In April of 1970, I went to a Leonard Cohen concert at Brandeis University.
I was a junior in high school, in the throws of teen self-doubt and insecurity. Leonard Cohen understood me. Those early songs, especially Suzanne, Bird on the Wire, and That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, didn’t just speak to me. They spoke for me. He wasn’t just another singer; he was a Jewish poet who shared my loneliness (I can count my high school dates on one hand). He sang of love and rejection and moving on and searching for that connection that gives joy and meaning to your life. What non-football-playing, non-cheer-leading high schooler couldn’t relate to that?
That night, I am totally psyched to experience my personal muse of adolescent angst. After all, he’s like me, he’s not some sexy hunk of a rock star. He’s not a great singer. He’s just another lonely guy. This is destined to be far more than a concert. This will be a catharsis.
My friend Andy and I take our seats. I’m so excited, I have to go to the men’s room, when, lo and behold, I can’t find my way back to the auditorium. I am wandering through this maze of collegiate corridors and getting worried that I may miss something. Suddenly, I hear laughter. Heading in that direction, I end up walking by the back stage artist room.
And there he is…Leonard Cohen, the Jewish patron saint of adolescent angst. But that can’t be him. That guy’s not some lonely shmoe hunched over his guitar or scribbling poetry on a notebook. He’s the leader of a band, drinking wine, and lying across the laps of a trio of gypsy-garbed female back-up singers who are peeling him grapes. Peeling grapes for crying out loud! In high school, the only female who I could even imagine peeling me grapes was my bubbe.
I am devastated. I find my way back to the theater, take my seat, and the concert begins. I even remember that at the beginning of the show, either before or after the first song, he says something like, “It’s such an honor to be here at Brandeis the great alliance of Jews and Blacks in America.”
The concert, I’m sure, was wonderful. The ensemble (why oh why did I think he would perform solo?) sounded fabulous. But it left me both heartbroken and angry. At 16 years old, I wasn’t ready for my cherished illusions to be shattered. I got over it in time. It even helped me realize that the power a poem or song or painting is something that is distinct and separate from the poet, singer, or painter.
But ever since that night, whenever I hear Leonard Cohen, I still see him lying across those laps eating grapes. Only now, rather than resenting him for it, I wish it was me.