I woke up to discover that the legendary Leonard Cohen had died. Social media was abuzz with photos, quotes, and YouTube clips amongst the RIP posts. I, too, felt a wave of sadness the way one does when an artist of great renown passes on.
Eighty two when he died and there were likely at least that many covers of his most recognized song, Hallelujah. My favorite version of this song was not a recording by some other well-known artist, but rather an unknown, playing it on his guitar in the middle of a crowded marketplace. And as I stood there watching him play, it was like I was hearing the song for the very first time.
It was several years ago on a visit to Belfast. It was late on a Saturday morning and I was wandering through the stalls and kiosks of St. George’s Market. The place was alive with the bustling of crowds, of sights, and sounds, and smells of every variety. I was enjoying this stroll through the market, sampling local foods, purchasing various souvenirs to take home with me to America, admiring the arts and crafts of local artisans. I was winding my way through this glorious and boisterous collection of sights when I heard it.
Above the din I heard just a few guitar notes. There was a familiarity to them and something else in those notes that arrested my attention. I walked through the throngs of activity following the sound until it finally stopped me in my tracks.
There he was, a young man no more than twenty I am guessing, with his sole guitar and voice. He appeared oblivious to his growing audience. Eyes closed and completely focused on the words he sang, Hallelujah. This voice so beautiful on its own, was only enhanced by the sweet devotion to the lyrics. As I stood there watching him my breath caught in my chest and a lump formed in my throat and it took a great deal of effort not to begin to cry. A beautiful song especially sung with such reverence and deft ability will have that sort of effect on me.
Now, though my Leonard Cohen memory is not of the man himself, per se, but of the power of his music. The lasting beauty of his poetry. And the comfort of knowing that even though the songwriter is gone, the song lives on.
Leonard Cohen played at the Odyssey Arena in July 2009.