Leonard Cohen, the songwriter of our generation and of the soundtrack of my life, has passed away. But Cohen has not died. And he’s not silenced.
Leonard Cohen has been an important presence in my life since I was seven. I remember going to my brother’s room in the basement of our house in Tehran, and listening to his collection of Cohen's albums. My brother didn’t allow anyone – and I mean no one – to even touch, let alone listen, to his collection of hundreds of rock and classical albums. Back then, I couldn't speak English and didn’t understand the lyrics. Yet I listened to Cohen's The Stranger Song and Avalanche over and over again on my brother's turntable when he wasn't around.
Then one day, I scratched Songs of Love and Hate. I didn’t want to listen to Dress Rehearsal Rag and wanted to go back to Avalanche again. I panicked. What would happen if my brother found out? He was 14 years older than me, and I was just scared of him. Would he beat me? Would he put a lock on his door so I could not enter it ever again? Would I lose the privilege of listening to his collection?
I had to replace the album. But I was only seven or eight, and couldn’t just go out and buy another album. I put the LP back in its cover and neatly put it back in the collection. I had a plan. I plucked up all the courage I could muster and decided to tell my best friend in life and someone I always trusted, my mother, about the Cohen scratch dilemma. Well, of course she told me off for venturing into my brother’s room without his permission, but she promised to help me find a replacement.
She asked me which album it was. I said, “A Leonard Cohen album.” “Which one?” she asked. I didn’t remember. As we were preparing to walk downstairs to my brother’s room so I could show my mother the album, he walked in. He had apparently not been feeling well at university and came home early. Now it was my mother’s turn to panic for me.
We wondered when my brother was going to leave the room. “Is he going out again today?” I asked my mother. “I’m not sure. He says he’s not feeling well,” my mother answered. “See what a mess you’ve created,” she then said with a smile. I was angry with myself for making such a horrible mistake. “I’ll be more careful when I do things that I’m not supposed to do,” I promised myself. The kitchen was next to the stairway leading to my brother’s room. I just sat in the kitchen and prayed to God that my brother wouldn’t listen to Songs of Love and Hate during his time in his room. I sat there, waiting for him to come up, asking my mother every two minutes, “When is he going to come up?”
My brother had made a kind of a sanctuary for himself in the basement and had a shower, a fridge and all the basic amenities. Sometimes he would just stay in his room for days. “Let me see how he is,” my mother whispered in my ear. “Don’t worry. It will be fine.” She kissed me on my head.
A few minutes later, my mother came up the stairs triumphantly. “He says he has an important appointment in an hour and will leave soon,” she said. “We’ll have a few hours.” As soon as my brother left, we went downstairs. My mother wrote down the name of the album and we left the house for Beethoven music store in central Tehran, about 30 minutes from our house. Fortunately, there was no drama after that. They had Songs of Love and Hate. We returned home, replaced the album and that was the end of the panic.
Songs of Love and Hate was the first album I ever owned. My parents bought me a cheap turntable so I could listen to that album and others I started to collect after that. The album was one of many secrets my mother and I shared. It’s not my favorite Cohen album, I prefer Songs from a Room. But it was one of my proudest possessions for years. It was one of the first grown-up objects I ever owned. It was something that none of my friends had. It was also a sign of a new trust between me and my mother.
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Beethoven and other music stores were shut down. Possession of any music album became illegal. I shared Songs of Love and Hate with my friends, and started to learn English by writing down lyrics of different songs. It was our way of rebelling against the Islamic Republic. Listening to Cohen and other “illegal western decadent music” was our way of protecting our individual identities from the ideological indoctrinations at school, on television and in the streets.
As I listen to Avalanche today, I remember that afternoon in Tehran, in 1974. I kept the scratched LP until I left Iran for good in 2009. It is somewhere in a storage unit in Tehran with all the memories of my youth.
The first two lines of the song is a summary of life:
Well I stepped into an avalanche,
it covered up my soul
I miss Tehran. I miss my mother. And I miss Leonard Cohen.
Maziar Bahari, the editor of IranWire, is currently working on a new memoir. Read Maziar's Why I'm David Bowie's biggest Iranian fan?