by Ira B. Nadel

Saturday Night Magazine, July 8, 2000

Fan portraits of Leonard Cohen,
compiled at

At a Los Angeles carwash in the summer of 1995, Leonard Cohen turned to me in the bright sunlight, raised his sunglasses, and asked, "What about this Internet thing?" "What about it?" I replied. We were sitting on two plastic chairs facing east, while his dark green Pathfinder headed south through its wash and wax in preparation for our journey up to Cohen's retreat at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center. In the heat, he pondered aloud on the possibilities of worldwide access to his material. Should he allow it? Who would look at it? What would be done with it? And who is that beautiful woman getting out of her car? Though Cohen sensed the potential of the Net, it was still a mystery that had little connection to his career. He was increasingly dedicated to his new life outside the pop-music sphere, but he was equally determined to avoid the fate so common to artists of his era. Some had vanished from sight when they should have stuck around, while others kept coming back when they should have bowed out gracefully. Cohen was considering an altogether different route.

He had retired from performing after his 1993 tour and headed to the mountaintop, but his fans wouldn't let him escape. There were constant queries from the press. Followers speculated on the next album or book. By the end of 1995, Cohen realized how to respond. From Mt. Baldy, he had discovered the Leonard Cohen Files (, an Internet site run by a Finnish accountant and computer buff named Jarkko Arjatsalo. Other fan sites had preceded it, of course, but none could match its comprehensive scope, which included an on-line marketplace, a memorabilia section, summaries of Cohen's books, and an interview archive.

While most other artists will have little to do with sites dedicated to their work, Cohen decided to give his stamp of approval - literally, his chop, a Chinese stamp, which appears on the site - to the Cohen Files. In doing so, he turned Arjatsalo's site into something perhaps unprecedented: a fan Web site that is the primary venue for Cohen's new and unpublished poems, unrecorded song lyrics, and original paintings, drawings, and sketches. Cohen himself posts these artifacts, and now shapes the content of the site as much as Arjatsalo. Original work by Cohen appears with regularity, including the preface he wrote to the recent Chinese translation of Beautiful Losers. Penned in February, 2000, and titled, "A Note to the Reader," the preface provides Cohen's latest thoughts on a novel he calls an "odd collection of jazz riffs, pop-art jokes, refigured kitsch and muffled prayer." The essay explains how he wrote the novel on the sunlit patio of his home in Greece, never once wearing a hat, which makes the work, in his words, "more of a sunstroke than a book."

Cohen has also posted one of the first manuscript versions of "Suzanne," his most famous song, on the site. He invites fans on a virtual tour of the Mt. Baldy Zen Center, including a visit to his small apartment. Perhaps the site's most remarkable element is a section where Cohen revised the lyrics to a new song, "A Thousand Kisses Deep," on-line, in real-time. For days, fans could view the updates to his verses until finally, in the fall of 1998, he typed "Final Version."

Through the site, Cohen the monk has become a cyber presence, his image, voice, and writing available day and night. is an electronic notebook and bulletin board used equally by Cohen and his fans, satisfying the "Cohenists," coupling their desires with his work, and arguably keeping his career alive and vital. The site assures his virtual existence, balancing his disappearance into the spiritual world with an ongoing, on-line narrative of his comings and goings. The technology suits his needs, being both personal and distant, and solves his desire for privacy while giving his fans a controlled gateway to his life and his work.

In many ways, the site is the natural product of Cohen's connection to his fans, a relationship that has changed almost as many times as his persona. Over the years, he has transformed both his sound and his look, reshaping his sixties ballads into the Eurodisco of the eighties - remember the danceable but haunting "I'm Your Man"? - and discarding the early V-neck sweaters and chinos for the modern Leonard look - dark glasses, dark suit, dark shirt. His relationship to his fans has evolved similarly. Cohen went from lusting after them around the time of "Suzanne," to, with the Cohen Files, taking them into his confidence and giving them a role in the creation and dissemination of his work.

As a result, his popularity has grown in ways that his 1995 self would never have imagined. The site was the first place to offer a detailed account of the 1995 album Tower of Song, which featured cover versions of Cohen's work by Elton John, Sting, Billy Joel, and others; and the announcement of his 1997 album, More Best of Leonard Cohen, received instant worldwide publicity through the Cohen Files. Last April, his latest poem, "The Correct Attitude," was posted exclusively on the Web; by June 8, the site had registered its three-hundred-thousandth visitor.

How Cohenesque: he is simultaneously here and not here, electronically available to his fans but also private and elusive, travelling, writing, and recording. Like a verse from one of his songs that returns hauntingly and then disappears, or one of his albums that's hidden somewhere in the attic but not lost, Cohen hovers above his fans, guiding, shaping, and revealing parts of himself: "Give me absolute control/ Over every living soul/ And lie beside me, baby/ That's an order!"

Copyright © 2000 by Saturday Night Magazine and Ira B. Nadel
Reprinted here with author's permission

Paintings and drawings © (left to right): Juergen Jaensch,
Alexandra Fortier, Wilfrid Dube, Vicki Perlman, Michel Karam

(These and more are featured in the Inspiration section of the Files.)

Thanks to Ira B. Nadel, Jason Logan, Natalie Fuhr, Sarah McCabe,
and Zbig Pieciul for their help in creating this page.