First, they take McGill campus

Cohen fans gather from around the world
Cohen himself didn't make it.

Lynn Moore

The Montreal Gazette, May 14, 2000

It was 1977 and Michael Epstein was enveloped in the hash-smoke haze of a cafe in Nepal when he first bumped into Leonard Cohen's work.

"His music was playing and I said, 'Who's that?' and a woman next to me said, 'He's my neighbour," Epstein recounted yesterday.

The woman explained that she lived in "an old Portuguese neighbourhood" in central Montreal and Cohen, who lived just down the way, "was just like everyone else."

Epstein was hooked and has been tracking Cohen, his works and his remarkable career ever since. Yesterday, the San Francisco resident and his companion, Suzanne Holland, were among about 200 Cohen fans at a "millennial event" to pay tribute to Cohen in his native Montreal.

Like most, if not all, of the dyed-in-the-wool Cohen fans at the event, Epstein knows oodles about Cohen and has had some contact with the famously elusive artist.

Epstein has visited Cohen's home - unfortunately, Cohen had just left for Los Angeles, but the gracious student of Tibetan Buddhism who was there invited the visitor in - and Cohen did respond to a letter Epstein sent him.

Even for the well-versed fan, Coheniana is an immense and multi-textured kingdom; there is always more to learn and other interpretations to consider and, perhaps, a new revelation to explore.

That was one force that pulled people from as far away as Finland and Australia to McGill University - where Cohen studied - for the weekend symposium that ends today.

On Friday, there was what was billed as the world debut of three new songs by Cohen.

Yesterday's activities included a panel discussion of major themes in Cohen's work, and today's events include a walking tour of "Leonard's Montreal" that will, no doubt, formally introduce many event participants to Marie-Anne, a street that Cohen has said so long to, but never farewell.

The Renaissance Man still maintains a home in his old neighbourhood - a foothold in our city, a place in our hearts.

Event participants also made the trek to Montreal to meet each other. For years they have been chatting over the Internet about first, their hero, and then, their lives. Over the years, deaths have been mourned and births celebrated.

"We are like a family," said Judith Braum, who journeyed from her native Germany to meet her kin in the flesh.

The event provided another "option to find the way to each other's hearts instead of sitting at home at our keyboards," said Braum, who decided to learn English 25 years ago so she could better understand Cohen's lyrics.

She and other participants lavished praise and deep affection upon two people they described as driving forces behind the gathering: Bill Van Dyk, a computer-systems manager from Kitchener, Ont., who is the event's chairman, and Jarkko Arjatsalo.

Arjatsalo, a chartered accountant in Finland, has a Cohen Web site that is surely known to every Cohen fan the world over.

"I had no idea that it would get so big," said Arjatsalo, who figures that there are about 800 pages of text and several hundred photographs on the site, many of them contributions from fans.

Among other things, he keeps track of the cover versions of Cohen's works. It's quite the task.

"There is a list of 600 cover versions of Leonard's songs" in myriad languages including Icelandic, said Arjatsalo, who has recordings of about 500 of them.

Cohen was invited to this weekend's event but no one really expected him to accept; he wouldn't like being the centre of attention, they said. Like Cohen's other traits, this is considered a good one.

"I spent two days with him in L.A. last year," Arjatsalo said. "He is really warm and friendly and a perfect gentleman in every setting."

Esther Cohen, Leonard's sister and a resident of New York City, was on hand yesterday. She said that when her brother made his daily telephone call to her, she would recap the day's happenings and transmit the greetings of his "so loyal" fans.

"I'm going to say, 'Leonard, I was so proud of you, and I think (the event) has been everything you would have wanted,' " Cohen said.

She learned some new things about her brother during the panel discussion of his works, she said, and "enjoyed a few minutes of reflected glory."

- Jarkko Arjatsalo's Web site is www.leonardcohenfiles.com.

© 2000 by Lynn Moore and The Montreal Gazette