Home, Melbourne, 2002

For my wife’s sister

It was a restless, fitful time. At one or two or three in the morning I’d carefully ease out of bed and head for the loungeroom, well away from the sleeping family.

I’d turn on the telly, hoping for distraction. But at those hours there’s little to focus, let alone hold, your attention. Each channel was more or less the same: infomercials for household gadgets: kitchen accessories, exercisers, and the like. Phone numbers would flash on the screen, voiceovers would exhort viewers to buy now now now.

But one station seemed to be regularly screening a program that was part-music video, part-documentary, part-infomercial. I never caught the entire program from top to tail in those restless weeks but I caught enough glimpses of Leonard Cohen, his mentor Kyozan Joshu Roshi, his co-writer Sharon Robinson and some songs to go back to bed and finally fall asleep, with the realisation that there was a new album to buy.

I played Ten New Songs (yes, that’s what it’s called) at bedtime, 10pm or so, turning on the CD player and then switching off the bedside lamp. Day for night. Light for dark. Sound for music. As the rest of the family washed dishes or ignored homework or practised piano, I turned my ‘good’ ear to the little bedside stereo.

At first I thought the arrangements for many of the songs too synthetic, too – well, as it says in the liner notes – programmed. (‘All tracks arranged, programmed, and performed by Sharon Robinson.’). But grounded in Cohen’s gravity, the songs became my lullabies. Restless became restful.

One song in particular caught my attention: Alexandra Leaving. Track 7. There is a lilt to it, a gentle sway, a reassurance, a gentleness.

Suddenly the night has grown colder
The god of love preparing to depart
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder
They slip between the sentries of the heart…

I listened to Ten New Songs for a few months in the dark, crossing the border between awake and asleep. I always started the CD at track 1, In My Secret Life, and hoped I’d still be awake for track 7.

And you who had the honour of her evening
And by the honour had your own restored
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving
Alexandra leaving with her lord

I can’t be sure what it all really means but lyrics, like life, are not always cut and dried. That’s the beauty of art, including song. I make no claim to be a Cohen scholar. The lyrics are apparently adapted from a poem by a 19th century Greek poet, Constantine P Cafavy. At a very simple level Alexandra Leaving is about departure – apt for a listener heading , now calmly, into the veil and the valley of solid sleep.

A decade or so ago I was chatting with my wife’s sister Jan, who had taken me to see Cohen in concert in 1985, and learnt that she had come across Ten New Songs via late night TV. Unable to sleep she too turned on the telly in the restless, fitful hours.

After Jan died in June 2016 her family, including my wife, sifted through Jan’s belongings. There was some early Cohen amidst the vinyl and CDs and iPods but not, as far as could be told, Ten New Songs.

The kitchen cupboards, though, were not short of gadgets and machines and accessories possibly bought via infomercials. We deal with the dark in whatever way we can.

It’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving
A fitful dream, the morning will exhaust
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Jan Fell 1953 – 2016.


Vin is founding editor of Stereo Stories and director/MC of Stereo Stories In Concert.