[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]