I met Leonard Cohen once.
Since I spent all my employed life working in bookstores and for publishing companies, it was a given I’d meet many famous (mostly Canadian) authors during that time. And I did. I still have most of their signed books on my shelves here on Bequia. I haven’t given them away in all this time so it looks as though I’ll still have them when I die.
But Cohen was different, because I never represented him and he was actually in Calgary to sign books at the rival bookstore around the corner from the one where I was working. If the sales rep accompanying him hadn’t had the forethought to buy coffee and bagels from the restaurant across 17th Ave. and bring them, along with Leonard, over to our store where they could sit in armchairs by the window and eat and visit with us, I would never have had the chance to meet the man at all. He was in town to promote a new collection of contemporary psalms, The Book of Mercy. The original dust jacket on my copy is somewhat worse for wear, but the hardcover itself is still in mint condition.
I grew up in Toronto during the 60s and was 13 when Cohen first began recording songs. Suzanne was always a great favourite during my teens, because the name was so close to my own.
But there was also something haunting about this music and the lyrics – something kind of forbidden, too – that made this new singer and his music so attractive to us. In Grade 13 English, we even discussed some of Cohen’s poems, which I always thought was cool, because this was poetry written by someone we could hear on the radio, not old dead guys from another century. Cohen was speaking directly to us in the here and now … even if we didn’t understand exactly what it was he was saying.
Then I read and studied Beautiful Losers as part of a Can.Lit. course I took at university. I had a difficult time reading that book. I no longer have my copy.
So it wasn’t until 1984, when Cohen was on a cross-Canada promotion tour, that I managed to get a signed book and have kept it all these years.
Remarkably, it remained unscathed during a recent infestation of termites I dealt with. Not so the signed books of his fellow-Montreal author, Hugh MacLennan, who I also met when he signed my university copies at a different bookstore in Calgary where I was working. Unfortunately those termites feasted on Hugh.
Fast forward to when I served on a committee in Calgary that had the task of selecting and inviting an author to give a speech at an annual event. We asked Leonard Cohen, but were told by his agent that Mr. Cohen was going to be busy during the next few years promoting his new CD and that perhaps we should inquire again at a later date. Cohen was 78 at the time! I thought that was certainly a sign of extreme optimism, not only that he could make it through a world promotion tour still healthy in mind and body, but also that he’d be alive and able to attend our event a few years later. “You go, Leonard!” I thought. If only they had been able to convince him last year …
But he did come to Calgary that year and gave a fabulous concert, which I attended just days before flying back to Bequia for the winter. The man put his heart and soul into the concert and I came away believing it was the best I had ever attended in my life. He had a way of calling the audience “My Friends” and really meaning it, so that I felt as though he was singing directly to me – probably as did every other member of that audience. I do have the Live in London concert DVD, which is wonderful, but still not the same as the very personal experience of seeing him perform live in front of 10s of thousands of other fans.
It was with great sadness that I read this morning of Leonard Cohen’s death yesterday. Unexpected especially because he had just released a CD of all new music and seemed to be at the top of his game right now. Little did I, or most others, realize that this was his swan song. Listen to the words of You Want It Darker and you will hear the eerie prophecy.
This is my small tribute to someone who managed to touch our perfect bodies around the world with his mind – with his words and his music. I mourn the loss of Leonard Cohen, but I am grateful I had the opportunity to meet him once, to share a coffee and bagel, to get his signature, and that he so generously shared what he created with all of us.
Here’s another tribute to Cohen and to Remembrance Day from my friend, Carin Markuz … (And, Carin, this book of Cohen’s I have is dedicated, “for my teacher”.)