Tim Kinsella (Joan of Arc) Tried to Write About Leonard Cohen’s Last Album

But he took a wander back into his memories instead.

Although a tragic year in many respects (rest in peace David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen…), 2016 has undoubtedly been an amazing 365 days for music. So amazing, in fact, that our contributors weren’t able to cover every incredible release. That changes now. From Conor Oberst’s Ruminations to Kanye West’s long-awaited The Life of Pablo, from now until 2017, the Talkhouse will be honoring the records we missed this year.
– Brenna Ehrlich, Talkhouse Music Editor-in-Chief

I’m biased, but everyone I know is in a deep blue state. That celebration for a shattered ceiling so quickly flipped into walls going up all at once.

And I’ve been thinking about, how on September 15 or 16, 2001, I sat and ate with a stranger in a restaurant in Athens, Georgia. That’s not a thing I’ve done before or since, but you remember how strange everything was. This guy told me that his mother had died in the hospital on the morning of September 11, moments before the second plane hit on TV.

And I’ve been thinking about Wolf Eyes and all of Neil Michael Hagerty’s various bands. I’ve gone to see these bands every time they’ve played Chicago for twenty years and I leave every time thinking, “Well, that stunk.” And then a week later it hits me, out of nowhere: that was the best thing I’ve ever seen.

Mr. Leonard Cohen arrived in my life in the summer of ’95, and I was immediately transfixed by his tough and swarthy empathy. We all listened to music differently then, remember? I got Songs of Love and Hate (1971) and had no instinct or external authority to dictate which songs were the hits. I listened to the whole record over and over for years. That one record gave so much more back to me every time I listened to it, I didn’t want or need any of his other records. I couldn’t exhaust its gifts. Its darkness was rivaled only by its light.

There’s no other music that I have listened to so frequently and repeatedly without being sure that I even liked it.

A full five years later, I worked backward, listening to the first records and getting a sense of what people considered his early greatest hits, “Bird on a Wire” and “So Long, Marianne,” etc. Although obviously charming, they all seemed shallow and undeveloped compared to Songs of Love and Hate.

New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974) became one of the most frequently listened-to records in our van for years, all of us continually stunned by the sophisticated simplicity of the arrangements. And the later-period stuff such as “In My Secret Life” and “First We Take Manhattan” initially struck me as the corniest music in the world, but I never stopped listening to it. There’s no other music that I have listened to so frequently and repeatedly without being sure that I even liked it.

I spent $300 to see Cohen at the Chicago Theater on his first comeback tour in 2010. At the time, my rent was $400 and I scratched by on barely more than that. And I left the show thinking, “Well, that stunk.” It struck me as too slicked up, and the set list was all wrong. And, by then, I hadn’t listened to Songs of Love and Hate in more than five years.

Later in 2010, my band was crossing a border in the Alps from Italy to Switzerland. Our driver was a Russian national, endlessly charming and friendly, but endlessly so; the kind of guy it would be rude to accurately describe. So when he addressed the border guards with a little too cocksure a tone, they commanded us to pull over.

The guards spoke very little English. One by one they commanded us to step out of the van and marched us each off, one at a time, through a door. The rest of us were left sitting in the van, wondering about our friend’s fate behind that door. The guards would return every twenty minutes and command the next one of us to go with them.

Two guards, each with a rifle over his shoulder, commanded me to strip naked in front of them.

When it was finally my turn to be led into that room, two guards, each with a rifle over his shoulder, commanded me to strip naked in front of them. They insisted that my friend had already admitted that there was cocaine hidden in the van. I should save myself and just tell them where it was hidden. Having spent twenty-four hours per day together for months at this time, I was stunned to imagine that one of us could be hiding a cocaine habit, but the guards kept insisting.

I was naked. The guards were each in uniform, each with a rifle over his shoulder. They commanded me to bend over a table. One wore rubber gloves. He inspected me.

I focused intensely on the other guard as he inspected my bag. I had the band’s bank buried deep in my bag and, as we had been traveling for some weeks, there were thousands of Euros in cash: everyone’s pay for weeks of shows, the agent’s commission and the driver’s pay, the backline rental and the flights. I focused one hundred percent of my attention on the guard’s fingers, flipping through the bills.

When my inspection was complete, I was led outside to where my friends were waiting together. This was in the Alps, in December. We were all made to wait, standing in the snow, with no coats. When all of our inspections were complete, we were made to stand and watch the guards empty the van. When they found nothing, they removed all the equipment from its cases, removed drumheads from their shells and amp faces from their cabinets. Finally they removed the panels from the van’s interior.

As the guards rifled through our luggage, there was a blast of sick humor when they found the salt for Victor’s neti pot and he explained to them in pidgin English, “No, no, that goes up your nose,” and demonstrated snorting to them. They must’ve felt so validated for a moment, confident they’d found the cocaine.

After three hours — two of them spent numb and shivering outside — we were finally let go. Upon releasing us, one guard turned to the other and spoke in perfect English. They had been playing dumb, hoping one of us would betray a secret.

Mr. Cohen was always tough. He had clarity and simplicity.

Back in the van, pulling away, we all finally exhaled and broke down and each quietly sniffled. For the first time in many years, I listened to Songs of Love of Hate beginning to end, moving through snow-covered small towns dwarfed by The Alps.

Mr. Cohen was always tough. He had clarity and simplicity. Like the best films of the French New Wave, he moved seamlessly between romance and politics. The politics were romantic and the romance political.

His was a charmed life. It’s only fitting that he checked out on the occasion of this grandest karmic cosmic punch line of an election. It’s like we’ve all just been living in his world all along. I like imagining that he lingered to watch the acceptance speech, smirked at the profound and utter terror of the situation, and drifted away with a wry salute.

It brings me great joy to know that his new record awaits me, to finally listen to someday, when I am ready for it and need it.

Tim Kinsella is the author of two novels, Let Go and Go On and On (2014, Curbside Splendor) and The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense (2011, Featherproof Books) and one book of non-fiction All Over and Over (2015, Joyful Noise/Featherproof Books). In 2014 he became the publisher and editor at Featherproof Books. His band Joan of Arc‘s new record He’s Got The Whole This Land is Your Land in His Hands is out January 20 on Joyful Noise Records. You can follow him on Twitter here.