When I was in Grade 9, our English teacher played us some vinyl records with some Canadian poet/songwriters singing their stuff. Buffy Sainte-Marie. Leonard Cohen. I didn’t like either of them as singers and I thought only teachers and other grownups would like that kind of music.
When I was taking Grade 12 English, we did a unit on Canadian poets and each group had to do a presentation on a modern Canadian poet. My group studied James Reaney, who is clever but not especially accessible. (Local theatre-connections: he’s also a playwright, having written a trilogy about the infamous Donnelly family also featured in Jonathan Christensen’s Vigilante, and the writer of the Alice Through the Looking Glass adaptation that’s coming to the Citadel this spring.) Another group studied Leonard Cohen. Their presentation included one of his more sexually-themed works, which led our English teacher to a passionate defence of the subject matter as both appropriate subject for poetic celebration and a joyful part of an intimate relationship. This was probably the best sex-ed lesson I had in school ever.
I really don’t know how I learned the tune for Cohen’s “Hey that’s no way to say goodbye” (it’s easy to learn because it’s very repetitive). I used to sing it, mostly to myself, when I was an undergrad, and I had the words written up on my bedroom wall.
And then Cohen wrote for Jennifer Warnes (Famous Blue Raincoat, First We Take Manhattan), and sang with Suzanne Vega (whose own lyrics spoke to me with painful poetic truth in the late 80s), and then the Jeff Buckley Hallelujah turned out to be actually a Leonard Cohen song which everyone seemed to know and love and argue about, and I have no idea when it happened, but Leonard Cohen was actually cool.
So cool that now there’s a theatrical staging of his words and music, created by Tracey Power for Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver and now touring to the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Chelsea Hotel. The seven performers all sang and played instruments. Jonathan Gould seemed to be playing Cohen, and the others (Rachel Aberle, Steve Charles, Sean Cronin, Christina Cuglietta, Benjamin Elliott, Tracey Power) seemed to be the voices in his head, the women in his memory, and his alter-egos. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Suzanne, and the two versions of Hallelujah.
Other performances this season (Back to the 80s at the Mayfield, BOOM at the Citadel) have celebrated the music and pop culture of my lifetime, but tonight’s encounter withe Leonard Cohen’s music brought back different memories, because at the time I didn’t think the music was popular or know it was going to be important.
Chelsea Hotel continues at the Citadel to February 13th.