He's their man

Devotion to all things Leonard brought an eclectic bunch of acolytes to the Bard of Montreal's hometown over the weekend

Stephanie Nolen

The Globe and Mail, May 15, 2000

Montreal -- Imagine a Star Trek convention populated entirely by devotees of Sylvia Plath.

That was Montreal this past weekend, as 200 devout fans of Leonard Cohen, from all corners of the earth, got together just to talk about how much better the world is with Leonard in it. There was a speechwriter who fled the Tory convention in Quebec City to perform Let Me See You Naked, a gentle geologist on his first trip "over the dateline," a big-shot New York lawyer and a shy Swedish midwife, all of them united in their love of Leonard.

They all called him Leonard. Sometimes they were formal, talking about Mr. Cohen in his present incarnation, no longer monk but artist again. And often they referred to Him, in a way that let you hear the capital letter. But mostly, it was Leonard -- chummy, familiar, a little bit daring when spoken out loud.

This was the Leonard Cohen Event, a gathering of the fans of the Montreal poet and songwriter. It grew out of alt.music.leonard-cohen, an Internet newsgroup populated by a wildly devout group of Cohenists. They came to see his city, to debate his work, to share obscure poems, videos and recordings -- and most of all, to be together, and talk about Leonard.

The Event was held at McGill University, Cohen's alma mater, where the late Friday-afternoon sun found shy delegates beginning to assemble. At the reception desk, a flustered American struggled to register a young Finnish woman who was distressed by the misplacement of the spattering of strange punctuation marks in her name. Delegates who paid their $100 fee got a program and two special gifts, a small lapel pin showing intertwined hearts, and a big silver ring, emblazoned with a hummingbird in flight and the words "Leonard Cohen, Montreal 2000." These treasures were sent by Cohen himself, news which lit up the face of each new arrival.

Outside on the big stone steps of the arts building, Patricia Darling was soaking it all in. Her devotion to Cohen is a lonely reverence, she explained. Her friends -- and, she notes, such commentators as the Royal Canadian Air Farce -- label him the "Poet to Commit Suicide To" and the "Voice of Depression."

They don't understand. Darling, 49, who works as a therapist with aboriginal children in Winnipeg, discovered Cohen in the mid-1980s when she was living in the Netherlands. Upon learning that she was Canadian, Europeans would enthuse about Cohen, but back then she knew him only as a poet with sexual references in his poems.

Since then, he has been her mainstay. "He verbalizes feelings of mine," she said shyly, pushing long grey-brown hair back from her face. Darling, who only recently started using the Internet, learned about the Event just two days before it began. She was shattered by the thought of missing it. When her friends saw how upset she was, they got together to make sure she could be there, scraping together a plane ticket and a place for her to stay in Montreal. She was thrilled to be among people who understood her. "I've never gotten together with friends who were crazy about Leonard Cohen," she explained.

And all that proximity to Leonard: Darling gestured at another delegate whom she had just met. "She has a friend who knows Leonard Cohen -- well, just to hear things like that . . ."

Sally Michalski, a librarian from Pittsburgh, drove 13 hours with her husband Stanley, a geologist, on their first trip to Montreal. She discovered Cohen when she was visiting relatives in Poland years ago. Someone gave her a recording of a Polish tribute band covering Cohen; eventually she thought she might like to hear the man himself. Her husband gave her Various Positions, a Cohen biography last Christmas, she said, "and I haven't had a Leonard Cohen-less moment since."

"I think he brings together intelligent, sensitive, thinking people, people with compassion," explained Tom Dukovcic, who does mineral exploration in Perth, Australia. Dukovcic has loved Cohen for a long time -- loved him alone, as Darling does. When his own life got rough, a while ago, with a divorce, a job change, deaths in the family, he found it in the songs, and also, a kind of courage. "You need to be able to see the darkness to appreciate the light," he said.

It kicked off Friday night with a greeting from Kelley Lynch, Cohen's manager, sent as his emissary from his home in California. Lynch was very L.A., all high heels and leopard-skin pants and fluid platinum bob. She was charged with bringing the tablet down from the mountain: Three new songs, never before played in public. The audience sat almost throbbing with tension as she got up to speak. "I bring Leonard's greetings," she said. "He's very appreciative of your interest in his work. He's very happy that you're in his home town."

Then the lights dimmed, someone hit play, and that voice, like molasses over cold gravel, filled the room. The songs are no departure for Cohen, but rather familiar lines of pain and alienation, half-sung, half-spoken against simple musical arrangements. "And sometimes when the night is slow / The wretched and the meek / Gather up our hearts and go / A thousand kisses deep." Through the performance, Cohen's sound engineer Leanne Ungar stalked the crowd, peering down the aisles for anyone who dared to violate her stern warnings and record the songs.

Next, comedic songwriter Nancy White took the stage, in a tribute performance that included her lament on middle age, Leonard Cohen's Never Gonna Bring My Groceries In. White tried gamely to kibitz with the crowd, at one point telling them how, when she was "11 months pregnant" with her second child, she was feeling blue, and put on a new Cohen album to perk herself up. She paused, clearly waiting for the laughs. None came. "Hmm," she said, squinting at the crowd. "I see you don't think it's odd to cheer yourself up with a Leonard Cohen album."

Cohen, we learned, has come down off California's Mt. Baldy, where he was living as a Buddhist monk, and gone back to L.A., where he is writing and recording again. He's now 65. He spent three months in India last year studying Hindu mysticism. He has written a forward for his novel Beautiful Losers, recently translated into Chinese.

Things got serious on Saturday morning, when a panel of academics -- Ira Nadel, author of the award-winning biography Various Positions, A Life of Leonard Cohen, McGill professor Brian Trehearne, who has taught English courses on Cohen's work, and poet Stephen Scobie, author of the 1978 critical study Leonard Cohen. Cohen may be best known as a pop-cult icon, but all three academics place him firmly in the CanLit pantheon, as, in Trehearne's words, "one of the most important writers of this century."

When all the musings on such questions as the concept of literary wholeness in Cohen's work were done, everyone gathered on the stairs where Suzanne Holland, a South African Cohenist wearing a long rainbow tie-dyed dress and a floral wreath on her head, got out her guitar and led everyone in a rousing chorus of Marianne. "The love is really starting to build," whispered an Event-goer who'd missed the morning session. Inside, a whole vast array of Cohen documentaries, translations, criticisms, bootlegs, T-shirts, and blurry black-and-white photos were being displayed, sold, traded, admired.

On Saturday night, there was dinner at Moishe's, Cohen's favourite restaurant. The legendary steak house obliged by arranging three long tables for the Cohen acolytes, and playing the collection of albums and bootleg recordings they brought with them. By now, there were lots of dear new friends in the group, even a couple of blossoming romances; it felt like the closing banquet at summer camp. The fans pored over the menu (T-Bone $39.50, filet mignon $38.75) and savoured one more little thrill, eating where Cohen himself has so often broken rye bread. "It's swankier than I expected," said Caty Hageman, 47, a Dutch neurology technician who now lives in Seattle, as she surveyed Moishe's, all heavy wood furniture and dark-panelled walls. "But he's also got a swanky side."

Later, there was an open-mike night back at McGill, where everyone could perform their favourite Leonard or Leonard-inspired work. The crowd was mostly middle-aged, almost entirely white; there were a few hip young things, twenty-something women with kohl-ringed eyes and clunky shoes, earnest young men in collared shirts. They sang Suzanne, of course, and some obscure Cohen songs. For every nervous performer, there were 100 friendly people ready to supply a forgotten line. A fetching young blond woman got up to read the second poem she wrote about Leonard, after confessing that the first was far too salacious for public consumption. The one she read involved pictures of him pasted into her geology textbook. (The careful reader will have noticed the plethora of geologists at this gathering. Somewhere there's a doctoral thesis -- The Geologists and Leonard Cohen -- just waiting for a humanities council grant.)

Sunday morning brought the event to which many of the long-time fans were most looking forward: a walking tour. It began at McGill, passed the statue of Queen Victoria which loses its head on the live album, and then journeyed to Westmount, past Cohen's high school, the Synagogue Sha'ar Hashomayim, the big red brick house on Belmont Ave. where he grew up, and his elementary school. There was a portion along Ste-Catherine Street, and then down into Old Montreal -- past such as immortalized sites as Square-Phillips and Our Lady of the Harbour. Julie Couvrette, the only native of Montreal involved in planning the event, gave out the maps and hoped people would enjoy it. "It was hard," sighed Couvrette, an earnest 23-year-old student of sign-language interpretation. "So many of the things, the places, don't exist any more."

What everybody really wanted, of course, was Cohen himself. Patricia Darling, asked what she was most looking forward to about the weekend, flushed, looked around, started to speak, stopped, and then burst out. "I don't want to say it. I shouldn't say it -- then it won't happen." Sally Michalski patted her arm. "We're all thinking it," she comforted. But Cohen stayed characteristically away.

The next best thing, in his absence, was a shy, diffident public auditor from the town of Espoo, Finland. Since 1995, Jarkko Arjatsalo has run a Web site -- the Web site, really -- called the Leonard Cohen Files (nebula.simplenet.com/cohen). When he began it five years ago, he sent Cohen copies of 70 of the pages, because he knew the poet was not on-line. In early 1997, a parcel arrived via Federal Express, containing colour copies of 50 pages of Cohen's own scrapbook, which he was offering for inclusion on the site. Since then, Cohen has regularly e-mailed poems and drawings and notes to the Files, much of it work that appears nowhere else.

That alone was enough to make Arjatsalo, 49, a mythic figure for the delegates. But there's more. "On a trip to California last year with my family, I had the honour and the pleasure to spend two great days with him," he recounted, serious and still a little bit awestruck. Their e-mail correspondence, through Cohen's residence on Mt. Baldy, led to the invitation. Cohen's house, Arjatsalo confides, shows the influence of both his years in Greece and his interest in Zen Buddhism. His children, Adam and Lorca, were there.

"At first I was very nervous," Arjatsalo recalled. "But having been e-mailing him, I knew he was a very friendly and understanding person who wants to listen to what people have to say."

The kind of man who, if he can't be there himself, will make sure he sends music, and a silver hummingbird ring.

© 2000 by Stephanie Nolen and The Globe and Mail