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Saturday, 12 November 2016 15:33

Leonard and Me

Written by  Dennis Kucherawy
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Leonard and Me

By Dennis Kucherawy

“I was born like this, I had no choice.

I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”

“Tower of Song,” Leonard Cohen

This Wednesday, I lost a friend.  The world lost one of its greatest troubadours, poets, authors.

 

I only met Leonard Cohen twice, the first time in January 1974, 42 years ago, in London, Ontario.  He was only 40 years old and I was a university student on the verge of turning 20.  He was witty, generous and kind, especially to a wet-behind-the-ears aspiring journalist and writer.  Significantly, he was the second interview in my burgeoning career.  (Bill Cosby was my first.)

Of course, this was long before he became an international superstar.  In the mid-1970s, he was better known as an author and a poet, a friend of Montreal poet Irving Layton, his mentor.  He also was influenced by Henry Miller, Federico Garcia Lorca, William Butler Yeats and Walt Whitman.  Among his published poetry was “Let Us Compare Mythologies” (1958) “The Spice-Box of Earth (1961) and “Flowers for Hitler” (1964).  His novels included his autobiographical “The Favorite Game” (1963) and “Beautiful Losers” (1966)

In 1967, he was disappointed with his financial success as a writer, so he turned to music, releasing his highly praised “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” that featured his classic ballad “Suzanne” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.”  “Songs from a Room (1969) and “Songs of Love and Hate (1971) followed with such hits as “So Long, Marianne,” “Bird on a Wire” and “Famous Blue Raincoat.”

“New Skin for the Old Ceremony,” his fourth album released in 1974, was a departure from the bare, raw sound of his early recordings and was orchestrated with added  guitars, banjos, percussion, violas and mandolins giving a musical impression of Greece, where he had lived.  It included a duet with Janis Ian titled “Who by Fire” that was based on the melody of “Unetanneh Tokef,” a Hebrew prayer sung at the noontime service of Yom Kippur known as Mussaf.

The album also introduced “Chelsea Hotel #2,” a plaintive lament that has become a staple of his, chronicling about his sexual encounter with Janis Joplin in New York’s notorious and legendary hotel.  Cohen game to regret the song’s graphic lyrics and his indiscretion in revealing his partner was the great blues singer.

Cohen’s concert tour supporting “New Skin” arrived at London’s Alumni Hall in January 1974 and that’s where I met him.  It was my second year and I had just begun writing for UWO’s student newspaper, the Gazette.  I was surprised when he granted my request for an interview.  I had never written before; I played the piano.

Following the concert, we sat down together backstage.  With his jet-black hair slicked back, and prominent nose, I have to confess he reminded me of the character Ratso Rizzo from the 1969 classic movie “Midnight Cowboy.”  To cut the ice, I smiled and asked him “How would you describe your songs?  I think they are `What’s so good about feeling bad’ songs.  Well, he threw his head back and roared with laughter, never answering my question.  His reaction said it all – Don’t take them so seriously.

When I asked him what his next project was, he revealed he was working with the legendary Phil Spector, renowned for his “wall of sound’ production technique.  Describing it, Cohen joked “You know, I’m just taking it out of my own rib.”  His playful sense of humor extended to the album itself.  It included a country and western song titled “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On.”

The next night, I dropped into “Change of Pace,” a coffee house located then on London’s Clarence St.  The early to mid-1970s was a rich time for culture in the Forest City. UWO and London attracted many of Canada’s greatest talents.  In 1973, the late Margaret Laurence, author of “The Stone Angel” and “The Diviners” was writer-in-residence in the English department, followed the next year by Alice Munro who, of course, years later … went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.  It’s likely the only thing she has in common with Bob Dylan.  And acclaimed writer Michael Ondaatje, “The English Patient,” a former Western professor, often returned from Toronto where he then taught at Glendon College.  From time to time, they’d visit “Change of Pace.”

Leonard happened to be there that night with some members of his band.  I arrived and sat by myself for about 15 minutes after ordering my drink and a snack.  He invited me over to his table and we carried on like we had known each other forever. Leonard confessed how much he liked the coffee house where people would bring guitars and sing, adding “If you get rid of these places, you’ll see how rough it will get.”

So it was quite sad when, during intermission Thursday night at the Loreena McKennit concert at Massey Hall, my wife and I learned Leonard had died.  By coincidence, when she returned she sang her gorgeous song “Penelope,” about the wife of the Greek myth hero Odysseus.  It was a serendipitous moment as the music soothed and comforted us.

I’ll never forget his many vivid lyrics.  His advise: “There’s a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”  His warnings and prophesies: “Ah, you loved me as a loser / But now you’re worried that I might win / You know the way to stop me / But you don’t have the discipline. / How many nights I prayed for this / To let my work begin. / First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.

I couldn’t stop thinking of that line election night this week.

Then, there is his gift of evocative, gorgeous lyrical painting, as in “Suzanne:” “And the son pours down like honey / On our lady of the harbor.”  With these beautiful lyrics, I can picture Old Montreal and the church near the St. Lawrence River -Notre Dame de Bon Secours,” one of the oldest churches in the city, built in 1771.  It was a pilgrimage site for arriving sailors, giving the church its sobriquet the Sailors’ Church.  Our Lady of Good Help… our Lady of the Harbor.

Goodbye, friend, Bard of Montreal, and thank you for sharing your many gifts with us.

Visit Song & Script for a wide selection of Leonard Cohen songbooks, albums and videos of him in concert including “Live in London” and his new CD “You Want It Darker.”

For his books and poetry, visit Ben McNally Books on 366 Bay St., phone: (416) 416-361-0032.

By Dennis Kucherawy

Last modified on Saturday, 12 November 2016 15:39
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