A dozen years ago, I took a web publishing class at the University of Victoria. A gifted teacher named Jason Dewinetz was tasked with the formidable challenge of teaching twenty-some fumbling web neophytes to construct a website using Dreamweaver. It was a gruelling but ultimately rewarding class that resulted, for me, in the ability to create a website for my editing business, Beyond Words. Much of what I learned in the class has been made obsolete by easier tools like WordPress, but I still consider the experience one of the most valuable learning adventures in my years at UVic.
The classmate I remember most vividly from that frustrated, often frazzled group was a striking young musician named Glenna Garramone, who graduated that year with a BFA in writing. Glenna majored in poetry. She and I struggled alone together one morning in the deserted computer lab, banging our heads against our monitors as we tried to figure out why we couldn’t get our code to produce the results we expected. I haven’t seen Glenna since we survived that class together, but I have followed her career as a rising star on Canada’s folk and indie-pop-rock horizon.
Glenna Garramone is the producer and founding member, with Oliver Swain, of the Leonard Cohen tribute group Tower of Song, which toured nationally in support of the album they released in April 2014. One review of In City and In Forest called it “stripped down, elemental takes on Cohen classics.” Another said it
shakes up Cohen’s material and makes strides to turn his songs and ideas into their own. The end result is that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill Cohen tribute record. There are enough curves to keep listeners, even those who have followed Cohen’s nearly 50-year recording career, on their toes and satisfied.
I was moved last week by Glenna’s Facebook tribute to Leonard Cohen. I found it captured the way Cohen’s music, poetry, and presence have cracked open windows for all who have loved his work. I asked Glenna if I could share her tribute here. She graciously agreed.
One of my greatest heroes and inspirations has left this earthly realm.
In 2008 I heard Cohen play live in a theatre in Hamilton, ON (this was Cohen’s first return to touring after his time at the monastery, before the big stadium shows that followed in the years to come). I went to this show with my father, and was fortunate enough to have a front row seat. I was able to see Cohen’s face and body language up close. And about half way through the show, I was suddenly struck by the realization “This man is telling the truth. These songs are born from his lived experience.” The reason he was able to write such profound songs is because he lived a profound life. And I knew in that moment that I had to change how I lived my life, even though the idea terrified me at the time. I had to let myself feel the ache of longing for what I wanted most, not just to coast along and make do with a vague sense of comfort. I had to expose more of my heart to the experience of being alive, to risk the possible pain or disappointments of failing. I recall hearing an interview on CBC with Cohen, where he said something to the effect of “Poetry isn’t something you set out to do. It’s the by-product of a life well lived.”
In the years since, my life has been transformed, with Cohen’s music being an essential part of the journey, along with my re-ignited willingness to take bigger risks. Tower of Song was born, with Oliver Swain, and together we have rolled across this country several times, singing our re-imagining of Cohen’s songs to thousands of people. We have heard remarkable stories (and seen remarkable tattoos!) about how Cohen’s music and poetry has touched people’s lives.
On our most recent tour, one reporter asked me “Aren’t you worried about people comparing your work to Cohen’s?” and I had to laugh out loud. No, I’m not worried about that. Cohen has set the bar, and he gives me a standard and a level of artistic integrity that I aspire to, and honestly don’t expect myself to even come close to reaching for another few decades yet. But Cohen’s work shines a light on the path forward.
We live in dark times, and many of us ache with longing for what we want most—an equitable world, a world in which everyone has enough, where we respect and care for each other and the Earth we belong to. I hope we can all expose more of our hearts to the experience of being alive, even though it means we risk the pain and disappointment of failing. Let’s ring the bells that still can ring and be grateful for the light shining on the path forward.