The year Stranger Music was released, I was 15. I bought a copy of Leonard Cohen’s selected poems and songs for a queer friend of mine—my first—with money I’d made cleaning houses. I read the whole thing before wrapping it, taking a highlighter to each line and lyric that called out to me, hoping they’d call out to her too. That year, we had sleepovers at her place and listened to The Future and I’d sing along to mentions of anal sex and destroying fetuses and all the other things we never talked about in my Catholic home. And then we played “Suzanne” and I dreamed of having someone to whom I could feed tea and oranges, and later, alone, I dreamed of Marianne.
It was the same year I found dog-eared copies of The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers in the basement of our bungalow and understood that my mother had also once been thrilled by Cohen’s words and all the things she never talked about in her Catholic home.
My locker at school was filled with pictures of Montreal’s troubadour, raised in the same city as my parents but so different from them. I wrote a paper for English class that compared the coming-of-age novel The Favourite Game to the wild Beautiful Losers. The paper wasn’t good and neither was my grade, but Cohen’s favourite saint (Kateri Tekakwitha) was also mine and so I didn’t care.
“Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” was the soundtrack to my breakup with my first girlfriend. “I’m Your Man” became my anthem, my promise, when I fell in love again. I would eventually discover that my anthem was the anthem of so many other queers—a pledge to transform oneself for a lover, to concede, no matter the cost (“And if you want another kind of love/I’ll wear a mask for you”).
In 2001, when “In My Secret Life” was released, I’d been out for a long time but that didn’t matter—I still cried.
I smile when I’m angry
I cheat and I lie
I do what I have to do
To get by
But I know what is wrong
And I know what is right
And I’d die for the truth
In my secret life
In my secret life
A few years ago, when my wife heard that soon-to-be-married friends of ours had chosen “Dance Me to the End of Love” as the song for their first dance, she cried—because who hasn’t, at some point, wanted a homeward dove?
And this morning, when I asked her to name her favourite Cohen song as we were driving through the neighbourhood of his youth on the week of his death, she said it was a toss-up between “I’m Your Man” and “In My Secret Life.” And I knew what she meant.
By Stéphanie Verge