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Songs of Love and Hate, and Mascara

[Hey, do you have anything to do this weekend? Yeah. Exactly. Well, now you have something: you're hanging out with all your friends at Tiger Beatdown Break-Up Music Week. We love you, and we want to play you all our favorite songs! Today, we will be learning about what comes after heartbreak, and why Leonard Cohen will always be there for you, with C.L. Minou.]

Introduction: Dance Me to the End of Love

We all know it’s almost never this easy :

And that ain’t so easy.

1. Stranger Song

It was probably inevitable that I would discover Leonard Cohen sometime close to when I actually did. I was already collecting singer-songwriters not exactly known for their, well, singing–I had several Neil Young albums, and within a few years I would be devouring Dylan as well.

It was the winter of my senior year in college, and I caught McCabe & Mrs Miller on TV one day, because I liked Robert Altman movies even back then. Altman did something accidental and special with that movie; maybe no other American movie has ever integrated its soundtrack so perfectly with its characters and plot. The songs wormed their way into my head and heart the way only Cohen songs seem to do, and stuck with me, and haunted me.

But that was all, at least for another few years.

2. Anthem

I’m not sure I can talk about Leonard Cohen and breakup songs. I’ve only had three breakups in my life, and two were incredibly amicable — one was my first girlfriend, and we’re still friends; the other was the last woman I dated before transition and the relationship only lasted three months. I think both of us knew I was moving in a different direction.

And really, is Cohen a writer of breakup songs? For someone whose poetry and music is so much about love and sex and all its variations, there is surprisingly little love and sex in the songs. There’s afterglow and there’s yearning, there’s aftermath and there’s longing, but almost nothing of the moment of happiness itself, or even anger about not having the happiness anymore.

I am going to do two things in this piece that I don’t normally do. One is talk about the ways I was trans before I transitioned, which I don’t like to do because it’s hard enough to try and get people to accept me as a transsexual woman, let alone someone who was a crossdresser. The other thing is to talk about my marriage, which was my one bad breakup, and broken heart, even if in the end things worked out better than I could have wished.

Cohen is not the songwriter of a broken heart; he’s the poet of heartbreak, which is something quite different, I think. Because I had my heart broken once or maybe twice; but I lived long years of heartbreak that threatened to never heal.

3. In My Secret Life

I had a class my second year at NYU on literature that blurred the line between poetry and prose. It wasn’t a very good class, except for two sessions: the night our professor sent one of us out to buy a couple of bottles of mescal to help us understand Under the Volcano better, and the night he brought in a tape of Leonard Cohen talking for a long time about living in the Chelsea Hotel, his affair with Janis Joplin, and what writing about it meant to him, before playing “Chelsea Hotel #2.” And right after that class I walked over to Tower Records and picked up a copy of the “Songs” album.

There is a certain kind of loneliness when you feel that you must be the loneliest person in the world. And if you’ve ever felt that kind of loneliness, then Leonard Cohen will speak to you with your own voice, except elevated to art. At least that’s how I experienced it. I was living back then in a perpetual state of heartbreak — not just a virgin, but the veteran of precisely one date in my entire life. I had crushes on women that I was too afraid to pursue (probably for the best, since they weren’t based on mutual compatibility or really anything other than proximity). I was on a path that probably could have ended up with me being one of those infamous Nice Guys cursing the women who didn’t want us.

Except I had that other heartbreak with me all the time: I wanted to be a woman. But I didn’t understand it like that, back then. All I knew is that I liked to wear women’s clothing, and had started to do so in public, if only in the grottolike demimonde of transgender clubs, one of which — the infamous Edelweiss — was only a few blocks from my apartment.

In any case, it was only a few months after I bought my first Leonard Cohen album that I kissed my first boy. But that wasn’t his fault.

4. Ain’t No Cure For Love

There’s something about Cohen that is far more accessible than Dylan, his musical alter-ego, the Dionysus to his Apollo, trickster-god to his heartstruck nymph. Or, if you want to be a whole lot less pretentious, there’s that — Cohen is a whole lot less pretentious. With Dylan you have to wrestle with him to find meaning — not the meaning, since even Dylan doesn’t think there’s always one there, but your meaning. It’s usually worth it, but you’re always aware of how he keeps a step ahead of you, infinitely malleable and always just a bit more clever than you.

You don’t have to do that with Cohen. He’s rarely plain but seldom obfuscatory. I think it’s because he touches — often, famously, to the point of self-parody — on the resignation that we humans bear towards our fate. Mortality is always there in his songs. It makes some of the early songs maudlin past the point of interest — but it animates his later work with a wry acceptance that things are going to get worse and worse but that doesn’t mean they can’t be pretty decent for a while longer.

And that’s the secret to it, I think. Losing isn’t irredeemable or even wrong: because after all, without it we wouldn’t have the song. And maybe the song, the changing of pain into art, isn’t as good as the love it replaces — your heart is breaking, it’s going to keep breaking, and every time you try and fail you’re going to get a little weaker. But that’s life, and Cohen’s songs are living raised to poetry.

5. Lady Midnight

For many years before I was married, this was my Saturday night routine: I’d draw a bubble bath and sit in it and shave my legs and everywhere else I could get at and try to relax while listening to the “Songs” album. (I usually got out somewhere around “So Long, Marianne.”) Sometime after that I would do my nails and put on the heavy makeup I had to wear back in those pre-electro days before getting dressed and trying to do something with the wig I wore before the first time I grew my hair out .

I liked routine, and I liked the album, and those were the main reasons I always had Cohen on. But there was probably a deeper meaning there too. I knew that what I was doing was, on some — all right, many — levels, pretty ridiculous. The trans bar scene I was a part of was just an extended closet; my other crossdressing friends and I knew it, and we complained about it, and how boring it was, every week. But we came back every week. Because it hurt so much more to not come.

We lived, I think, all of us, in a state of constantly arrested yearning, even the ones who didn’t end up transitioning. I don’t want to say anything too exaggerated, like “we lived for Saturday” — I had a girlfriend, and other things in my life — but the times I spent out crossdressed were also the only times that I didn’t have that constant nagging at the back of my head that everything was wrong, including everything I wanted or tried to want.

So Leonard Cohen was a perfect soundtrack for that part of my life.

Not long before I met my future wife, a friend of mine gave me a copy of the “Field Command Cohen” live album; I’m pretty sure I played it for her the first time she came by my apartment, the night I first kissed her. I was still in a relationship at the time, but I didn’t listen to Cohen much for solace — I relied on Sinatra’s tough guy sentimentality to help me figure out whether or not to break up with my then-current girlfriend. It was later that I turned back to Cohen, during the ups and downs of the next four years: of being constantly broke, of not spending any time crossdressed, then through the years where we were the model of a MtF crossdresser and his accepting wife. About a year before the end I bought a copy of the “Essential Leonard Cohen”; I listened to him sing “Hallelujah” the first time I rode a bicycle over the Brooklyn Bridge.

I think I knew something was up. I think I knew that I wasn’t happy, as much as I told myself I was.

And when we finally did break up — in one of those lightning scenes, the worst day of my life, the day before Valentine’s day when I found out she was cheating on me, and I surprised myself by having the spine to tell her to leave — I didn’t turn to Cohen then either. Everything was too raw; if I had listened to “Famous Blue Raincoat” back then I’d never have made it.

I listened to rock music; I raged and fumed; I began redecorating the apartment and referring to myself as Mommy to my cats.

6. Waiting for the Miracle

Not long after I began the chemical part of my transition, my ex-wife gave me our piano back because she couldn’t bring it with her when she moved. I could play a little bit, and I taught myself how to play chords so that I could what I’d wanted to do ever since we’d gotten it: play Leonard Cohen songs. And of the half dozen songs I actually know by heart, almost all of them are Cohen songs, and I play them a lot. Those six damn songs have been the soundtrack of my transition. But never the incidental music: I can’t recall listening to much Leonard Cohen at any of the major milestones — not any of my surgeries, not the last day I’d ever spend as a man, the day my name change became official. Not even meeting my significant other.

It’s the other moments that you need Cohen’s songs for. It’s the in-between times, when things are going well but you suspect the worst, or when you’ve started to climb back out of whatever ditch you’ve fallen into. He might tell you that’s he’s “seen the future, and it’s murder,” but you know he’s kidding — and telling the truth at the same time. Maybe I’m lucky to be around now, when his famous melancholia has faded, when he can look back at lost love with the wry amusement of an exhausted roué, when victory and failure flattens out into mellow recollection; or maybe I’m seeing in him the things that I’ve begun to find for myself. Because you can come out on the other side of heartbreak; and it’s not easy, it never is, living without heartbreak, but it’s a damn sight easier than living with it.

Last year my best friend and I got to see Cohen play in New York. He sang his old songs with real but restrained passion; he was charming and courtly (and you’ll never see anyone name-check his bandmates as much as Leonard Cohen). I was about to cross the country to see if I could live with somebody for the first time since my marriage ended; and somehow, in the heart of Manhattan, I’d found the life that the broken-hearted college senior I’d been fifteen years before had yearned for without knowing it and without thinking it could ever be real. I’d been waiting for the miracle, and it had come on so slowly that I couldn’t see it before it was done.

[C.L. Minou is a writer. She inadvertently inspired this entire series by getting a bit crunk with Sady Doyle at a party and engaging in a debate about the hotness of Leonard Cohen v. Bob Dylan. Other wonderful things she is responsible for include: writing for the Guardian's Comment is Free, blogging for Below the Belt, running the wonderful blog The Second Awakening, and being a co-blogger at, uh, Tiger Beatdown.]

13 Comments

  1. Spatula wrote:

    OMG Cat, it always excites me so much to find someone who loves Cohen as much as I do. Or not loves, but, I don’t know, fuses with? Feels that they are living the song and the song is living them? Or something?

    What you said about heartbreak and moving past it resonates so richly. This year, my life has broken down and I have only begun to deal in a way that has been decades overdue: to look at my life-long history of living in abusive relationships, and what it has been doing to me. I lived heartbreak until it was clear that I don’t want to and can’t anymore.

    Now I am standing on the battlefield, shovel in my hands, and just like you said, I can’t listen to Leonard Cohen right now. Sometimes a song starts playing in my head, and then I stomp it out, especially if it’s Dress Rehearsal Band, strongly contra-indicated to anyone with depressive tendencies.

    But I am looking forward to a time when I can listen to him again.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink
  2. Renee wrote:

    I’m a HUGE Leonard Cohen fan, and one of my all-time favorites is “The Singer Must Die.” Best divorce song ever. It’s not really about heartbreak, though. It’s more about resigning yourself to your fate when you’ve been condemned for breaking the bonds of tradition.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 10:48 am | Permalink
  3. Christina wrote:

    This is gorgeous. Thank you.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink
  4. lotesse wrote:

    Usually a dedicated lurker, but – oh, Cohen.

    I was shocked, when I started actually listening to Cohen as an undergraduate, how much of him I already knew. My uncle’s family was part of Cohen’s social circle in Greece, and my aunt wrote Cohen lyrics into the picture books she made me as an infant.

    There’s something about him that goes all the way down, something very important and terribly rare. And while I like Dylan well enough, it’s Cohen alone who has my heart.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  5. Andrew wrote:

    I’d do a terrible job of trying to talk about the parts of this I related to and identified with, but I do want to let you know that it made me feel a bit better to read it and know someone else understands. So thanks.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  6. Crowfoot wrote:

    *Cohen is not the songwriter of a broken heart; he’s the poet of heartbreak, which is something quite different, I think. Because I had my heart broken once or maybe twice; but I lived long years of heartbreak that threatened to never heal.*

    YES. So much YES.

    Also delurking to say “oh, Cohen” and thank you for this piece. Wonderfully said. My current favourite Cohen these past few months have been Hallelujah (and how AMAZING was k.d. lang at the olympic opening ceremonies??) and something called Recitation w/ N.L. on his recent Live In London cd. I don’t think it’s the Thousand Kisses Deep piece I’ve seen elsewhere?

    I’m not that familiar with Dylan but the more I hear of him the more I dislike him. I’m increasingly *less* inclined to listen to/read him. But Cohen! Ooooh.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink
  7. Gnatalby wrote:

    I loooooooove Leonard Cohen.

    When my mom died I listened to Alexandra Leaving on repeat for months.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 3:23 pm | Permalink
  8. Have been tempted to comment on several Sady posts here… but it’s the Cohen which made me delurk. Thanks for this wonderful and open post, everything you wrote about Leonard Cohen made me nod along in agreement/realisation. I was lucky enough to see him live last year as well – and yes, he thanks his band like no-one else!

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  9. C.L. Minou wrote:

    @Crowfoot: I’ve been playing “Hallelujah” on my piano for a couple of weeks now–I’m kinda proud, because I don’t have the sheet music, just the chords, and I figured out not only how to play the melody, but put in some harmony, which got me to go back and try and relearn some of the other songs with a little more harmony in them.

    Also, the recitation is indeed “A Thousand Kisses Deep” but it’s astonishing how different they sound–romantic in his concert form, resigned and bitter on the original track. (He did that bit when I saw him in New York as well–the London album really does a good job of capturing the feel of his concert, except without him kneeling to sing or skipping on and off stage and the whole, OMG, heart-on-his-sleeves love for the audience.)

    @Everyone else: thank you so much! This was a bit of a fraught piece for me, as you might have guessed, but it’s really so wonderful to read your remarks, and also to find so many other Cohen fans. There is something remarkable about how his music can touch people so deeply. Maybe it’s because he was a poet before he was a pop star. Maybe.

    @Lotesse: You’re probably best off just trying to forget the entire “Songs of Love and Hate” album…I listened to it three times the day I wrote this, and also almost set the kitchen on fire. True story. It’s dangerous, I tells ya!

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Permalink
  10. Crowfoot wrote:

    Ah! It *is* A Thousand Kisses Deep! I must have misheard the studio version because I had thought the words were very different. Thanks for confirming.

    That’s pretty cool that you figured out how to play Hallelujah without the sheet music. That sort of thing is so way over my head. Have you heard the John Cale version? Wonderful.

    I passed on seeing him recently because of the price of the tickets, but I did see him at the Orpheum opera house in Vancouver back in the 90s. So amazing. I’m finding that listening to the live album has been bringing it all back (and just as you described, though I don’t remember if he skipped heh). I’m seriously regretting not dishing out the funds to see him again.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 8:40 pm | Permalink
  11. Adrianna wrote:

    after reading this one i actually turned to my husband and said
    “Babe, I’d still love you if you wanted to be a woman”
    He just laughed.
    Feminist love is the best.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 8:57 pm | Permalink
  12. C.L. Minou wrote:

    Hey, Crowfoot, I should learn to check my facts first! It seems that the recitation is of one of his own poems, and he based the album “10 New Songs” off of said poem–so it was a bit more complicated than I thought! You can find the poem here.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 11:16 pm | Permalink
  13. Crowfoot wrote:

    Ok that’s interesting. So the studio song was based on the poem, and the recitation in London was a variation thereof?

    Personally I like the London version best. It’s how heartbreaking that last stanza is – like you wrote in the OP, that he’s not the poet of breaking up, but rather of heartbreak. At first you listen to it and it sounds like a song about love, then you start to see that it’s about loss, instead.

    Thanks for the link!

    Sunday, February 14, 2010 at 12:28 am | Permalink