The old folk poet from the sixties has chosen his retreat: the huts of a Zen centre in California... and a corner with a computer in it in Finland. He uses the Web to empty his attic of old manuscripts and publish his unpublished poems and electronic creations.
"I'd like to send you, amongst other things, the first draft of Suzanne as well as some of the other words to my early songs. [So as to] throw a little light on the mysterious process of writing." Jarkko Arjatsalo can hardly believe his eyes when he receives this message from Leonard Cohen. It was towards the end of last year and Jarkko, one of his Finnish admirers, was thus granted an honour sought after by tens of thousands of fans, of all sorts, who have made their own websites into a homage to their idols.
Since that letter, Jarkko's site (The Leonard Cohen Files) has become an authentic outlet for the Canadian musician, who has given Jarkko some of his old, unpublished manuscripts- so we can see the first drafts of his mythical song Suzanne, the words of his latest song, The Great Event, or poems written twenty years ago in hotel rooms, as well as brand new texts send by fax to Finland. Cohen also sends out drawings and paintings he has made himself, as well as a number of informative essays written on his computer, including some excellent self-portraits on a black background.
All of this is rather discreetly archived in the section known as The Blackening Pages which delectably marry the biography of an author at the end of his career (63 years old) who has never stopped diving into spirituality. An image reinforced by the recent press campaign following the launch by his record company, Sony/Columbia, of a new compilation album. The man who is known as Jikan at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre, a Buddhist monastery in the heights of Pasadena in California, dived into Zendo about twenty years ago, and ever since he has venerated his master, Roshi.
On the other side of the mirror, Jarkko Arjatsalo, 47, living with his family in the suburbs of Helsinki, has, in some way, become his master's digital impresario. "Oh, you're too kind," he tells us. "I'm just a fan whose hobby is this website. In fact it's my son Rauli, who's 18, who handles most of the technical side of things, I just look after the contents and the general structure of the site."
"My first private contact with Leonard Cohen," Jarkko goes on to say, was a hand-written postcard, received after his 60th birthday in 1994- an answer to my own greetings which I'd sent him earlier. Nothing to do with my Internet site, as that was only launched in September 1995. I then decided to send a few photocopies [of the site] to Mr. Cohen, and to my great surprise I got an answer. So, in November 1996 I received a few pieces of paper with original works done on his computer, from his agent [Stranger Management] . On New Year's Day 1997, I received a card from him by fax, which I put on-line straight away. A bit later he told me himself that he liked my work and that he was even thinking of making a special contribution himself! So, recently [last June] I received a series of works by fax, but also some by Federal Express, so as to conserve the original colours of his paintings…"
Jarkko isn't really a fan from the early days, as he himself admits, he got into Cohen in the mid-seventies, whereas Cohen's first album dates from 1967 and his international fame from 1967 (with Songs Of Leonard Cohen, which includes the hit Suzanne. " I really got into him in the early eighties and ten years later I came across the Cohen Newsletter by Jim Devlin [a sort of information bulletin] which started me collecting as a hobby. When Devlin stopped his newsletter in 1994, I had the idea of doing the same sort of thing on the Net. It's the best platform for a collector like myself. For example, I've managed to compile a list of 330 covers of Cohen's songs, some of which come from South Africa, Spain, the Czech Republic, etc."
The site now contains around 300 files, and of course nothing of the life and work of the Canadian musician is missing. There are even photos of the Zen centre's wooden huts on Mount Baldy. Jarkko admits that he has been there, when his family was on a visit to America last summer. Heading for California, they made a slight detour so as to approach the centre, without daring to go any further. "The centre looked really private and very intimate. We didn't dare to disturb that serenity… and Cohen's own peace."
Finally, the anonymous Finn's site seems to have been incorporated into the new artistic life of the musician. So, the new unpublished poems sent to Jarkko will be part of a collection of 130 texts which will be published soon. A complete list of the words to his songs is also on the menu, as well as a series of prefaces (especially written for the site) to all the works published by Cohen since 1956. Finally, Jarkko's site has even been promoted by Sony, who mention it on the sleeve of the new compilation, "Connect with the Leonard Cohen Files", together with www.leonardcohen.com, the artist's official site. Quite an honour. "No," says Jarkko finally, I haven't become a Buddhist. I'm still a Lutheran, like most Finns."
Testimony: On the subject of his new encounter with the Internet, Leonard Cohen prefers to remain discreet. "I found Jarkko's site by chance. I was so impressed by his erudition and by the range of information that I started sending him things." He told us briefly. "Now I put up new poems or drawings- in fact I use the Internet as a tool for publication. I don't know whether it's really a universal tool, but I notice that nowadays I carry on all my correspondence by e-mail and it's a way of keeping in touch, especially here." In his cabin on Mount Baldy, the Zen centre where he now lives, the journalists who have been allowed in have noticed a laptop computer linked to the Internet. It is rather amusing to note that Stranger Management, his agent in Los Angeles, through who one has to go to contact him, still relies on the fax machine...
(the full page photo from Planete Internet by Gilles Tordjman)
Biography: Cohen was born into a Jewish family in Montreal in 1934, and became interested in music when he was 17, when he formed a folk group at the Faculty- a trio known as The Buckskin Boys. His real passion is writing: his poems brought him favourable reviews from critics from 1955 onwards, when he was 21, and his first collection was published the following year. He took refuge in music xx at the end of the sixties, his xx and nostalgic words have protected him from the whims of fashion- he refused a prize from a foundation in 1969- and from then onwards he released somewhat confidential albums. His career took an upturn in the eighties, notably thanks to some supern videos (First We Take Manhattan, 1987), which preceded an album which attracted a lot of attention (I'm Your Man). His gravelly voice is legendary, and made him into a sort of "North American Brel". The French public has rediscovered him after a documentary broadcast on Arte.