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Leonard Cohen was a prophet for the broken hearted

He was as audacious as any of the other stars in my queer constellation but his flamboyance had a lampshade – this is my small story of devotion

Brittany’s been bad. She is a drag queen and a rat. She comes from California and was born in 1994, amidst soft cyber sounds. Her debut novel, OOLA, will be published by The Borough Press (HarperCollins) in the UK and by Henry Holt in the US and Canada, both in 2017. She is working on a new novel about asexuality and CCTV.  

I can’t think of Leonard Cohen without thinking of my wedding. I am 22 now; I was 21 when I got married. The ceremony was part of a 24-hour Beltane party at the co op where Eric and I lived. It was May 2016, and Bowie had recently died. In white silk pants and peach blouse, Eric did a number to Bowie’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide.” It was an elegy to one of our heroes, one of the many odd prophets who showed us how to deviate, how to be true to one’s dark stirrings. He was dead when we got married; we weren’t trying to fill the void he left behind, but rather, to pay homage to the alien blaze we were warmed by.

After “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide,” we did our cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2,” in which I sang and Eric lip-synced to my voice, a spin on the traditional drag format, sitting solemnly side by side. This was not an elegy, but an ode. Everyone laughed when I sang the line, you told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception; this seemed to explain my relationship with Eric, which to the outside eye might appear to be some exaggerated form of fag haggery. In a month’s time, we would perform this same number the weekend of the Orlando shooting; then, the line clenching your fists, for the ones like us, who are oppressed by the figures of beauty would raise a choked cheer from the 4:00 a.m. crowd.

Now that Leonard Cohen is dead, I can’t stop listening to this song. No poem has ever moved me more. I don’t like poetry, and my favourite poet has passed. Who knew desire better than him? Who will volunteer to break their heart as many times as he? It is ruthlessly clear to me that Cohen was another odd prophet, another light for the bent or broken-hearted. When I first began listening to him at age 12, I didn’t lump him with my other adolescent idols: Michael Jackson, ANOHNI, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, James St. James, CocoRosie. He wasn’t weird like that, though he gave me the same tingly feeling, and his sexiness was likewise edged with something somber, like I had better listen hard or I might miss the bit with god in it.

But it wasn’t explicitly queerdom, was it, that he was proffering? His songs were compulsively about women, knee-deep in the question of how to love them, their thighs and their coats. Still, there was something campy about Cohen, something waggish: the boinging synths in “Hallelujah,” his fondness for waltz beats, his Daddy talk-singing: there was a time when you let me know, what’s really going on below…one can almost hear his gravelly tsk-tsk. I was always attracted to this mix in Cohen: the angelic and the triple-x. You hear it most when he invokes all those to whom he feels bound: from “Master Song,” his body is a golden string/that your body is hanging from/his body is a golden string/my body has grown numb; from “Hallelujah,” she tied you to a kitchen chair/she broke your throne/and she cut your hair; most simply, from “You Want It Darker,” I’m ready, my lord.

“Watching concert footage of Cohen with his patient smile and preternaturally intent gaze, as if locking eyes with every individual in the crowd, I find myself stupefied: this is how I want to live my life, to live my love”

As we did with Bowie on our wedding day, I feel the dire need to pay homage to Mr. Cohen, who made me more than anyone else. He was as audacious as any of the other stars in my queer constellation, even exhibitionists like James St. James; but his flamboyance had a lampshade, his was a bookish nudity. Watching concert footage of Cohen with his patient smile and preternaturally intent gaze, as if locking eyes with every individual in the crowd, I find myself stupefied: this is how I want to live my life, to live my love. As the introvert with innards dangling. He broke rules with the intermittent ease and gravity with which one takes off their clothes. He had the ability to make everything feel intimate: every interview, every poem, every photograph, every song. An intimacy, stage-lit.

I don’t mean to centre myself in the wake of his death. This is one small story of devotion. I’m just trying to orient my heartbreak, to align the profound loss I feel with other large-scale losses. As one more godless California girl, all I’ve got are superstars and soundbites, T-shirts with the deceased on them, pathetic/poetic gestures to mark my grief. Should I fast on tea and oranges? Or troll through YouTube comments all night long?

I was a preposterously shy child who wrote fan fiction for the lewd and genderfluid, the louder the better (oh Hedwig!); amidst the imagined hootenanny, Cohen was my friend. He showed me what to do with my feelings, when and if my body bailed. One could sit still and be wild. One could kneel and make waves. For a girl somewhat adverse to touch, songs like “Take This Longing” made me believe in the generosity of obsession, the worthiness of thinking about someone for days on end. This is what I have to thank him for: his over-attention to desire; his deep study of the sensual and profane. His longing was always a life-or-death matter (everything depends upon/how near you sleep to me), but this wasn’t melodrama, it was worship; take this longing from my tongue/all the useless things these hands have done not the common laments of the wanting body, but the nearly-holy sacrifice of it. Ignorant as I am in matters of faith, Cohen’s songs always struck me as hymnal.

My absolute favorite song growing up was Antony Hegarty’s (now, the illustrious ANOHNI) cover of Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will.” YouTube should give me a tiny cut of its profits for how many times I played that damn song. It is a song of surrender, pure and total. It reminds me of a stick-n-poke Eric has over her heart: 4U. The simplest and most shattering promise. This is what Cohen modeled for me, why his visions of romance have a criminal ring, familiar to anyone told to simmer or censor their love: a full-body surrender to emotion. Hands in the air, mouth hanging open, a guttural UH!—these are my disco impulses when listening to his folk guitar. Cohen gave it all away. I want to surrender to his songs, just as he surrendered to his longing, his lovers, his multiple masters, to Marianne or Janis or Joan of Arc or some soft-shoed iteration of god. I’m ready, my lord. It’s a wonderful feeling, sometimes, to go under.

Cohen is so ultra for me, so wet, so bad, so mega, so much: in song after song, he prostrates himself at the feet of desire. This is a devotion I’ve seen only in dance clubs and dive bars, and I can imagine in church. We are ugly, hands flapping, hips bumping, but we have the music. Sitting here in my bedroom, illumined by laptop screen and LED candles, I may not know quite how to pray, but I do know how to surrender; in my shy way I am daily felled, by a thought-of body or looped song that I simply MUST give in too. Is it still devotion if I say nothing, mute the urge to cover my face with my T-shirt and bellow “YES OH NO”? I guess I’m saying something now, to my dear departed master. A love poem written by Cohen when he lived at the Zen Monastery: You go your way, I’ll go your way too. And I can almost hear the wine-drunk crowd below cheer: go, girl, go.