that there's something inherently solitary about listening to Cohen's songs - you wouldn't play him at a party unless you wanted to punish your guests - so Cohen fans often make their way to him alone.
Or maybe it's that you have to grow up a bit, to suffer a few disappointments, before his music - caustic as sea-salt and subtle as spindrift - can make sense. In other words, people tend to find Leonard Cohen only when they need him.
By the time I found Leonard Cohen I needed him, badly. I had never been a stranger to depression and anxiety, but by my late 20s my attempts to blot out those feelings with drugs had turned into an addiction to heroin and crack that would soon lead me to psychiatric units, to Hepatitis C, to brushes with homelessness and suicide. It was during those days that I discovered Cohen, listening to his music with the same obsession with which I sought out Class A narcotics. I played him through my headphones as I waited for dealers, as I prepared another fix, as I reeled from another skull-shattering hit, the needle still pinned into my arm.
When Cohen sang about loneliness, failure and fear, he seemed to give voice to the pain I was so desperately trying to anaesthetise with drugs. Strange as it may sound, it never occurred to me back then that there was anything dour or morose about Cohen's music. All I could hear in it was the comfort of knowing I was not alone, the secret chord of grace that allows you to utter a broken "hallelujah" even in the darkest night of the soul. Cohen's words were like the sound of the band on deck that sends beautiful music over the night air as the ship goes slowly down.
And then, improbably, they became a part of the liferaft. When I woke up one day in rehab, clean and sober at last, trying to find a way forward without alcohol and drugs, I turned to Cohen again and again to make sense of the mixture of desolation and fragile hope I felt. I blue-tacked a few lines from his song "Anthem" to the wall above my desk:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in
I stayed away from drugs one day at a time. The days turned into weeks and the weeks, miraculously, into months. On the day I turned a year sober, I celebrated by having an image of two angels from the cover art for New Skin for the Old Ceremony tattooed onto my left arm, as a reminder of the indelible mark Cohen had made on me when I was most lost.
It's been eighteen months since I last had a drink or a drug, and in that time there have been many days of happiness and healing. But there are also days when living without drugs feels like living without skin, and it's then that I find I need Cohen the most.
Somehow on those days his songs seem to say this to me: for those of us who feel broken, there is no promise of perfect wholeness. But a lucky few are given permission to turn their brokenness into song, to let some light in through the cracks by creating melody out of pain.
And for the rest of us, there is, at least, Leonard Cohen.
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