Leonard reinvented as cybersoul

Cohen's faithful fans get the opportunity to talk in person to those as passionate about him as they are

Anne Marie Owens

National Post, May 15, 2000

MONTREAL - A long, lean man in black with a low rumble of a voice is singing Take This Waltz as Leonard Cohen himself would sing it, only in Swedish.

It is around midnight on Saturday on an otherwise deserted McGill University campus, and Mr. Cohen's most devoted fans from around the world are taking the stage in Moyse Hall to pay homage to their idol.

Jan Erik closes the open mic set, singing the Swedish translation of "this waltz, this waltz, this waltz," in a dirge-like monotone typical of Mr. Cohen. Earlier tributes included a blind South African woman in a floor-length, tie-dyed dress and a floral wreath in her hair singing Suzanne, a la Judy Collins, and a wiry young American man delivering a sing-songy, hillbilly reading of the poem, As the Mist Leaves No Scar.

The late-night jam session was a mad mix of artistic interpretations, which explains the peculiar lasting appeal of the poet-singer-novelist whose continual reinvention has kept him in the public consciousness for 40 years, and in particular, what has drawn these 200 people to the artist's hometown for a millennial Leonard Cohen Event this weekend.

For the fans, and there are more here from outside Canada than from within, this is a rare opportunity to talk in person with those as passionate about Mr. Cohen as they are.

Among them are angry young men who write tortured verse, reminiscent of the angst-ridden young Jewish poet from Westmount who burst onto the literary scene in the late-1950s.

There are middle-aged men like Bill Van Dyk, a computer systems manager from Kitchener, Ont., who discovered Mr. Cohen back in the peace-and-love days, and women like Lizzie Madder, a botanical artist from Leicester, Eng., who was introduced to his songs by a young man intent on wooing and bedding her, "and of course, after hearing them, all I really wanted was to be wooed and bedded by Leonard." (Throughout the weekend, he is always "Leonard," never "Cohen.")

Of course the women are here: exotic, beautiful women like Ania Nowakowska from Australia and Judith Braun from Germany, whose attentions are evidence that, even at 65 and in celebrated Buddhist retreat, Mr. Cohen still retains his allure as the thinking woman's ladies' man.

"I think most of the men's biggest fear when they came here was that the bastard would show up, and the rest of us would be immediately forgotten," said Michael Wolkind, a Queen's Counsel lawyer from London.

There was no surprise appearance, although Mr. Cohen sent his manager and his sound engineer in his place, along with three new songs. He also sent a gift for every participant, a chunky silver ring with an engraving of a bird, and a signed thank-you note.

His older sister, Esther, came from New York City, and kept telling everyone "how proud, how very proud," she felt and how touched he would be by it all. She ate dinner with them at Moishe's the old-fashioned steakhouse that was one of his favourites.

Some of the faithful were invited inside the house that Mr. Cohen keeps in Montreal, and allowed to touch his guitar, during an unexpected stop on a walking tour yesterday.

His connection with fans is more than just tokenism, according to academics in a panel discussion that touched on this little-known side of an artist known for his reclusiveness and despairing lyrics.

Ira Nadel, who teaches at the University of British Columbia and wrote a biography of Mr. Cohen, said it was particularly interesting that at the same time Mr. Cohen withdrew from the public world in Buddhist reflection, he was increasingly reaching out through the Internet.

"Leonard has become a global soul: elusive spiritually but cyberly, ever present," said Professor Nadel.

In the past five years, Mr. Cohen has released 20 new poems through the main Internet site, run by a fan from Finland. He has sent his dabbling in computer art to the site and, most recently, sporadic pieces of song lyrics in an attempt to show the creative process of the artist.

This reinvention as a cyberpresence is fitting, since Mr. Cohen's most passionate fans had, until this weekend, only been connected by their participation in an Internet newsgroup, from which the idea for this conference originated.

"Someone said before we got together here that when we all met, we would all freeze and then run to the nearest computer," said Mr. Wolkind, the English lawyer. "It could have been an absolute disaster really, but the connection was real."

© 2000 by Anne Marie Owens and National Post