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So Long: 'Goodbye, old friend... see you down the road'

Darragh McManus on Leonard Cohen's So Long, Marianne letter to his former partner and muse on her deathbed

Published 13/08/2016

Marianne Ihlen
Marianne Ihlen
Musical genius: Leonard Cohen with Marianne Ihlen

Considering he's also a poet and novelist of renown, it's unsurprising that Leonard Cohen's music is a little more profound than the norm. He's always explored the big themes - love, death and art, what it means to be human - one reason why the Canadian continues to inspire almost messianic devotion in his followers well into his 81st year.

Cohen's lyrics are the subject of academic treatises and diverse interpretations. His concerts are as much a religious experience as a music gig.

This week, it was revealed that Cohen had managed that most difficult of acts - to talk about death with in the words of one columnist "clarity, simplicity and beauty", in a letter to Marianne Ihlen, his one-time muse and sweetheart.

The Norwegian, also 81, died of cancer on July 29. Her friend alerted Cohen to Marianne's impending death; he quickly sent a letter which read: "Well, Marianne it's come to this time... our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon.

"I've always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don't need to say anything more because you know all that. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road."

Marianne, the friend said, was "so happy that he had written something for her". She passed away two days later.

The letter, disclosed on Canadian radio, immediately went viral. People were deeply moved by the pair's courage and Cohen's honesty, a determination to face the inevitable endgame for all life.

And there was a sort of surprised delight in the fact that, yes, this was an octogenarian expressing romantic love and passion, as well as fond farewells. Elderly people are often dismissed as sexless and desiccated, almost post-human; Cohen's words showed the fires can still burn, close to 50 years after a relationship ends (He once wrote: "Poetry is the evidence of your life. If your life is burning well, poetry is the ash.").

So who was Marianne Ihlen? And what was the story of their love affair, which inspired Cohen to write two all-time classics in So Long, Marianne and Bird on a Wire? (She once dryly remarked, "I hope I gave him a line or two.")

Marianne was born in Norway in 1935, reared by her grandmother for a time. Aged 22, having fought with her parents over attending drama school, she ran away to the Greek island of Hydra to live the bohemian lifestyle with her boyfriend, Norwegian author Axel Jensen.

Theirs was a complicated - for Marianne, tortured - relationship. Jensen was frequently unfaithful and, as his career took off, often left her alone in a ramshackle house, up the mountainside on an island more-or-less lost in time - it only had electricity for one hour in the morning and one at night.

Marianne later stated: "That story Axel (told) all the time, that Leonard Cohen took his wife - that wasn't how it was. All these other women entered our life... it was damned tough."

In 1958 she returned to Oslo; Jensen followed and persuaded Marianne to marry him. Two years later, she gave birth to their child, affectionately known as Little Axel.

Soon afterwards, Jensen left her again. But as fortune would decree, another man was waiting. Cohen, too, had moved to Greece in pursuit of freedom, artistic inspiration... maybe a muse. They met in a shop; he asked her to join his group outside.

Marianne recounted: "When my eyes met his eyes I felt it throughout my body. You know what that is? Utterly incredible."

He told her she was "the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen" - which she didn't believe - but there was more to it than sexual, or aesthetic, attraction. Marianne said that Cohen, from the start, had "enormous compassion for me and my child" (Axel was then four months old).

Their love bloomed gradually. Cohen and Marianne would have lunch at his house; he'd read poetry for her while the child slept. Eventually he moved home to Montreal, sending her a message: "Have house, all I need is my woman and her son. Love Leonard."

They settled into a life of domestic bliss and creative fecundity, dividing their time between Canada and Greece. Cohen wrote several songs for her, including So Long, Marianne (from 1967's self-titled debut album) and Bird on a Wire (from 1969's Songs from a Room).

A beautiful, intimate shot of Marianne featured on the latter's back cover. Cohen also dedicated his 1964 poetry collection Flowers for Hitler to her. He later wrote: "She gave me many songs, and she has given songs to others, too. She is a muse."

And, refuting Cyril Connolly's infamous adage that "the pram in the hall is the enemy of art", the presence of Little Axel proved no barrier to Cohen's work.

"I was terrified that Axel was going to disturb him, because he had to write," Marianne later said. "But what happened was Axel would lie on the floor drawing, and didn't say a word. He was a nightmare with me, but Leonard would open the door into his studio and say, 'Axel, I need your help'. And it would be silent in there for two hours. Axel drew and Leonard wrote."

She described those years together as "really good, it was absolutely fabulous".

By the late-sixties, they had drifted apart - but it was a kind and organic end to things, with no rancour or regrets. Indeed, in a 2005 interview, Marianne said: "For the past 40 years I still dream about Leonard. Irrespective of whether he is with someone else, or what the scene is around it, it's always a positive dream."

Cohen, meanwhile, said in 1992: "When I hear her voice on the telephone, I know something is completely intact even though our lives have separated. I feel that love never dies and when there is an emotion strong enough to gather a song around it, that something about that emotion is indestructible."

Now this sweet and inspirational love story has had a fitting conclusion. As you would expect, really, from a genius man of letters and the remarkable woman he loved.

Belfast Telegraph

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