Suzanne takes you down to the 100th Meridian
In August, one of Canada’s great singer-songwriter-poets took a moment to say goodbye. But he didn’t do it through a nation-wide, televised concert. There were no crowds singing along with him. In fact, he didn’t sing at all. Instead, he wrote a letter.
“Well Marianne,” wrote Leonard, “it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon.”
The “Marianne” in question was Marianne Ihlen, the woman who inspired the songs “So Long Marianne” and “Bird on a Wire.” She was dying, and the “Leonard” is, of course, Leonard Cohen.
Now, as you’ll read elsewhere in this edition of CC, there was another Canadian singer-songwriter-poet saying goodbye last month – but under different circumstances. While Cohen was privately saying goodbye to his muse and hinting at his own ill health, Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip was saying a very public goodbye to fans in song.
In some ways, Downie and Cohen could not be more different. They’re generations apart – Downie is 52 while Cohen is 81. Cohen dresses like an elegant character from a 40s noir film. Downie dresses like he just walked away from a small explosion in a thrift store. Cohen sings with a voice that’s deep and velvety and more than a little monotone. Downie’s voice is elastic and spastic – leaping from a growl to a howl in two notes or less. Downie comes from – and sings about – the snowscapes of the Canadian Shield around Kingston and points even further north and more mysterious – about murder in the woods, missing persons, jail breaks, injustice, the grotesque dark, dead underbelly of Canada set to deceptively lively music. Cohen comes from – and sings about – the rest of the world. His music is dreamy, romantic, filled with longing and heartbreak and elegantly existential torture, wistful and worldly, set in places most of us will never see, chronicling a rakish romantic lifestyle still going strong late in life, it would seem.
I’ve seen each of them, once. Gord Downie I saw in concert in Kingston in the early 90s. He was weird and wild. At one point, someone threw a shoe on stage and he tried to rip it up. He told the kid that he didn’t deserve such a good shoe. Then Downie hid behind a big stage speaker and screamed out the next two songs.
Cohen I saw in passing this summer on a street in Rome. Because where else would you see Leonard Cohen? He was wearing a hat. He had a younger woman with him. I walked by him silently.
Both Downie and Cohen are Canadian institutions and I have no doubt that when Cohen dies – whether it’s as soon as he fears or not – there will be a huge outpouring of appreciation for his work, as there has been for Downie this summer.
They represent two Canadas, these two poets. The first is “hoser nation” – a weird mix of people who wear hockey shirts, love the Leafs and drink Tim Hortons ironically – and the folks who do it dead earnestly. They’re the kids of what Stephen Harper would call “old stock” Canadians – sons and daughters of postwar immigration, suburban and small town, aging jocks and hipsters, some belting out the lyrics to “Wheat Kings” knowing it’s a song about injustice, others neither knowing nor caring, each with a plaid jacket and a beer in hand. They’re unapologetic, inward-facing and fiercely proud Canadians raised on a hard diet of hockey and bacon.
Cohen’s Canada is different. It’s the urban cool. His fans were the angst-y college kids who wore black and smoked thin cigarettes. People who went on to work at RBC and go to jazz clubs on the weekend. It’s Francophone-friendly, urbane, sophisticated, outward-facing Canada. They’re less “beer and Timbits” and more “baguette and wine.”
The proof of all this is that, of the two, only Cohen is known outside Canada. Only Cohen’s songs have been covered – in fact “Hallelujah” has been called the most-covered song of all time. His influence over other musicians and writers is profound. His shows sell out in Europe.
On the other hand, when CBC Radio tried to air one cover per day of the Tragically Hip’s catalogue, they ran out of material on day two. The Hip are known only in Canada because they sing about a Canada only Canadians know or care about. They’re beloved but not influential. Whereas with Cohen, it’s almost the other way around. No one warms to Leonard Cohen. No one stands on a truck tailgate on a Saturday night belting out “Suzanne Takes You Down” with their buddies. But no one studies Gord Downie’s poetry in undergrad Can Lit classes either. Not yet, at least.
One is Canada’s Springsteen. The other is Canada’s Dylan.
And both will soon be gone.
I wonder which tribe of Canada, which version of Canada, will ultimately win out. Looking out over the crowds watching the Hip’s final concert, I couldn’t help but notice how very white it was. That Caucasian version of Canada, the family who remembers watching Bill Barilko skate in a Leafs jersey, the people who were living in Kingston when 12 men supposedly broke loose in ‘73 – that’s passing into history. The Hip tribute may have been its last hurrah.
Yet Canada is no longer the glum, vaguely cosmopolitan, ironic vista that Cohen’s songs come from either. The old divide of French and English Canada – the source of Cohen’s inspiration as a Jewish Anglophone growing up in Montreal – means less and less these days.
Maybe we’re becoming something else. Maybe the passing of two giants of music and letters will reveal what that “something else” is – and who will be the next singing poet-laureate of Canada.