One of Us Cannot Be Wrong - Leonard Cohen
On her BBC tv show, Julie Felix was responsible for giving the first European exposure to a number of musicians, not least among whom was Leonard Cohen. She had met Leonard in the early sixties on the Greek island of Hydra, when he was a novelist and poet with few thoughts of becoming a musician. In 1968 they sang a duet of his song "Suzanne" on her show, following the release of his first album "Songs of Leonard Cohen" the previous December. It was Cohen's first television appearance anywhere in Europe. This exposure may have been the reason why the album was more of a success in the UK than in the US. "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong" is the closing track. They remained friends and kept in touch for the rest their lives.
In the early 1990's I directed the Islington Literary Festival, "Write On", an annual festival targeting the community rather than trying to bring an influx of visitors into the borough, although it did have some high profile events. A regular feature of all three festivals was "Lunchtime Poets at the Almeida" which comprised free readings by well known poets at the Almeida Theatre from 1 to 2 pm each day and featured such future luminaries as Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and Maura Dooley.
For me, one of the great pleasures was to meet and chat with the performing poets afterwards. Even then I lived on the south coast and at the time Liverpool poet Brian Patten was the lunchtime reader I had an arrangement with a man from my Sussex village, Barry his name was, whereby, for the fee of half the petrol, he gave me lifts to and from London each day. Barry was the UK National Sales Manager for the Otis Elevator Company, who manufacture and service lifts all over the world. He called them Otis Lifts, which I always thought would be a great name for a soul singer.
After Brian Patten's reading we repaired to the Almeida Theatre's cafe/bar had a coffee and then switched to beer. There were four of us, Brian, myself and a pair of poetry devotees, and by four o'clock we were all having such a good time it looked as though the afternoon was going to extend into a meal and more drinks. This was before the days of mobile phones so I wheeled over the Almeida portable coin phone and rang Otis to tell Barry I wasn't going to make that night's lift but would take the train and see him tomorrow. He was in a meeting so they put me through to his p.a. When I told her, she demanded to know why and (not that it was any of her business) I told her I was out on the town with the world famous poet Brian Patten. I don't know if she was of a literary bent, or just plain stroppy, but she replied that she'd never heard of him. "Never heard of him?" I replied, "but you must have he's" - at which moment Brian ordered "Give me that 'phone!" grabbed it and then spent the next 45 minutes reading his poetry to her, occasionally breaking off to make sure I had more pound coins ready to put into the slot. Barry later told me that the very next day she went to Waterstones and ordered two volumes of Brian's poetry.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that poetry matters. It certainly did to Leonard Cohen, whose poetic dissections of the complexities of relationships, from 1967 on, provided five decades worth of bedsit soundtracks for urban romantics. And there is none more gothic than this description of the agonies of unrequited love with powerful line after powerful line coming at you like waves in a storm:
"I lit a thin green candle
to make you jealous of me
but the room just filled up with mosquitoes -
they heard that my body was free
then I took the dust of a long sleepless night
and I put it in your little shoe
and then I confess that I tortured the dress
that you wore for the world to look through"
and the extended metaphor of the verse about his doctor, carefully balances Cohen's sense of his own tragedy and the hopelessness of his obsession:
"I showed my heart to the doctor
he said I'd just have to quit
then he wrote himself a prescription
and your name was mentioned in it
then he locked himself in a library shelf
with the details of our honeymoon
and I hear from the nurse that he's gotten much worse
and his practice is all in a ruin"
Finally, he'll take her on whatever terms are on offer:
"....but you stand there so nice, in your blizzard of ice,
oh please let me come into the storm?"
We're left with him screaming into the night while whistling nonchalantly - screaming romantically in tune - but it's still a scream.
Edgar Alan Poe would have been proud of this.