Leonard Stern

The Ottawa Citizen, May 21, 2000

In September 1995, from his home near Helsinki, a man named Jarkko Arjatsalo opened an Internet site celebrating Leonard Cohen. It's not quite clear what aspect of Leonard Cohen's life and work impressed Mr. Arjatsalo. Mr. Cohen is a Jewish-Canadian poet famous for overindulging in sex, drugs and eastern mysticism. Mr. Arjatsalo is a staid, married, Nordic accountant. The accountant part alone makes him the antithesis of Leonard Cohen.

But no matter. Mr. Arjatsalo's Internet site, called The Leonard Cohen Files, began to grow as other aficionados around the world contributed their own memorabilia -- photographs from Cohen concerts, biographical anecdotes, interpretations of the songs. Then, in the spring of 1997, Leonard Cohen himself started sending items, among them reproductions of his early manuscripts. Soon Mr. Cohen was posting poems-in-progress, sometimes removing the poem and then re-sending a revised version. So far, more than two dozen poems have made their first public appearance on Mr. Arjatsalo's site. "There is a kind of family that is gathered around my work," Leonard Cohen once said. "It's not fixed at my work, but merely uses it as a reference to their own lives and to their own very amusing and touching flirtations, communications, confessions and exchanges."

Last weekend, some 200 members of this international "family" gathered in Montreal, the city of Leonard Cohen's birth. Held at McGill University, it wasn't exactly a conference, though a couple of academics gave presentations. People came more or less just to hang out and talk about Leonard Cohen, essentially the same thing they do over the Internet.

Happily, this was no Star Trek convention where grown men and women show up dressed as Klingons. Only one delegate, a 28-year-old New Hampshire woman named Heather Salisbury, appeared to be in love with Leonard Cohen. "He's my companion in life," she said. "When I was broken-hearted, he sang me to sleep at night. He's a big part of my life. Sometimes I write to him instead of to a diary." Turns out she's never mailed any of these letters, which is probably a good thing. In one of the more touching moments, she approached Ira Nadel, an English professor from the University of British Columbia and author of a Leonard Cohen biography. She threw her arms around the surprised professor and kissed him. "Give my love to Leonard," she said.

But Ms. Salisbury aside -- and, come to think of it, another woman, this one blind and from South Africa, who wore a tie-dyed dress, beads and a crown of flowers on her head, and who spent much of the event outside on the front steps playing guitar and singing So Long, Marianne -- aside from these exceptions most everyone was rather ordinary. One twentysomething couple from Brooklyn -- an aspiring writer and a painter -- even signed up not so much because they live for Leonard Cohen but because it struck them as a campy, original way to see Montreal.

The event reached its zenith of quirkiness when 60 members of the group piled into Moishe's, the famous Montreal steakhouse that reportedly was once a favourite haunt of Leonard Cohen. Everyone wanted to order the same thing The Man orders when he comes but the young waiters, confused, had no idea who "Leonard" was.

Leonard Cohen fans can be divided into two schools. The first consists of those who accept at face value Mr. Cohen's public persona of suffering artist. Certainly Mr. Cohen himself, with his black suits and sunglasses, has cultivated a brooding Lord Byron image. In 1967, when he was 33, Mr. Cohen coyly mentioned in a Village Voice interview that he was at about the age when poets traditionally commit suicide. "References to breakdowns past and future dot his conversation," noted the interviewer. Mr. Cohen never killed himself, choosing instead to continue writing poems and songs that inspire suicidal impulses in the rest of us -- "music to slit your wrists by," as a critic once put it. Even in his golden years -- he turned 65 last year -- Mr. Cohen shows no signs of lightening up. His recent hit song The Future warns: And now the wheels of heaven stop/you feel the devil's riding crop/Get ready for the future/it is murder.

The other set of fans are those who insist Leonard Cohen has been misread, that his work is about hope rather than despair. Indeed, the Montreal gathering suggested that a revisionist project is underway. Leading the charge are Mr. Cohen's champions in the universities who believe their favourite poet has been unjustly neglected by the rest of the academy. The University of Victoria's Stephen Scobie is one of the few Canadian literature professors to publish criticism on the work of Leonard Cohen. During a panel discussion, he said most scholars are guilty of "academic snobbery." Because Leonard Cohen has a popular following and is a commercial success, the assumption is that he can't be a serious writer. Arrogant professors, complained Mr. Scobie, have little time for poetry that people "sing along with."

It's quite true that academics don't waste their time on literature they consider simplistic. A poem that says pretty much what one thinks it says is not worthy of the mighty analytical tools that professional critics supposedly employ when drilling for meaning. (One doesn't insult a neurosurgeon by asking him to remove a splinter.) The revisionist strategy, then, is to argue that Mr. Cohen's writings do not mean what you think they mean.

McGill's own Prof. Brian Trehearne acknowledged that the idea of "brokenness" -- broken hearts, broken promises, even fragmented body parts -- runs throughout the Cohen oeuvre. But Mr. Trehearne gives this imagery a positive spin. Mr. Cohen is not a depressive as two generations of readers have assumed, but a poet "obsessed with wholeness and integrity." His work is ultimately uplifting because it shows that "there's wholeness in being broken." Ira Nadel, the UBC professor, even invoked his personal acquaintance with Leonard Cohen. "He's not a dark personality. To be in Leonard's presence is a joyous event."

So far the Cohenists, as they call themselves, have had a difficult time winning converts. This year, Mr. Scobie edited a special issue of Essays On Canadian Writing -- a prestigious academic journal -- devoted to Leonard Cohen. He sent out a call for papers and, as he tactfully puts it, discovered he need not worry about being embarrassed by an abundance of contributions. In the end, a number of the papers that appear in the issue were written by his own graduate students and by non-academics, including a high school teacher in Toronto. One paper is simply a transcript of an online discussion, among Cohen fans, of the song Closing Time. The Internet, sighs Mr. Scobie, "has taken the place of a scholarly journal for Cohen studies."

A curious thing about Leonard Cohen: It has been seven years since his last CD and more than twice that since he published a collection of poetry, and yet his popularity shows no signs of diminishing. And it's not just baby boomers nostalgic for the '60s. Eighteen-year-old Aaron Bouschor travelled by train from his home in Montana to attend last weekend's gathering in Montreal. The trek took a couple of days. "You'd be surprised how many young people are listening to Leonard Cohen," he said. "There's enough of us to keep his work alive."

Another young delegate, 19-year-old Justin Tensen of Kitchener, said he discovered Mr. Cohen in the eighth grade when the class read For Anne, one of the early poems. "It resonated with me," he recalls. Mr. Tensen, who has bright blond hair and both ears pierced, then proceeded to recite the poem. He was not self-conscious doing so. This is significant because poetry is supposed to have no future in today's cynical postmodern age. All poetry, that is, inevitably becomes ironic and cliched -- and if you take it seriously then the joke's on you. But not according to Leonard Cohen fans. "I'm not embarrassed to talk about things like ultimate meaning and purpose -- but I know lots of people are," explained Mr. Tensen. "Poetry is timeless and that scares some people who are caught up in materialism."

Like Mr. Tensen, Cohen acolytes are highly thoughtful. As a group, they are more intellectual than the mellow disciples of Bob Dylan, but at the same time less intense than, say, the mopey, tortured souls who worship Sylvia Plath. "We are well rounded people," said Alex Dillon, a 30-year-old graduate student at Harvard University who drove from Boston. "The difference between us and other so-called fan groups is that we will be critical of Leonard Cohen's work."

They do, however, draw the line at any suggestion that Leonard Cohen has a bad attitude about women. There was even grumbling -- by male and female delegates alike -- that feminist critics are partly responsible for Mr. Cohen's lukewarm reputation in the universities. Of course, no serious reader of Leonard Cohen, feminist or otherwise, has accused the poet of outright misogyny. But it does seem sometimes that women are less than human in his writing. In some poems, women exist to be gazed upon, functioning merely as esthetic objects designed to inspire the poet.

"That's not true," protested Heather Salisbury, who fills her journals with unmailed letters to Mr. Cohen. Ms. Salisbury opened her copy of Stranger Music, a collection of Mr. Cohen's work, and turned to the 1972 poem Portrait of a Girl in which an unnamed woman is "profoundly worried/that her thighs are too big," that she sweats too much and that she has a moustache."As far as I'm concerned/she has no problem whatsoever," says Mr. Cohen in the final couplet.

Ms. Salisbury runs her fingers lovingly across the page. One gets the feeling she reads the poem every day, like a prayer. "Women love Leonard because he loves us," she says.

Throughout the weekend there was an unspoken hope that the bard himself would make a surprise appearance. He did not. If he had, it would have been amusing to see how the group divided. Who would use the opportunity to ask for an autograph and who would instead get right down to business and ask for an explanation of some difficult passage in one of the songs? There would probably be more of the latter. Although Cohenists keep abreast of developments in Mr. Cohen's personal life, their primary interest seems to be the work itself. This cannot always be said of fans of other popular singers.

Even so, Jarkko Arjatsalo, the Finnish accountant, found himself a little star struck back in 1997 when Mr. Cohen began sending material to post on the Web site. Eventually, the two started corresponding. Mr. Cohen found he could speak to his fans through Mr. Arjatsalo. When last spring Mr. Cohen decided to leave the Mount Baldy Zen Centre in California, where he had been studying Buddhism for the previous five years, he notified Mr. Arjatsalo. Mr. Arjatsalo posted the information on his site immediately and within hours Cohen fans around the world were talking about it.

Last year, Mr. Arjatsalo and his family visited Mr. Cohen in Los Angeles. "He was a perfect host," said Mr. Arjatsalo. They ate at a Greek restaurant that Mr. Cohen knew well. "We talked about the Internet -- he's very interested in that -- and also about his decision to leave Mount Baldy. I was nervous at first but realized quickly there was nothing to be nervous about. He's a very friendly person." Mr. Cohen's Zen name is Jikan, meaning "Silent One," a suitable moniker for an artist who is often cast as the world's loneliest romantic. Yet Mr. Arjatsalo also insists that when you meet him, Mr. Cohen is more animated than his unsmiling photographs would suggest.

There is, however, no doubting Mr. Cohen's generosity, for he has given Mr. Arjatsalo his personal e-mail address. This makes Mr. Arjatsalo himself something of a revered figure within the community of Cohen fans. Mr. Arjatsalo tries hard not to be a nuisance, though often he can't resist e-mailing a question or two about something Mr. Cohen has written. "Sometimes he answers in a couple of days, sometimes in a couple of hours," said Mr. Arjatsalo. He shrugged. "And sometimes he doesn't answer at all."

© 2000 by Leonard Stern and Ottawa Citizen