The night Leonard Cohen died, I surprised myself by not feeling sad at all. I just put on the album I’ve been listening to since I was a kid, The Future. There was no threat of tears or melancholy; no emotion. I just let the nihilistic sensuality seduce me under and out of sight the way I did as far back as 2nd grade.
That night I thought of how artists like Leonard Cohen and H.R. Giger… men with such intense, unapologetic libidos and harrowing visions of the world… FASCINATED me as a child. The Future was the only Cohen album my parents had when I was a kid, and it went missing all the time… into my room.
Under my headphones, alone in the dark, I loved the delicious feeling that his overpoweringly masculine voice was corrupting me, telling me secrets I wasn’t supposed to know yet. I didn’t understand what the searing desire in his voice was for; I didn’t know what had made him so contemptuously hopeless, but it excited me like a glint of light down an obscured tunnel. I loved the feeling of being lured away from the walled gardens of my childhood into tall hedges filled with mysteries.
He would reference things like women hanging upside down, Stalin, apocalypses, repentance… hopeless sex on the edge of destruction. My 8-year-old brain didn’t know WHAT he was talking about but Leonard Cohen was the only adult who seemed likely to let me in on the secrets adults hide haphazardly from children. In the same way I would interrogate my uncomfortable French teacher about what blowjobs were, I would listen obsessively to Leonard Cohen’s music for clues that could fill out the dark edges of the shrouded adult world.
There’s even a line in “Closing Time” where he says “I lick my glass to the awful truth / Which you can’t reveal to the ears of youth / Except to say it isn’t worth a dime.” And I would think “That’s ME you can’t reveal it to! But goddamit I’m going to figure it out from this album whether you like it or not, Leonard!”
As a child I believed, but couldn’t confirm, that the secrets he was close to sharing were hidden somewhere in the music. And listening to these same songs as an adult, I realize that they ABSOLUTELY were. But I had to grow up and go through my own adult shit before I could decipher his meanings.
I would listen to “Waiting for the Miracle”, just as stirred by the too-intimate rumble of desire in his voice as with his thrilling, despairing lyrics. My skin still tingles like it did in fourth grade when he begins with that hungry “Baby, I’ve been waiting…”. I knew though, even in my innocence, that I was listening to something illicit and secret. My parents would play the album openly after dinner, probably thinking I was too young to understand anyways. But it was exactly my inability to understand him that would make me sneak the album into my room to listen to privately.
I discovered H.R. Giger a few years later when I was thirteen… a small book we had of his work disappeared just as quickly into my room. He was another artist who wore his boner on his sleeve, entirely unashamed of his nightmarish mind and perverted obsessions. I think both he and Leonard realized as young men that their internal landscapes were much too intense to repress, disguise, or water down.
Sex and arousal seemed like such a shameful secret to me as a child, and Cohen and Giger made me feel okay about it. They fully embraced their inner depravity, but not in the way that now alienates me from men who come on WAY too strong. Both of them had a deep, sexy appreciation for women’s beauty whether or not they were fucking her. Instead of feeling objectified and threatened, their vision of women seemed to reveal the exultant power I felt inside. Instead of leering at me, I felt like they were looking right through me to the magnificence their work sparked in my blood. I felt beautiful, seductive, powerful, and important through the way they focused on women.
It can be a fine line between objectification and celebration, one I still struggle to define. But I grew up with a father who looked contemptuously upon women who were in control of themselves, who slept with who they wanted and lived without shame. He would sneer the word “slut” with pure venom and looked down on single mothers as trash. Once we were watching a German film where a woman started masturbating while bored at home, and he spat “She’s selfish“. He told me when my grades were slipping in high school that “an uneducated woman was just a baby-making machine.”
In contrast to my fathers’ disgust for women’s sexual freedom and power, Giger and Cohen seemed to say “Go for it, baby. This is your show. You’re hottest when you’re doing what you want.” I would feel the spark of something like divinity when I connected to my internal self. Sometimes it was sexual, sometimes it musical, poetic, or just imaginative, but always a blinding, superhuman intoxication. Where I felt devastatingly beautiful, lethal, playful, ravenous, irreverent… when Cohen or Giger gazed at me, they were seeing that demon-goddess I felt like while the song lasted.
I had my own well of horror to contend with from a young age. Seeing how they let theirs flow freely into their work made me less afraid of being consumed by mine. Sexuality is only one of the secrets adulthood keeps, and not even the most interesting half the time. I had labyrinths opening up in me as I got older, down which I delighted to stray. During my high school years, I didn’t know anyone who could follow me to those places, but Leonard Cohen and H.R. Giger were foremost amongst the artists who could go there with me.
When Giger died suddenly from an injury two years ago, I felt ripped open down the front of my body. It was like he’d been torn out of those secret passages we’d travelled together as spelunkers through my arteries and synapses. Male desire in my teens had seemed so funny to me; teen boys with their frantic erections had failed to rouse my desire even once during high school. Their transparent, panting need was right there on the surface; no lure, no mystery, no seduction. I’d had vibrantly adult men as immaculate lovers since I was a child in the form of Cohen and Giger, and teenage boys didn’t stand a chance.
So I felt as though my first lover had died. Though we’d never met, Giger had been one of the only men I’d ever allowed past my defences. His luscious, nightmarish desire had thrilled me in ways no fumbling boy had ever been able to. He’d given me, and all his fans, unlimited access to his every dark fantasy and vision, and so I felt as though he had access to mine. Even though it was one-sided, I was crushed by his death.
I’ve been wondering this last week why Leonard Cohen’s death didn’t crush me the same way. Perhaps because he was frail and aging even when I went to a concert almost ten years ago. I’m pretty sure I was the only 17-year-old in that whole building, lusting for him from my balcony seat. I asked the middle-aged couple in front of me if they minded me clinging to the railing next to them, and they replied “Whatever you like, dear.” It’s only now that I can decipher their bewildered side-looks as I gasped, trilled, and moaned during his husky songs! At the time I just thought “Why isn’t everyone this turned on?”
I think… here’s my first thought as to why Leonard Cohen’s death didn’t hurt like Giger’s did. Two years ago, I was in a very insecure but innocent place. I was so uncomfortable with my desires, so hungry for intimacy and intellectual companionship, and I was looking for that in the wrong people. I wasn’t a fraction as emotionally/sexually comfortable as I am now. I was fragile then with little self-sufficiency. So when Giger died, I felt abandoned on an alien planet with no resources or intimacy. But two years later, I’ve spent so much time developing my inner strength and ability to validate/celebrate myself from within. This time when one of those first lovers died, I don’t feel incomplete and vulnerable without him.
This time, my immediate response to learning of his death was to turn off all the lights except for my glowing pink ones, put on a négligée, and revel in the voice that had felt like a worshipping paramour for the last twenty years. This time his spirt had already been interred within me for so long that he felt alive in my every nerve and breath. It was as if his death had only reminded me how vibrantly present he would always be in my body and mind whenever I listened to his music. Years of seducing his way past my defences, getting in before they were even formed, meant that a part of Leonard Cohen was always going to be alive as long as I was.
I think he’d like that: the idea that a weird teenage girl was unashamedly getting off to him in a theatre balcony. I think he’d like knowing that a little girl rebelled from her father’s contempt for women by listening to his albums, that she got her first flushes of personal power from his lyrics. I think he’d like knowing that my response to his passing was to put on something sexy and indulge in his voice like a warm bath.
My models for what constitute an attractive man are based on Leonard Cohen and Jean-Luc Picard. Intelligent men who appreciated women’s beauty without trying to control it, who saw the divinity in women without erasing their humanity. I’m turned off instantly by men who just want to project their pre-exsiting fantasy onto me. I’m drawn instead to men who want to see me at my freest, whatever that may be. Unfortunately, I’ve never found one my age or single! It would be amazing to meet a man who’s curious about who a woman is, rather than trying to make her be what he wants.
I didn’t know Cohen or Giger personally, or whether they indeed fit this description. Rather, their depiction of women in their art instilled a feeling of power and beauty in me from a young age. I think that helped me grow into a woman with zero tolerance for being controlled/defined/expected to be anything but who she is naturally. And the feeling of intimacy I had with these artists made me crave the kind of man who wanted to get to know me instead of telling me who I am (something FAR too many men rush to do when they meet me).
Now as an adult beginning to write and create from a place of unashamed openness about all the things I felt ashamed of as a child, I can see exactly why their frank perversity appealed so strongly to me. Both so in touch and luxuriant in their sense of horror, in their strange lusts and apocalyptic visions… I spent years trying to water those things down in myself, fearing I’d come off as too intense or disturbed. I can see now that my sense of horror is such as lush and exciting as my sense of optimistic wonder; neither are disturbed or unhealthy. They are siblings of the same root structure.
Sometimes I miss the feeling of intense curiosity these secret-keepers aroused in me. That was real innocence: sensing there was SOMETHING Cohen and Giger could confide in me but not knowing what. Knowing that it was against the rules for them to share it with me. Loving the feeling that they were trespassing in my mind like a boy who’d climbed through my window; it was a secret, against the rules, I had the power to permit.They were the first ones I shared my secret self with, the first to be AS twisted, perverse, and transgressive as my excitements felt inside.
Now that they’re both gone, I feel them under my skin like internal tattoos, secret friends who got in early and stayed with me until I could function independently. They’re there with David Bowie, Jean-Luc Picard, Seven of Nine, Lestat… every artist or character I adored when I was young and bored by the real people around me who had no secrets I was curious to learn. Some taught me nobility, strength, independence, but Cohen and Giger were the two lovers who brought me tales of the dark, exciting, erotic world outside my tower, a world I’d get to explore for myself someday.
Thank you to my two inaugural lovers. Because of you, I know the intricacies of my own erotic imagination and have confidence in my self-knowledge, enough that I’ll be able to curate men intelligently into my adult life when I want them. Your work was the literal definition of “empowering”: I have so much personal power now because of how you trusted me with glimpses of secrets when the big world was so shrouded in frustrating mystery. In some form, you’ll live as long as I do.