by Jarkko Arjatsalo
Two hundred admirers of Leonard Cohen’s music and poetry are now getting together in New York to celebrate Our Man’s work, and to meet each other. This is the fourth international Event in a series started six years ago in Lincoln, UK.
Most participants of this New York Event have found the information about our meeting on the Internet. While the Internet has its limitations, it provides a magnificent forum for topics with small numbers of interested people spread around the world.
The Leonard Cohen Files were launched in September 1995, and in April 2004 the millionth visitor to the front page of the website was registered. Other Cohen sites and several message boards and forums make it easy to let the news go around.
As the webmaster of The Leonard Cohen Files, www.leonardcohenfiles.com, I have received innumerable emails from people who are thrilled to find people who share their enthusiasm for Cohen. Many of them have examined Leonard’s songs and poetry alone for years or even decades, not knowing that there are so many similar souls, maybe geographically far away, but nowadays easily accessible on the Cohen websites and message boards. It is more than natural that after years of on-line communication the desire for face-to-face meetings awakes.
The immense growth of network communication and availability of the same information wherever you live have enabled our New York Event and its predecessors. However, the history of meetings that celebrate Leonard Cohen’s work is longer. Let’s cast a glance at what has happened and what’s going to happen in the future.
The Intensity fanzine was published for thirteen years (1987-2000) by Yvonne Hakze and Bea de Koning in Holland. Readers of the fanzine were invited to a club meeting every year in Hoofddorp, next to the Schiphol Airport near Amsterdam. These meetings had typically 20-30 participants who spent a Saturday afternoon at the home of Bea and her family. Most came from Holland, but there were occasional guests from Ireland, UK, France, Germany, and Finland.
The 12th and last meeting was in 1998. Two years later Yvonne and Bea decided to stop the fanzine partly because similar information was so easily available on the net.
On the other side of the globe, in Toowoomba, Australia , another series of local Cohen meetings started in 1993. According to Andrew Darbyshire, it began with an idea of doing something to commemorate Cohen’s lifetime of achievement when he was about to turn 60 years of age. The first year was to be a practice test to see what interest there would be for an event on his 60th birthday in 1994. The organizers didn’t plan to make it an annual event, but what had started out as an experiment has become a bit of a local institution. Every spring a weekend close to Leonard’s birthday in September is dedicated to live music, poetry readings, video presentations, and, last but not least, socializing.
The first big conference dedicated to Cohen’s work was organized in Canada in October 1993. Singer as Lover, Reconsidered was the title of the “international and interdisciplinary celebration of Cohen’s contributions to fiction, drama, poetry, music, dance, and performance” at the Red Deer College in Alberta. The weekend was packed with academic speakers – Stephen Scobie and Ira Nadel among them. A play was presented by college students, The New Step from Flowers of Hitler, and many of Cohen’s songs were performed by various artists.
Nine years later, in September 2002, Natalie Fuhr organized First We Take Victoria: The Leonard Cohen Tribute Event in Victoria, British Columbia. Both professional and amateur artists and poets were performing Cohen’s work. The Comedy Cellar was sold out. There are plans for more similar local tributes.
Also in 2002 Kim Solez, founder and organizer of The Cohenights Foundation, started the tribute nights in Edmonton. His ambition is not just to make it an annual local celebration. Kim has explained: “There is this 200+ year tradition of Robert Burns nights and suppers in Scotland and all over the world as an expression of Scottish culture and fun seeking. So I thought why not Leonard Cohen nights on Leonard's birthday, September 21st, as an expression of Canadian culture and fun seeking?” - The Edmonton Cohen Nights of 2002 and 2003 were well organized and had outstanding performers. It looks like this initiative is working as smaller scale local get-togethers are being planned in other cities every September.
Numerous independent local meet-ups have also taken place in Europe and North America, and it is probable that this process expands like an avalanche – when people read positive comments about recent get-togethers, they may want to organize another one in their own city!
This article deals with fan meetings. We have to pass over numerous tribute concerts and tribute plays in many countries. However, Mean Larry’s Chelsea Hotel Tribute Night in Minneapolis is a long-lived tradition and should be mentioned here as an example of successful concerts aimed at both the general public and real fans.
The roots of our Internet-based international Events go back to March 1998, to Lincoln in the United Kingdom. Lizzie Madder tells the story: “When I went home from the Intensity 1997 meeting in Amsterdam, I put an enquiry on the Newsgroup, to see if anyone was interested in helping to set up a British gathering. That's how I met Chris Bolton.”
“Chris was very keen to help set something up, and he had the perfect place in mind, in his home city of Lincoln. The venue was a conference centre, which had once been part of Lincoln Asylum. It was famous for being amongst the first to remove all use of physical restraint and isolation in the treatment of the mentally ill. It felt like a good omen. It felt a little crazy. We decided if only ten people replied, we'd meet in a pub. If thirty replied, we'd go ahead with Asylum. We had about eighty bookings from all over the UK and Europe. Asylum was born.”
“Everything was done on a shoestring. I believe we charged only £10 per person. Chris borrowed computer and music equipment and brought cheap boxes of wine from Germany. Somehow, we managed to also include a lunch buffet, produce posters for the event, and a booklet - a copy of which is beside me as I type. Fortunately, the bar stayed open all day and night!”
“The day arrived. Although we were exhausted, we were on a high. It was so
exciting to meet so many fans. The event exceeded all our expectations, turning out to be a wonderful celebration of Leonard Cohen. Imagine what it was like for the first time, to be singing, "So long, Marianne ...." with so many fans. It was so emotional and such a joy. We wanted it to go on forever, no one wanted it to end.”
“Musicians brought their songsheets and guitars. Jarkko brought us new videos. Fans brought their own collections to show and trade. Leonard had generously sent us signed shirts, which we auctioned for the charity, War Child. It was wonderful to meet so many Cohen fans, many of whom have since become close friends.”
Thanks to this successful first Event new plans were made. The idea of holding a Leonard Cohen Event in Montreal at the McGill University in May 2000 was first raised in the alt.music.leonard-cohen newsgroup sometime in 1998. Bill van Dyk volunteered to take the responsibility for the whole project and for the first time an international committee was established - Bill plus Anne Jayne, Dick Straub, and Jarkko Arjatsalo. The first on-line meetings (using Internet Relay Chat) of the organizing committee were being held by November.
There were clearly two slightly different ideas about what the conference would be like: a gathering of fans, to celebrate and acclaim, and a more formal symposium with panel discussions, and workshops. The two ideas co-existed, sometimes uneasily, throughout the planning process, and came to expression in Montreal in the form of workshops and panels and plays and open mic sessions and walking tours of Leonard Cohen's home town.
It was challenging project. Respected writers and professors Stephen Scobie, Brian Trehearne, and Ira Nadel agreed to participate in a panel discussion about the place of Cohen's achievements in literature. The Damn Personals, a young band from Boston, were booked for the grand concert. Nancy White, known for her satiric Leonard Cohen's Never Gonna Bring My Groceries In opened the Friday night session, and a powerful, unforgettable, dramatic production of Beautiful Losers by the Laboratory for Enthusiastic Collaboration was also presented.
It was an unusual schedule of events, and more than 200 fans of Leonard Cohen from Australia, Taiwan, Israel, Italy, France, Germany, Holland, UK, Sweden, Finland, Croatia, USA, and Canada felt it was a tribute to Leonard Cohen's achievements that the program was both substantial and diverse.
Leonard’s special representatives - his manager Kelley Lynch and sound engineer Leanne Ungar - played three songs from the forthcoming album Ten New Songs, and Leonard’s sister Esther Cohen conquered the hearts of all participants with her great friendliness and sense of humor, and she kindly invited all participants into Leonard’s house.
The Montreal Event also included a marketplace, poetry jams, video and film presentations and, of course, an active social schedule that included a dinner at Moishes, one of Cohen’s favorite restaurants. Both local and national media covered the gathering.
After the success of Montreal it was obvious that more was to follow. I volunteered to organize the next one on Hydra, Greece, in June 2002. Bobbie Chalou, Henning Franz, and Demetris Tsimperis later joined the committee, and we had great help from Kelsey Edwards who is running Saronicnet, an incoming travel agency on Hydra. The biggest problem was to find a room big enough for the meeting. Finally we got permission to use the hall of a local church at the harbor. There was no sound nor video equipment on the island, but we rented the necessary equipment and engineers from the mainland.
The island of Hydra took everybody by surprise with its unique atmosphere: no cars (just donkeys), an old but well preserved city around the harbor, delicious food at local restaurants. The event itself was on the weekend days, but most participants had reserved extra days before and after the event – every evening a new restaurant was chosen, and there was music and talk until early hours at the Roloi Bar in the harbor.
The program on Hydra consisted of music, videos and films and special performances. The Open Mic sessions were incredibly popular every night, and the music continued in the harbor after we had to close the hall. There was also a guided city walk to Leonard’s house, a beach BBQ, and a monastery walk up to the hills. A very extensive report on the Hydra gathering is available on The Leonard Cohen Files, so I suggest that you connect with the net to read about the details and enjoy the photos. I’m pretty sure that many of our 200 participants from more than 20 countries (and many others who missed the event in 2002) want to return to Hydra one day. Maybe an informal gathering on the island in one of the gap years would be a good idea?
What about Leonard himself? All our events have had his blessings and support but he has not been attending himself. He has given special rings to the participants of Montreal and Hydra, he has contributed special drawings and photos for the event booklets, and we have had his family members as participants!
This survey has brought us back to New York 2004. We are going to spend just a weekend together, but we will keep and cherish the memories in the years to come. A comprehensive photo report will be available on The Leonard Cohen Files later in the summer. All participants are invited to send their photos and write about their best moments. This way we all help in creating a continuous and growing chain of Leonard Cohen events; other lovers of Leonard’s music and poetry who didn’t make it this year become curious and join us next time.
Next time? First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin Henning Franz has stated his intention to organize The Leonard Cohen 2006 Event in Berlin. It’s great that we’ve got new volunteers who are ready to invest their time and energy in the background work required for a successful event. New committee members with their fresh ideas are also needed! Don’t hesitate to join – it may take some of your resources but also gives much more in return!
Special thanks to Lizzie Madder, Bill van Dyk, Andrew Darbyshire, Kim Solez, and Dick Straub for their help in writing this article.