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Happy Birthday, Leonard Cohen

I always put a line or two of Leonard Cohen’s up here for his birthday (2007, 2006), but this year I offer a twist.

Joni Mitchell wrote Rainy Night House for Leonard after he had taken her to his mother’s house and showed her his father’s service revolver. Many years after their brief affair had ended, when Joni was moving out of her own home, a slip of paper fell out from behind the mirror on the mantelpiece. It was a poem that Leonard had written when he had visited her all that time ago. I have always admired Leonard Cohen’s use of the written word as spell, as invocation. To leave a poem behind a girl’s mirror, or to bury a line or two with your dog. I have always considered this a more natural use for the written word than the published artifact.

But this song by Joni Mitchell is a work that I find quietly astonishing. It is, most unusually, a love song that does not in any way claim the lover. It is reportage of an event, and is filled with love. Yet there is absolutely no claim to ownership – no bind of any kind. Quite lovely.

It was a rainy night
We took a taxi to your mother’s home
She went to florida and left you
With your father’s gun, alone
Upon her small white bed
I fell into a dream
You sat up all the night and watched me
To see, who in the world I might be

I am from the sunday school
I sing soprano in the upstairs choir
You are a holy man
On the f.m. radio
I sat up all the night and watched thee
To see, who in the world you might be.

You called me beautiful
You called your mother-she was very tanned
So you packed your tent and you went
To live out in the arizona sand
You are a refugee
From a wealthy family
You gave up all the golden factories
To see, who in the world you might be

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