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Leonard Cohen Taught Me How to Be a Person

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As a child, I was surrounded by angry screaming. Leonard Cohen’s songs whispered of something better.

I write for a living. I’ve done that most of my life. For the first 25 years of my career, I wrote nonfiction: magazine features, how-to manuals, college textbooks. Over the last 11 years, it’s been more personal work: novels, short stories, comic books. Telling stories has always been my first and only true passion. Hard to be sure why, but I have a suspicion:

I think it was because Leonard Cohen’s been whispering in my ears since I was a kid.

When I was nine, back in 1967, my older sister bought home a vinyl album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” She played it over and over, giving it as much attention as she did Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”

I listened to the muffled lyrics and music coming through the thin wall between her bedroom and mine. When she wasn’t home, I sat on her floor and played those albums. Each spoke to me. Dylan spoke in a nasal twang. Leonard whispered. But each spoke.

They didn’t yell, scream, shout, or rant. They spoke.

Maybe it was because Leonard’s voice was softer and quieter than those I was accustomed to hearing that I leaned in to listen more closely. His songs seemed to be filled with secrets—with important things I needed to know. I was nine, but I wasn’t an ordinary nine-year-old. I was born into poverty and into a house filled with angry shouts, hard hands, intolerance, and abuse. The youngest of six, I was seldom addressed except as a target of parental anger. My body, at least, could sometimes escape the house; I began studying martial arts on the sly with a friend and his dad. My heart and soul, though…

Music opened important doors for me. I knew that in order to break free from the small-minded ugliness of my home life, I had to think my way out. To learn, to consider, to expand, to grow stronger in the ways that might matter.

That’s what Leonard Cohen was whispering to me. In his songs, I found a far larger world than the one that screamed around me every day. He showed me there was so much more to life, both in terms of freedom of expression and depth of understanding.

Even at nine, I knew that the ability to see this greater universe was what gave the songwriter a passport to all places, and it could do the same for me. All I needed to do, I was sure, was understand what Leonard was trying to tell me. All I needed to do was unlock his lyrics and discover the answers.

That’s when I learned how to think.

Not in school. Or, at least, not only in school. I learned to think—to really think—by listening to Leonard Cohen. And Dylan, and later Tom Waits. They weren’t just singer-songwriters, they were poets. And, as I later came to understand, philosophers.

Among them, Leonard seemed to be the grown-up in the room and yet also, in many ways, the most playful. Beneath the symbolism and cynicism that anyone can find in his lyrics, there was a feeling of delight. A self-aware indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh, in the bold cracking open of social and personal unmentionables. He was a specialist in human life, who examined and explored the inner workings of the complex mind and complex heart.

As I grew, his songs continued to whisper truths to me, but it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I realized the truths I’d perceived in them were only the outer layers. There was more to Leonard Cohen beneath the surface. And even more beneath that. So, I began to peel.

The process is simple: You peel back each layer by listening with as fresh a mind as possible, setting aside preconceptions and previous insights. You allow the song to be new—and specifically, new to the version of yourself that exists at that moment. The “me” at 23 was not the “me” I’d been at nine. Or at 15. Just as it’s not the “me” now at 58. Each new version of me, born through years of experience, growth, heartbreak, joy, loss, success and more, was different enough from the last to be able to listen with a fresh mind and fresh ears.

And so I found that the songs Leonard sang became new, too, for each me that returned to them.

When I was nine, “The Stranger Song” was about me being a kind of freak inside the damaged world of my abusive and abused family. When I was 31, that song was about my inability to continue in a long-standing relationship; though I still loved my partner, I had become a stranger to her by growing personally in radically different ways. When I was 38, the song was about leaving a place of comfort and support when so many of my friends died in different ways over an 18-month period. And when I was 55, it was about my leaving the East Coast and moving to Southern California, which—though joyful in many ways—was also sad, because I had to leave the people and places I’d always known. The “me” of that era died and was reborn elsewhere.

That’s how Leonard Cohen’s songs were, and always will be, for me. Some are just casual friends I listen to when I’m doing a marathon of his albums. But the most important are the ones I come back to over and over again, because they are always eager to whisper something new to me.

“Sisters of Mercy,” though melancholy, always restores my faith in people. “Suzanne” allows me to rediscover the better parts of my Bohemian years as a college teacher and fledgling writer. “If It Be Your Will” brings me to the edge of tears—but never for the same reason twice. Most recently, it was while watching whales out on the ocean from my office window. How does that make sense? I don’t know, but I’m sure Leonard will help me sort it out.

And as for my favorites of his songs, “Night Comes On” and “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” each has inspired stories inside me that I want to tell. And I will: as novels and as short tales alike. Will I try to directly fictionalize the lyrics? No. Of course not. That’s not how it works—not for me. Rather, there are ideas, moods, suggestions of things hidden inside all those layers. They’ve lit small fires in the kindling of my imagination, and I am watching them grow. When the stories are finished, sold and published, I imagine no one will even think to connect them to Leonard’s songs.

That’s fine. That was never the point. The point is: He whispered a secret to me, and I listened.

As I have always listened.

As I will always listen, because there is another layer. And another. And because Leonard Cohen still has secrets to share.

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Jonathan Maberry is a New York Times bestselling author and five-time Bram Stoker Award winner. He writes in genres including suspense, thriller, horror, science fiction, fantasy, action, and steampunk, for adults, teens, and middle grade readers. His works include the Joe Ledger thrillers, "Rot & Ruin," "Mars One" (now in development for film), "Captain America," and many others. He writes comics for Marvel, Dark Horse and IDW and is the editor of high-profile anthologies including "The X-Files," "V-Wars," "Out of Tune," "Baker Street Irregulars," "Nights of the Living Dead," and "Scary Out There." He lives in Del Mar, California. Find him online at www.jonathanmaberry.com