by Jarkko Arjatsalo

Essays on Canadian Writing, Number 69, Winter 1999

(Revised in July 2001)

“I am no longer living on Mount Baldy.” Leonard Cohen revealed this change in his lifestyle to me on 18 June 1999 in Los Angeles. I placed this information on the front page of my Internet site, The Leonard Cohen Files, immediately upon my return home to Finland. The news spread within hours among Cohen’s fans all over the world, boosted by additional notices on the Web-based Leonard Cohen Newsgroup, other unofficial Web sites, and various electronic mailing lists.

For the previous five years, Cohen was a full-time resident of the Mount Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles. He was officially ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk on 9 August 1996 and was given the name of Jikan (“Silent One”). But he decided to move on, and he found the Internet a proper place to tell his fans about his decision.

Cohen also handed me a copy of his poem Dear Roshi, with a colour drawing that he said could also be posted on my site. The drawing was an original from the most recent of his famous notebooks, in constant use for “blackening pages.” In the poem, he sheds light on his decision to come down from the mountain and, in his inimitable style, intimates that his love for women played a part in his decision. The Web posting immediately raised a furor among acquaintances and Zen adherents and resulted in numerous requests for rights to reproduce the materials. After a week, we decided to delete the drawing and poem from the site. The incident proved that the Web site is being read and monitored by many more people than I had imagined.

This paper describes the genesis and evolution of the unofficial Leonard Cohen sites. Other Web activities are also noted, and the final section details the incredible number of Cohen cover songs that have been discovered through Web communications.

Not more than some years ago, when Cohen moved to Mount Baldy (in 1994), it would have been impossible to disseminate news about him to such a large international group of people so quickly and efficiently. Now an announcement is available to anyone with a computer and Internet access as soon as it is saved on the hard disc of my server. In the 1980s, a worldwide communications network, open to anybody, was more science fiction than reality. Things began to develop very fast in the 1990s, however, and unofficial fan pages for numerous artists were among the first Web sites opened. Many of them pioneered work in both Internet content and design well before commercial sites caught on and began to open.

In January 2000, I searched the Web for “Leonard Cohen” using the AltaVista search engine and received notice of 17,146 Web sites that had at least some mention of Cohen. While many, of course, only provide brief mentions of him, several are fully devoted to his work. The number of sites is even more impressive in light of recent estimates that no current search engine reaches even twenty percent of the 800 million pages (six trillion characters) on the Web.

The history of Leonard Cohen home pages matches the history of the Web itself. Carter Page launched his site, Bird on the Wire: The Leonard Cohen Home Page, in 1994 using the technical resources of the University of Pennsylvania. This site was the first of several large home pages devoted to Cohen and his work. At about the same time, Paul Black and Adi Heindl opened sites (just to mention some work that is still available on-line).

Dan Engelhardt compiled a discography and the collected lyrics to all of Cohen’s songs about the same time. He also made a list of Cohen’s songs that were available in cover versions by other singers. His listings were first posted on Page’s Web site, and many other sites soon repeated them. Page also posted articles, interviews, and album information about Cohen. While Page’s site still exists, it has not been updated since late 1995. (For readers who use the Web, links to all the sites mentioned in this article and to a number of others can be found on the links page at my site.

I opened my Cohen site in September 1995. It was first titled The Leonard Cohen Fan Information Files but was later renamed The Leonard Cohen Files with the permission of Stranger Management Inc. (Cohen’s business manager). This title was simpler and more fitting. Sony printed the link to it on the cover booklet for the More Best of Leonard Cohen album in 1997, and again on the booklet of Field Commander Cohen (2001). Sony also maintains a professional site at www.leonardcohencom, but it contains only a fraction of the information on the unofficial sites. However, Sony has upgraded the site twice in 2001 to pay hommage (and promote) the new albums.

My son, Rauli Arjatsalo (born 1980), has taken care of the technical details and maintenance of my site since its inception, while I collect and edit its contents. The site is available on a Finnish server. The front page of the site can be found at www.leonardcohenfiles.com

The roots of my site go back to the period when network technology was not yet racing with printed media. I was an enthusiastic reader of The Leonard Cohen Newsletter edited and distributed by Leonard Cohen Information Service, run in Sheffield, United Kingdom, by Jim Devlin. He ran the service for ten years, from 1984 to 1994. Michael Lohse, Gerhard Schinzel, and Martin Rupps had established the newsletter in Germany, and it had moved to the United Kingdom when Devlin took over. All thirty-seven issues were full of invaluable news items about Cohen’s tours and records, cover versions of his music, and collectible items. In 1994, Devlin decided to end the newsletter. Partly he wanted to concentrate on writing books about Cohen, which he has done. But mostly he was afraid there would not be an adequate quantity of new Cohen material for future issues. As the recent Internet activity proves, Devlin needn’t have worried.

After the demise of the newsletter, the only regularly distributed print medium for Cohen’s fans was the Intensity fanzine compiled in Holland by Yvonne Hakze and Bea de Koning. This quarterly publication concentrated on reprinting articles from newspapers and magazines worldwide, and it included discussions on other Cohen topics. However, the editors preferred to keep circulation within reasonable limits of their publishing resources, so they never not advertised the fanzine widely. The Intensity editors also arrange a small Leonard Cohen meeting in Amsterdam every fall. After almost 14 years, the very last issue of Intensity was mailed to the subscribers in Spring 2000.

Soon after Devlin’s newsletter was discontinued, I opened my Internet site in Finland. I quickly realized what a magnificent channel for Cohen information the Web would be. The existing Cohen sites and the Usenet news group indicated that other Cohen fans might be anxious to take advantage of such resources. I collected some basic material during the summer of 1995 and launched the site on 3 September 1995, with the initial content on about seventy different pages.

The number of visitors began to grow, first slowly and then faster and faster. The counter on the front page registered the 100,000th visitor in July 1998 and the 200,000th in September 1999. At the time of this writing (July 2001), the daily average is over 400 and the 500.000th visitor will be registered in September 2001. Web visitors have come from more than seventy countries and from all continents.

The geographical distribution of visitors to my site is almost identical to the availability of Internet services. Most hits come from the United States, Canada, and the central and northern European countries. Lately, more and more fans from Latin America and Asia have visited the site. Interestingly, a notable number of Cohen fans from South Africa also visit it, but the rest of Africa has not been represented.

Cohen’s work is also becoming more popular in eastern Europe and Asia. E-mails from countries such as Japan, Taiwan, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon show that his work, both his poetry and his music, is studied by the young generations in these areas, even though their local religious beliefs may be very different. Surprisingly, after the collapse of the USSR, many Cohen covers have been released in eastern Europe, and new editions and translations of his novels and poetry have been printed in many countries. In just the past years, new editions of his books have been published in Hebrew, Chinese, Swedish, Danish, Portuguese, Spanish, Czech, and Croatian. Curiously, however, many of these books are unavailable in English!

The Leonard Cohen Files currently offers more than seven hundred Web pages and contains as many photos. Much of this content has never been available before to the public. New information keeps arriving from contributors in various countries, and my work as the host has become more and more similar to that of an editor. Several Cohen biographers, such as Jim Devlin, Christof Graf, Stephen Scobie, and Vlad Arghir, are providing me with their work. As described below, however, the most important contributions to the site are new poems, song lyrics, and drawings from Cohen himself.

The Leonard Cohen Filesfeatures numerous sections, including Cohen’s song lyrics, with analysis; his books, with special summaries written by Scobie; books about Cohen; his filmography, with a listing of songs used on soundtracks all over the world; his discography, including poetry records; complete listings of all his tours, including venues and many track listings; an article and interview archive; and listings of tribute albums and cover versions of his songs. Collectors’ rarities are also shown in a special section, and there is a marketplace for those who are trying to find a missing record or book. Other popular sections contain art inspired by Cohen, and almost one hundred of his active fans are featured with their photos in The Gallery of Beautiful Losers.

Internet activities have also created a flood of Cohen meetings in many countries; information on past events is available in the Fandom section of the site. The first big European gathering took place in Lincoln, United Kingdom, in the spring of 1998, but “The Leonard Cohen Event” in May 2000 in Montreal was in its own category both in size and quality of the program. The next major get-together will be on the island of Hydra in Greece in June 2002.

Without a doubt, though, the most important section of The Leonard Cohen Files is Blackening Pages. Here poems, lyrics, and artwork have been posted by Cohen himself. Most of this material is still unpublished in any other format, though a number of the poems will probably appear in the forthcoming Book of Longing. Visitors to the site have also been able to follow in real time how the lyrics of a new song, A Thousand Kisses Deep, have been developing.

Cohen began to contribute to The Leonard Cohen Files in the spring of 1997 with colour copies of sketches, paintings, drawings, and computer art taken from his numerous scrapbooks. Granting permission to show these materials in the Blackening Pages section, Cohen wrote. “I want to send, among other things, the first manuscript scratchings for ‘Suzanne’ and other early songs. I’d like to make the process clear, or at least throw some light on the mysterious activity of writing.” Later on-line readers have been offered more and more contributions from Cohen: some twenty new poems, many of them written on Mount Baldy, which reveal his thoughts and desires, and later his decision to move on. Cohen reported to the editors of the French Internet magazine Planète Internet in December 1997 that ”Now I put up new poems or drawings—in fact I use the Internet as a tool for publication. I don’t know whether it’s really a universal tool, but I notice that nowadays I carry on all my correspondence by e-mail and it’s a way of keeping in touch, especially here.

Cohen does not have concerns about copyright issues. As he explained to Suzanne Nunziata, the Billboard magazine editor, in December 1998, “I have been posting a lot of original material on the Finnish site. I don’t know what the ramifications are. Speaking as a writer towards the end of his life, where most of my work is out there, I’ve collected royalties on it, I’ve been able to live and maybe even provide for a respectable retirement. I’d be happy to publish everything on the Internet at this stage of the game.”

Today there are more Web sites than ever that pay homage to Cohen. Twenty to thirty sites dedicated to his work are active, and the number is growing all the time. Although some sites exist for only a brief period, a phenomenon typical to all noncommercial sites on the Internet, many national sites in various languages have been opened lately, and it appears that they will be maintained for some time. For instance, new sites have appeared in Spain, Italy, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and France. The French site, hosted by Patrice Clos, is one of the most remarkable and comprehensive sites. There are also sites that concentrate on special subjects, especially Marie Mazur’s Speaking Cohen, an extensive andn high level site of newspaper and magazine articles and interviews, and Christof Graf’s German Cohen site. Marie Mazur has also created The Leonard Cohen Concordance. Since autumn 1999, The Leonard Cohen Webring groups together ten major websites dedicated to Cohen’s work. Links on each of the member websites allow visitors to move from one site to the next.

Marie Mazur, Patrice Clos and Jarkko Arjatsalo have also collaborated with each other and opened special sites devoted to Leonard Cohen’s new albums Field Commander Cohen and Ten New Songs.

Suzanne Nunziata asked Cohen if he is thinking of creating a Web site of his own. Cohen answered “No. . . . There’s a kind of family that is gathered around my work. 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, exchanges.” Cohen was referring here to the Leonard Cohen Newsgroup (news:alt.music.leonard-cohen), an active Usenet group for those who want to discuss Cohen’s work and recent news. Some twenty to thirty new postings appear daily in numerous threads. Every message since 1 January 1996 has been archived by www.google.com and can be found using the search facilities provided by that site. The Usenet newsgroup was established in the spring of 1995. Earlier there was an informative Cohen mailing list of some fifty e-mail users, but it ended after two years once the Usenet group was born. You may read more about the history in Geoffrey Wren’s article. People interested in Cohen also meet in the Leonard Cohen Chatroom or post their messages on the Leonard Cohen Message Board of this site. And, last but not least, numerous mailing lists and e-mail discussion groups spread information and opinions and offer chances for more private conversations.

The typical reaction of a visitor to The Leonard Cohen Files has been joyful surprise to find such extensive information on Cohen’s work available on-line. Many Cohen fans have never before met anyone else with a deep interest in his work, and they are thrilled to find hundreds or thousands of like-minded people on the Internet. Cohen’s new albums and books are rare. It is therefore noteworthy that his fans remain so fiercely faithful. Comments and interests expressed on the Internet demonstrate that new editions of all Cohen books, as well as new or reissued videos for home use, would find an audience ready to purchase them.

Cover, Cover, Cover

A worthwhile Internet activity has evolved around the collection of information about cover versions and tribute albums. The Internet community has helped The Leonard Cohen Filesto build a complete listing, one that keeps expanding with new discoveries.

Usually, only two compilations by various artists are mentioned when tribute records are discussed. I’m Your Fan and Tower of Song. Sometimes Cohen på Norsk — a Norwegian tribute put together by that country’s leading female artists— is mentioned, along with the early covers by Judy Collins on several of her albums. The outstanding album Famous Blue Raincoat by Jennifer Warnes also receives deserved attention.

However, numerous contributors have sent data and records to me, and they show that more than a dozen tribute albums (containing only Cohen songs) have been released in addition to those mentioned above. Tribute albums have been made in USA, Canada, Iceland, Poland, France, Italy, Sweden, Germany, South Africa, the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Hungary. In Spain, an excellent Lorca-Cohen album by Enrique Morente features four Cohen songs in modern flamenco style. Click here for complete listing.

Nobody, including Cohen and his business staff, realized that so many cover versions had been recorded in so many countries. As of July 2001, we found and posted 660 cover songs. About one hundred of them we found as a result of a contest organized by The Leonard Cohen Files and Cohen’s Stranger Management staff in 1998. Artists in North America and almost every country in Europe, as well as Brazil, Israel, Iran, Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, and other countries, have recorded Cohen songs.

Maciej Zembaty, a well-known Polish musician and translator, has recorded at least forty-three songs written by Cohen. Graeme Allwright, a New Zealand-born artist living in France, has made fourteen cover songs. Both artists have also helped to introduce Cohen’s work in their countries.

Cohen’s work as a singer-songwriter has been most popular in Poland, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Norway, and other northern European countries, if Internet feedback is reliable. Indeed, those fans persisted during the difficult period in the early 1980s when Cohen was virtually neglected in North America (e.g., Various Positions was released in 1985 in Europe but not by his record company in the United States).

The most covered song, according to our lists, is Suzanne, with one hundred recordings located. Bird on the Wire takes second place, followed by Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye and So Long, Marianne and Famous Blue Raincoat.

© 1999, 2000, 2001 Jarkko Arjatsalo