I remember discovering Leonard Cohen sometime in high school. I was raiding my parents’ vinyl collection, looking for something cool to listen to before I went off to class when I found Songs of Leonard Cohen. I’d heard the name before, but never listened to the music, so I threw it on the record player and dropped the needle. As soon as the first song, “Suzanne”, wafted through the speakers I knew I’d found something special, and I dove into Leonard Cohen’s music with that special kind of fervor only found in teenagers and religious zealots. From then on every beautiful piece of writing I ever created had a little bit of Leonard’s DNA in it.
2016 was a really tough year. Losing David Bowie and Prince was difficult because they were…well, they were David Bowie and Prince. But for me, losing both Muhammad Ali and Leonard Cohen in the same year was devastating. It’s not that their deaths were surprises – Ali had Parkinson’s for decades and Cohen was 82 – it’s that they were both true lifelong heroes of mine, whose work shaped me as an artist, an activist, and a human being.
So when Donald Trump won the presidency the day after Leonard Cohen died, it was shattering. Within 36 hours I’d lost my hero and my faith in Democracy. Heartbroken isn’t nearly a big enough word for what I felt.
I soon realized I wasn’t alone.
Leonard Cohen’s music isn’t for everyone. He’s not a particularly good singer, his lyrics are often cryptic and arcane, and to quote a famous album review “they should give away razor blades with Leonard Cohen albums because it’s music to slit your wrists by.” But for those who love him, there is no one who moves them like Leonard Cohen.
A tribute concert was quickly put together and on November 27, 2016. Conspiracy of Beards (a 30 piece Leonard Cohen a cappella tribute choir), Sylvie Simmons (Leonard’s biographer) and the music promoter (folkYEAH!), put on “Songs of Love and Hate: An SF Tribute to Leonard Cohen at The Chapel”.
That night a sold out crowd swayed and wept while an all-star lineup of Bay Area musicians played the songs that had deeply impacted so many people. It was catharsis, a bloodletting, not just an act of mourning for our hero, our beautiful loser, but also a collective wail for our nation. After a contentious year where racists and fascists came hissing out of their hidey-holes and families and friendships were torn apart because of what an election revealed about us as a country, we in that room were also mourning for ourselves.
Little did we know that that night of mourning would be the genesis for a festival of celebration. In 2018 Noise Pop and the Conspiracy of Beards teamed up for the first San Francisco Leonard Cohen Festival. The first night at Odd Job and was a collection of literary San Franciscans reading and reciting Cohen’s poetry, essays, and other writings. The second evening was at the Swedish American Hall where Bay Area musicians paid tribute to Leonard Cohen’s music by playing his songs.
This weekend marks the second year of the festival and this time it’s even bigger. As it says on their website, “The San Francisco Leonard Cohen Festival is a multi-event 3 day celebration of the poetry, literature, and music of the late singer, songwriter, author, and poet.”
On Friday, there will be a night of readings and recitations from Leonard’s body of work at Café du Nord, as well as a few musical interludes. And I’ll even be reading there as part of the festival. So will other notable San Franciscans like Jack Hirschman, Bobby Coleman, Agneta Falk Hirschman and John Avalos.
On Saturday, three bands pay tribute to LC’s music at the Swedish American Hall, culminating with the wild, soulful dance music of the klezmer group, Kugelplex.
And on Sunday, at the Swedish American Hall, 16 artists/bands pay tribute to the lyrical and musical palette Leonard Cohen created. These include such well known Bay Area performers as Cello Joe, Devotionals, Gabby La La & Lila Nelson, Quinn DeVeaux.
Three years after Leonard Cohen’s death the world is still in turmoil. Hell, it might even be more chaotic. But at least we are no longer mourning. What started as a night of sadness has become a weekend of tribute and festivity. And similarly what started as heartbreak and hopelessness in the wake of Trump’s election has turned into organizing and resistance as we march into 2020.
Learn more about the San Francisco Leonard Cohen Festival and get your tickets at SFLeonardCohenFest.com
Stuart Schuffman is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com and join his mailing list at http://bit.ly/BrokeAssList. He is a guest columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.