Leonard Cohen – as remembered by Jennifer Warnes

Leonard Cohen on stage in 1979 during the Field Commander Cohen tour. 
 Photo: 90060 / KPA / DPA / PA Images

Leonard Cohen on stage in 1979 during the Field Commander Cohen tour. Photo: 90060 / KPA / DPA / PA Images

Leonard Cohen was the surprise God sent me to wake me up. I come from a simple, small town in California. I had no idea that somebody could raise their consciousness through music. So Leonard Cohen shook me up quite a bit.

Our friendship had many different phases. We first became friends when I sang with him on the Bird on the Wire European tour in 1972. I was 23, he was 14 years my senior and I fell in love with him as so many others did. There was a lot of magic going on during that tour – it felt like the world was changing. My world certainly was.

Around 1975 he started coming to Los Angeles, where I lived at the time, and looking me up. Neither of us were after a committed relationship. Of course he had other girlfriends – many other girlfriends – but he always told the truth in relationships, and treated everyone with equal grace. He struggled with loneliness, but he also needed solitude to write.

Photo: Dee Lippingwell

Photo: Dee Lippingwell

We’d meet and go to a bookshop or a music store. He’d show me which books to buy, I’d show him which LPs to get and then we’d go back to my place or the Chateau Marmont, where he’d rented a room, and watch television like we were investigators of American culture. He’d read to me from the Persian poets. Most of all, I remember the conversations: a simple cup of tea could turn into a deep exploration of religion or philosophy or music. He was in love with words, as was I. It was a magical time.

Sometimes we’d trawl through Downtown looking for the best mariachi band, or go and have dinner somewhere. My favourite place was the Imperial Gardens because we might spot Henry Miller in the bar and I remember feeling euphoric because Henry Miller was at the bar and Leonard Cohen was at my table.

Sometimes I’d return home to find he’d recited a new song into my answer machine and I’d marvel at how fortunate I was. Then we started working together on projects and making music together [Warnes contributed to six Cohen albums, including Various Positions and I’m Your Man]. I think he liked a woman’s sensibility and I brought my complicated heart to his well-seasoned lines.

Sometimes I’d return home to find he’d recited a new song into my answer machine and I’d marvel at how fortunate I was”

Leonard didn’t hear himself the way others heard him. I think that’s why he has been covered by so many people: they feel they can enter the songs themselves and bring their own poetry out. In that way no song of his is ever really finished.

When I sang behind him on the Field Commander Cohen tour, I felt that his arrangements were not as rich as the lyrical content of his music. So producer Roscoe Beck and I decided to make Famous Blue Raincoat [Warnes’s critically acclaimed 1987 album of Cohen covers, credited with bringing Cohen to a wider audience]. We were singing his songs back to him so he could hear who he really was.

He preferred his music simple, right until the end. I remember when I brought him the idea of a choir for A Singer Must Die [from 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony] he said, ‘God, no! You’ve gone too far now,’ but I know he liked what I did – sometimes.

 

I went out on one more tour with him, but I didn’t really want to go on the road with him again after that. I didn’t want to see the kind of predators who often arrive with fame. I wished I’d been a better friend and that I had put my foot down and said, ‘These people do not seem to have your best interests at heart.’ But I didn’t do that and I regret it.

I think that situation was stressful for him. [In 2004, Cohen fired his former manager Kelley Lynch following allegations she had stolen vast sums of money from him, leaving him on the brink of bankruptcy. In 2012 Lynch was sentenced to 18 months in jail for harassing Cohen.] He had two children and their mother to provide for, so he just pulled himself up and said, ‘I guess I’ve got to go back out there.’ Which is what he did. He decided that was the best way to sort it out, and aren’t we lucky that we got to see those last shows? I think he was surprised at the incredible reaction he got on those final tours. He relaxed a bit more after that. He got lighter.

Never question where love comes from… From a stranger, a mother, a dog, or that perfect mate, it comes from wherever it comes” – Leonard Cohen

I phoned Leonard on the day that my mother – who in many ways was my ‘significant other’ – died. ‘Was that somehow strange, devoting one’s life to one’s mother?’ I asked. His response was impeccable: ‘Jenny, never question where love comes from. We have no control over these things. From a stranger, a mother, a dog, or that perfect mate, it comes from wherever it comes. You were lucky, in fact – everyone hopes to find love in the place that you found it.’

‘I have a concert coming next week, but there’s no way I can sing without her,’ I said. ‘Absolutely do not cancel,’ Leonard replied. ‘Show up and let the grief inform your throat. Remember, Jenny, everyone has a mother, and audiences love the truth.’ I did the concert. I did sing. It was hard, but Leonard was right there in the fourth row, supporting me through it.

Leonard wrote an incredible body of work, but he was a better man than a writer. He proved it was possible to not only be great, but also to be good”

For Leonard’s memorial a good friend of his, Leon Wieseltier, wrote: ‘My existence has been permanently and irreversibly desolated by Leonard’s departure.’ I thought that was beautiful. Although I would say that my life was desolated by meeting Leonard in the first place; I never found another friend as deep, as kind or as sensitive.

When I first met him I thought, ‘That’s a really interesting person. I can’t wait to meet some more people like that.’ But there weren’t any more. I never found anyone to fill that spot. How could I? He turned up at times when nobody else did. And he showed up in ways that nobody else would. Leonard came along and not only wrote an incredible life’s body of work, but was a better man than a writer. He proved it was possible to not only be great – but also to be good, to be kind. I was extremely lucky to know him, work with him and to love him.

 

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #25 of Delayed Gratification

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