by Geoffrey Wren

(July 2001)

Leonard Cohen, talking about The Leonard Cohen Newsgroup in a 1998 interview with Billboard magazine said "...and then there's the newsgroup. There's a kind of family that is gathered around my work; it's not fixed in 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."

The Internet started in the USA at the end of the 1960's, when four computers were successfully linked together in the first network. During the following decade various companies very gradually began installing computers. Researchers, government agencies and academics across the country contributed to the continual expansion and upgrading of this new technical development. By the mid-1980's Internet was well established throughout the USA, now being used by educational facilities and international organisations. The market for personal computers during the latter half of the 1980's exploded. Millions of people around the globe were becoming connected together via their personal computers.

Leonard Cohen's association with Internet is rather well documented. A circle of his fans kept in touch with each other by e-mail, and one of these fans was called Susan Cole. On 8th November 1990 she launched The Leonard Cohen Mailing List which allowed distribution of each e-mail to all members of the small Cohen online community. In her opening message she wrote: "The Leonard Cohen mailing list is now launched! As of today, we have 31 members, including several in Europe and one in Australia ...Let the conversation begin!"

Fans were now, for the first time, able to share their views in an organised and spontaneous manner. Cohen appreciation societies, which had up to this point provided invaluable services by sending subscribers regular newsletters via the normal postal system, would eventually be unable to compete with this new electronic wizardry.

The Cohen mailing list became a thriving medium of instant communication with continually increasing activity. The number of members grew constantly, discussion encompassing everything from his interviews, poetry, novels and music. While people posting to this medium maintained a respectful level of quality and seriousness in their messages, it seemed to lack the lively humour, mood swings and lighthearted frivolousness which was to be more prevalent in the next phase of fan communication.

By 1994 the modern Internet, as we know it today, was well and truly out of its infancy. The computer language of HTML had permitted World Wide Web to be created, and Bill Gates' popular "Windows" programme had become a standard computer necessity. The Cohen mailing list was about to receive a jolt. On a September morning in New York that same year, Perry Metzger (unrelated to the Cohen backing musician named Bob) made a vitaly important move for all other fans. He took Cohen into usenet by setting up a newsgroup called Cohen fans could now post their views openly on the worldwide usenet system of discussion groups instead of being confined to the limitations of the list. Anyone with Internet could effortlessly read articles sent in by anyone else within seconds of them being posted. Strangely, few of the many people on the mailing list crossed over to the newsgroup until after it had been well established. Below is part of the first ever message sent to the newsgroup created in Leonard Cohen's honour:

From: Perry E. Metzger
Date: Friday, 9 September 1994, 10:16:58 PDT
Forum: alt-music.leonard-cohen
Subject: Welcome!

Welcome to! . . . This newsgroup exists to discuss the music of Leonard Cohen and related topics such as concert information.

Perry Metzger

Some time later, when Perry was asked about the newsgroup he had started, he said that at the time he was unaware of the existence of the Cohen mailing list. Thinking that there was no place to discuss him, he created one. "Not much more to it than that. I'm pleased that such a simple action brought a lot of people together....", he says.

For a short time the Cohen mailing list and the newsgroup existed side by side, although some people on the list were rather suspicious and negative. Four days after the newsgroup's launch, which by then was already showing over a hundred messages, one can read in the mailing list: "...someone has set up an newsgroup. There has been a lot of traffic already, although the quality of the content is clearly not up to this mailing list's." Someone else responds: "That comment about quality is right on the mark."

The number of posts to the newsgroup was inconstant at the beginning. Even though there was healthy general conversation and discussion at the start, activity could fluctuate dramatically. Yet by the end of 1994 had received well over 700 messages. This was not bad, considering that the mailing list received a mere 533 during the entire four and a half years it was in operation. On the mailing list in January 1995 one can read: "Could someone please e-mail me the correct name of the Leonard Cohen newsgroup I heard mentioned some time ago. My news-server does not carry it, and I am curious to read it." Someone replies: "The newsgroup is There are a handful of posts a day (traffic is way down from the beginning, but maybe it is a holiday slowdown)."

Although members of the mailing list were initially sceptical of this usenet rival, they slowly started to accept it - evident by their posting of long transcriptions of Cohen interviews to their forum which had first appeared on the newsgroup. The mailing list was looking old fashioned, not quite as effectual or dynamic as the wide open and instant visuality of a newsgroup's attractive column of threads and topics. Fewer and fewer messages were being sent to it. As Rudi Schmid was later to write: "After the Internet newsgroup was established in early September 1994, traffic on the Cohen-talk newsletter fell off considerably." The inevitable happened. The one-word final message of 21st June 1995 is both comical and sad. It is from an optimistic poster hoping to interact with other members on the list. He writes simply "subscribe".

The mailing list had survived from November 1990 to June 1995. Even though it was now closed forever, the rich archives collected religiously by initiator Susan Cole and others were fortunately preserved. They remain a unique treasure chest of information - a superb diary of how Leonard Cohen's work affected and influenced the everyday thoughts of fans who were engaged in Cohen-inspired communication. During the autumn of 1995 Rudi Schmid assembled and edited the entire mailing list archive of letters. He called them The Talk Files, and distributed copies to one or two other people, to minimise the risk of them disappearing.

So, was now the exclusive place for fans to rendezvous. Students, fans, researchers or biographers wishing to peek at old messages from this newsgroup may do so by employing the free services of the usenet archive Google, formerly called Dejanews. These records date back to the spring of 1995. Some of the messages to Cohen's newsgroup prior to the usenet archives (i.e. from September 1994 to March 1995) are stored in private collections.

Cohen's album The Future was released in 1992. When one takes into consideration the fact that nine years would pass until the next - it stands as a great tribute to the power and appreciation of his work that during this long period his fans had no difficulty in maintaining continual cyberspace interaction. On the contrary, and as the many thousands of messages in the usenet archives will confirm, discussion has increased, despite the launching of several Cohen message boards (on The Leonard Cohen Files, The French Cohen site,The German Cohen site, and some in Yahoo! Clubs) and a round-the-clock chatroom started by Jarkko Arjatsalo. Cohen himself has never made an appearance in his newsgroup. That just wouldn't be right, somehow. But like many people, he is online - and often reads it!

[Thanks to Perry Metzger, and the Archives of The Leonard Cohen Mailing List 1990-95 compiled by Rudi Schmid and hosted by Greg Wells.]

© 2001 Geoffrey Wren (Snow), Norway