Saturday 1 October 2016

How Cohen's muse inspired his hymn to enduring love

Leonard Cohen had a lifelong devotion to his ex-lover and muse, Marianne Ihlen, says Liam Collins, and he sent her a final, poignant tribute before she died

Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30

ARTIST: Leonard Cohen performing at Glastonbury in 2008. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
ARTIST: Leonard Cohen performing at Glastonbury in 2008. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

How many times have we listened to those words and the soft, loose chords of the guitar, as we kissed earnestly in a darkened flat, amid the detritus of a party that petered out with the dawn?

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So Long, Marianne was born of the love between Leonard Cohen and the beautiful Marianne Ihlen, and it is a love that throbs in every line of laughter and sorrow. Like all great love stories, it could not last, but the music never died.

Marianne Ihlen, Cohen and friends ride mules along a stone path on Hydra, Greece, in October 1950; the Greek island was where their love affair began and blossomed. Photo by James Burke/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Marianne Ihlen, Cohen and friends ride mules along a stone path on Hydra, Greece, in October 1950; the Greek island was where their love affair began and blossomed. Photo by James Burke/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sadly, Marianne passed away on July 28, and she was buried in her home town of Oslo, Norway. But not before receiving a last soulful letter, from Cohen, her one-time lover on the idyllic Greek island of Hydra back in the 1960s. It was to send her on her final journey with a smile.

"Well, Marianne, it has come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart. I think I will follow you very soon," wrote Cohen. "Know that I am so close behind you, that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. You know that I have always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I have no need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye, old friend. Endless love, see you down the road."

Two days later, the woman who inspired So Long, Marianne lost consciousness and died.

For those who remember those days in the late 1960s, it is a song that defines a time of sunshine and freedom and hope. There were those who didn't get it, who thought that Cohen's plaintive voice was all about depression, when really it was about love and longing, and quite often laced with humour and humanity.

Marianne Ihlen was born in Norway and largely reared by her granny. When her parents refused to let her attend theatre school, she ran away to the Greek island of Hydra, living a hippyish existence, marrying the Norweigan writer Axel Jensen and having a child known in the expat community as "Little Axel".

It was into this milieu that the Canadian poet Cohen wandered in the mid-1960s. By then the Norwegian couple were separated. Axel and Cohen bought a car together and the poet formed a relationship with Marianne.

"Early in the day we would go down to the beach, or up to his little house and he would read poems to me ... so we started seeing each other in the days," Marianne said much later when Cohen had a second coming in the late 1990s and early 2000s. With his energy and determination of purpose, Cohen reminded her of her Norwegian granny.

"Those six years were really good" she recalled. "We sat in the sun, we walked in the sun, we listened to music and bathed, we played, we drank, we discussed. There was writing and lovemaking and it was absolutely fabulous, you know, to have a love like that. During those five years, I didn't have shoes on my feet and I met so many beautiful people. Now they are all gone to the wind."

But while Cohen was enjoying the idyllic life of love on a Greek island, he wasn't forgetting his poems or his craft. He would occasionally stray back to Montreal, where he was known as a poet rather than a singer. When he released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967, the second side opened with So Long, Marianne.

In those less introspective days, it was what it was - nobody rushed out to find his muse, although she was easily identifiable, because her photograph appeared on the sleeve of his second album, Songs From A Room.

He once drove her from Hydra back to Norway, but gradually their paths diverged, he to become a troubadour, she to wander for a while longer, before eventually returning to her native Norway.

But they kept in touch, all the same. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1992 he said: "When I hear her voice on the telephone, I know something is completely intact even though our lives have completely separated ... I feel that love never dies."

For her part, Marianne said: "This relationship was gift to me and a gift to Leonard."

She is also credited with inspiring another of his great songs, Bird On A Wire, although she never acknowledged that, only saying that during their time together on Hydra, the electricity came to the island and the swallows perched on the newly strung wires, inspiring Cohen's paean to love and freedom.

For those of us who were around when the song came out, or who grew up with it in the years afterwards in numerous dingy bedsits, it is hard to comprehend that the beautiful Nordic blonde Marianne was 81 when she died; or that the craggy, nattily dressed Cohen - who formed such an affinity with Ireland over the years - will be 82 in September.

I never met the iconic songwriter; the closest I got was in The Harp (then a trendy venue) in central Dublin, when he attended a reception there in the early 1970s.

In a 2013 poll of Cohen's songs, So Long, Marianne came in at number six. For many people, it is not merely the song itself, but the evocation of time and place that it also represents. In the days of instant celebrity, Cohen, like a lot of traditional Irish musicians, stands out because he's been performing for over 50 years and his last decade has been even better than his first.

Nor has he lost his humanity. When he was informed of Marianne's illness - she was diagnosed with leukaemia just two weeks before she died - he wrote her a last, soulful deathbed tribute.

"Your letter came when she could talk and laugh in full consciousness" her friend told Cohen after the funeral. "When we read it aloud, she smiled as only Marianne can".

And so a love story immortalised in a song will live on, and even those who don't know who the real Marianne was, will hopefully laugh and cry about it all again for a long, long time to come.

Sunday Independent

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