In 1967, when his first album of music was released, Leonard Cohen was 33 years old. Before that album, he was best-known as an award-winning poet and novelist.
His first book of poetry, "Let Us Compare Mythologies," was published more than a decade before "Songs of Leonard Cohen" hit the airwaves. It was followed by a string of novels and poetry collections throughout the early 1960s. Cohen left us in 2016, mourned by fans of his music and writing alike.
On Tuesday (April 10) at 5:30 p.m., the Society of the Muse of the Southwest continues its series of National Poetry Month events with a tribute honoring his musical contributions along with his poetic ones.
A group of Taos musicians, actors and poets will gather at the Fechin Studio at Taos Art Museum, 227 Paseo del Pueblo Norte to breathe life into Cohen's work with readings and music. The staff at the Taos Art Museum will be keeping the Fechin House open on Tuesday between its usual closing time of 4 p.m. and the start of the event so that people can visit prior to attending the concert.
Classically trained vocalist and instrumentalist Julie Greer, board president of Taos Community Chorus, co-conceived the event with SOMOS' Poetry Month curator Ariana Kramer. Greer spoke about the inspiration for the evening. "I was talking to Ariana after one of our Taos Community Chorus concerts, telling her how I'd love to do a Leonard Cohen concert, and her eyes lit up. Turns out she's a big Cohen fan too! I adore Ariana, so I loved the idea of working with her on this event."
The musicians invited to join Greer include Bob Andrews, Jennifer Peterson, Isabella Draper, Elaine Nelson, Rachael Penn on violin and Brent Berry on percussion.
Kramer expanded on the spoken-word side of the event. "Mr. Cohen's capacity for expressing himself in emotionally rich language is exceptional. For this tribute we have poets, poetry teachers, actors and poetry lovers reading his work. They are poet and poetry teacher Cathy Strisik, who is the co-editor of Taos Journal of International Poetry and Art; retired Taos High School teacher of English and Humanities, Nancy Jenkins; poetry lover Waltraud (Wally) Kuerschner; actor and poet Bruce McIntosh of Metta Theater; poet and actor John Biscello; and actor Judah Botzer. For those who are not familiar with Leonard Cohen's poetry, they will see that it has some distinct qualities from his music. Among the poems that will be shared are some about Mr. Cohen's spiritual life and ponderings. He was both Jewish and Buddhist. The music that will be covered spans his career, from the melancholic to the romantic to the politically rousing."
Poet, novelist and playwright Biscello will be reading from Cohen's work. "Before I even knew Cohen's music, a friend of mine introduced to me his wonderful novel, 'Beautiful Losers,' still one of my favorite titles," said Biscello. "When I started digging into his musical canon, I fell in love with his haunted sense of purity, his spiritual aching, his wounded romantic troubadour self, and of course, the dude could turn a phrase like a poet par excellence. Which he was."
Musical legend Bob Andrews acknowledged that Cohen had not been on his musical radar in the past. "But when the offer to participate in this project came about, I jumped at it," he said. "I'll be playing piano and singing lead on several songs. You'll have to come to find out which ones. It's a big pool of talent coming together to make this a memorable event, and I think there are quite a few Cohen fans out there in Taos World."
Pianist-vocalist Jennifer Peterson said she was thrilled to be asked to be a part of the project. "I love Leonard Cohen. His music has a dark and raw quality that harnesses that dark and raw essence of life that is not easily captured. I'll be singing 'Dance Me to the End of Love,' which is one of my favorite songs of all time. I'll also be singing 'Hallelujah' which is one of his most well-known pieces that has been performed by thousands of singers and musicians, each offering his or her own interpretation of the song. The song seeks to bare the soul of the performer and the listener."
Elaine Nelson said that her long résumé of musical accomplishments began "in kindergarten, with Mrs. Black's 10-piece accordion band in my hometown of Las Cruces." Nelson will be playing accordion on Tuesday as well as alto and soprano sax.
Greer spoke of Cohen's personal meaning for her. "As a singer-songwriter, he is who I aspire to be. He tells the story of life -- all of it -- the good, the bad, the ugly. He looks in the mirror at himself, and he looks in the mirror of humanity and tells the truth, and it's not always pretty. He tells the dark stories and feelings that we are too afraid to tell. And we love him because he speaks for us and makes it safe to have those dark feelings and thoughts, that craziness we all feel at times. That is what a good songwriter does. And he is one of the best."
Tickets are $10, but no one turned away for lack of funds. For more information, call (575) 758-2690 or visit taosartmuseum.org.