So long, my Marianne.
Leonard Cohen’s greatest album, Songs from a Room (1969) commemorates his time in the Greek island Hydra with Marianne, the primary muse in Cohen’s oeuvre. In the famous back cover photo, Marianne is shown seated, pantless, at a table typing on his typewriter. The myth of lifelong affairs and trysts tend to have a patriarchal spin, i.e. fantasy fucking, so this contributor will stop short — only to say that some 40 years later, in an office, he was to photoshop her out for reasons unknown, yet vaguely painful, after recent failures in his own relationships (note plural, ad infin). He, your kind third person, would earnestly play the latter’s songs on a nylon guitar similar to his, whisper verses as him, in effort to seduce them — the birds on wires, the pantless tarts, the Joan of Arcs — into bed. This has never worked.
So it is not the business of beds, but chairs, it seems that I am in. One may notice that his room is similar in arrangement to Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles, though the latter never had such pretty guests. (The grimness of modernist painting may well be embodied by Van Gogh’s empty chair in that room.) The single grainy black and white photo of Marianne, half obscured by her own shadow, bestows her with beauty, for she is nothing more than an idea of what she is, a personal vessel of fantasy. I had my own Mariannes, but not the talent for song writing or the record deal, so you’ll all have to take a wild fucking guess what happened.
Let us not forget the other ones, the adulterous Jane from “Famous Blue Raincoat”; the mentally impaired Nancy in “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy”; Janis Joplin’s supposed head-giving in “Chelsea Hotel”; orange yielding insane Susanne in the song titled for her; and my favorite, Joan of Arc, also about and titled for her. Cohen’s women are formidable, complicated, in two words, somewhat nuts. Being broken is romantic, it gives us an excuse to stay miserable. In the business of unhealthy relationships, the women who I loved all loved Leonard Cohen — which is where I tried to squeeze in, somewhere in between, on a bed with my guitar while they tolerated another verse barely sung in key. The lamp light with which their restrained smile was conveyed, curving around the corners of their face, was so lovely to me, so I convinced myself that was enough. Some of them I kissed, some of them I didn’t. Lips are the soul’s orphan, fat butterflies inside a room.
This usually happens in college, the first time you hear Leonard Cohen. I fell in love at the first wet whisper of his voice, the confidence in such calmness, the snarkiness of his unabashed romanticism. Unlike likely peers or contemporaries Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Nick Cave (with the exception of Nick Drake, entirely from another world), Cohen lacks a kind of male eagerness or volition which, I think, makes his songs more interesting, like hymns almost. His songs are less performed than simply spoken, as if melody were either intrinsic or incidental. Our love is not perfect, though his faux-Buddhism is: get to fuck chicks in Europe and write songs about it, sweet. Cohen bought his house in Hydra in 1960 for $1,500 using his grandmother’s inheritance. The economics of expatriation are usually auspicious. I guess I do somewhat admire any westerner who seeks the vague path into Zen nothingness, but nothingness is usually full of itself. Late Cohen’s New York style cynicism and affected detachment irks me. Everybody knows he’s a wanker now.
“I choose the rooms that I live in with care,
the windows are small and the walls almost bare,”
sings Cohen in the final track “Tonight Will Be Fine,” which was my cue to carefully remove Marianne from Hydra’s love nest. If art is surrogate love, then music is surely the kiss. A muse is not a person, but a place we want to be. I can smell her hair, feel her body on mine, the languid pulse from a curled neck, a little wet patch from a raised leg, the frolic of a slender hand under my navel, the this and the that, all the things Marianne must have been, to me, to other men, to other women. The lubed unison of cunts and cocks is a possessed collaboration of respective pulses, but without love, there is no point in even showing your face. My greatest orgasm was inside somebody’s eyes, but the ex in expectation is oft amputated into an ex. Had I held on to my own Mariannes, over the years, I might not be writing this. I might not be listening to Cohen every night, the surrogate body of his songs next to me, their ephemeral warmth listless and wavering. But here I am, the next morning, the photoshopper of empty rooms. I can finally look at the walls, bare, and bear the burden of who was there.