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Who By Fire

Growing up, I knew I was going to be a writer. At least on some level I knew. My heroes were not sports figures. OK. There was also the slight chance I was going to be an astronaut or a radio DJ.

My heroes and inspirations, though, were masters of the written word. Isaac Asimov (The Foundation Series; I, Robot), Douglas Adams, Tolkien, Stephen King (IT, The Stand, pretty much everything else), Dean Koontz, Arthur C. Clarke.  Really, it’s quite a list and that’s not really the point of this post.

Then in the early 90’s I saw a movie that changed my life, or at least my outlook on life. It was a Christian Slater movie called Pump Up The Volume about a highschool kid who was way cooler than I ever was who had a pirate radio station.

I was aware of the Concrete Blonde song Everybody Knows.  I believe it was used in the trailers for the movie, but I had known and loved the song already.  What I didn’t know was that it was a cover.

I didn’t know it was a cover until the movie.  And in that same movie I heard a song that wrecked me like no other.

If It Be Your Will by Leonard Cohen.  I had never heard of Leonard Cohen before that movie. I didn’t know it was possible to record a song where the pain of every beautiful lyric was laid bare on vinyl.  

I had to have that song. I had to have more Leonard Cohen. In 1992/93, I was friends with a guy who owned a local record store. I walked in one day and just started talking about Leonard Cohen. Turns out he was a fan, too. He filled in my knowledge gaps and my catalog gaps. And soon I was past casual listener. I was a fan. If he had a hand in it, I had to have it.

But we still could not get the album that had If It Be Your Will. It was from an album called Various Positions and it was no longer in print in the US.

So...being the dude he was, my record store man made some phone calls.  A week later I was holding the CD in my hand. Imported from Denmark.

When I got it home and played it, I wept openly.

Cohen was first and foremost a poet. The singing came at the pressure of his friends.  And I for one am grateful to those friends.

There is something so raw in his words. They have always touched my soul like nothing I have ever read.  I have many times in my life felt like the loser. The outcast. The weirdo.  Sometimes I still feel that way.  But Cohen’s words captured the beauty of those feelings in ways I never could.  

There is a part of my soul that fancies himself a poet.  Leonard Cohen is the poet that inspires me.  His words let me know that it was ok not only to feel the pain, but to write about it in such a way that others would feel it too. That emotions, whatever they may be, were never a bad thing. They only became bad things if you kept them bottled inside.

It is no wonder then, that when I heard the news of his passing last night, that I openly wept. In front of my computer screen for an hour. Listening to his music. Seeing his face. Seeing the mischievous smile.

I saw Leonard Cohen in concert in 1993.  It was at the State Theater in Detroit, Michigan.  My soon to be wife and I were given tickets to the concert as a wedding present.  We drove the 4-ish hours to Detroit in her Geo Metro with busted windshield wipers.

I saw perhaps the best concert of my life. Tears down my face many times that night as I was moved beyond words. I was watching a man who had inspired me to embrace my inner loser. Be the beautiful loser that I am.  And in a beautiful crowded theater, he was doing the same to hundreds of others.  

Riding the wave of emotions from the evening, we drove back to Columbus in a crippling rain storm. This would have been OK, if the windshield wipers of my soon-to-be-wife’s car had actually worked. There were many times I was driving blind.  Not really able to see where I was going. And we stopped and tried to make shitty repairs with gas-station wiper blade refills.  We made it him, but barely.  I think that trip home from Detroit might have been someone trying to give me a sign, but it wasn’t one I figured out until seven years later.

Mr. Cohen, you shall be missed. And I will one day have a green Olivetti Lettera 22 on my desk. I don’t need it for my poetry, but it somehow seems a fitting homage to the man who inspired me in ways that no one had before, and I fear no one yet will.

Thank you Leonard, for your words, your beauty, your pain, your awkwardness on stage.  And your humanity.

You will be greatly missed.


-A.T.

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