by Daniel Wyszogrodzki

March 22, 1985, Sala Kongresowa (Congress Hall at the Palace of Culture)

Leonard Cohen´s trip to Poland in 1985 was as much welcomed as it was unexpected. Not included in the original schedule for the Various Positions Tour the four March dates were added at the last minute thanks to promoter Andrzej Marzec – the first independent promoter in Poland (responsible for bringing Bob Dylan in 1994 and still active in the music business).

It was a thrill for a number of reasons. First of all PRL (Polish People’s Republic, as the state was called while under a Soviet regime) was not a concertgoer’s heaven. Quite the opposite. Foreign stars of popular music did not visit our country on regular basis and the memory of The Rolling Stones show in 1967 never seemed to fade. Another important thing: it was a sad and very dark period in our contemporary history. A martial law imposed on 13th of December 1981, only a year after an outbreak of “Solidarity” (the first semi-free trade union in the Eastern Block and also a major social movement) has deepened the economical and spiritual crisis in our country and it seemed there were no realistic solutions at hand. It was generally believed the Soviet Union would invade the country – as it did in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 – at the first sign of a real uprising. The spirits hit the bottom.

But the main reason was the artist himself. Leonard Cohen was a cult figure by that time, considered the greatest living songwriter, widely recognized and loved by the Poles as no other singer in the world. He was known to be a writer as well, although none of his works were available in Polish translations. His songs were sung with the Polish lyrics by Maciej Zembaty. I never liked his translations, but I recognize his role in making Leonard Cohen a household name in Poland. You would hear “Suzanne” at every campfire in the country.

This is no place for literary analysis, but our appreciation of Leonard Cohen’s songs is easy to explain. We understood them. When he spoke about Suzanne or about Jesus we felt his lyrics sound familiar, strike familiar bells. His poetry seemed to be a distant branch of the ages old tree of European literature. We dug the metaphors. He seemed – with all his originality – not unlike our own poets. Exotic – yes. Especially in his unorthodox treatment of sex and religion. But understandable. As opposed to the “Americana” of Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen.

All this added to the enormous interest in Leonard Cohen’s shows in Poland. There were four of them. Beside the Warsaw concert I joyfully attended (and recorded and took photographs of) there was a famous show in Wroclaw’s Hala Ludowa (Jahrhunderthalle in German) where Hitler addressed the crowds of his Nazi followers in the 30's. Leonard Cohen made a comment on that and performing in the place of such a history gave him a very spooky feeling.

His latest album – “Various Positions” – came out few months before and Dance Me To The End Of Love was a major hit both on the radio and as the music video played continuously on Polish national television. Needless to say obtaining a ticket was a problem and it had nothing to do with a very high price (at the day of the show scalpers would get an equivalent of a monthly salary for a single ticket and people still considered themselves lucky to get in).

In front of the SPATIF office in downtown Warsaw (a central box-office for all entertainment tickets) a line formed with a week’s advance. It was controlled by me and my friends from a car parked in front of the office day and night. Anyone interested would get a number – without it there was no way of getting inside after the tickets arrived. Mine was number 2 (because a friend I brought with me got to the door before me and signed his name first). People may still remember a very red Peugeot 305 with a cover of “Songs of Leonard Cohen” (a vinyl copy since the CDs just started to appear at that time) stuck behind a windshield – headquarters of the Unofficial Ticket Committee. More then a thousand people signed up!

The communist authorities were ambivalent. The tourneé of Leonard Cohen in Poland was officially approved of – otherwise it would never happen. But it would only get the coverage from a local TV channels like Kurier Warszawski (a Warsaw Courier) in the capitol where a young blond journalist, Grazyna Bukowska, interviewed the artist every day during his visit. Unfortunately, a VHS tape of these interviews I recorded of the television, was later accidentally erased. As far as I know – and I spoke to Mrs. Bukowska recently – nothing remains in the archives. Luckily – there’s a video tape of the entire Warsaw concert itself.

I remember when Mr. Cohen heard a woman filmed by a TV crew in front of Kongresowa at the day of the show confess she spent her monthly salary on a single ticket. He said she shouldn’t have done so. In the studio he seemed really disturbed and said it wasn’t worth it. Waiting for the concert was like waiting for a volcano to erupt. A funny feeling concerning how quiet and tranquil Cohen’s shows are. I knew basically what to expect. Although there was no bootleg material available and we had to be satisfied with the “Live Songs” album (quite satisfying I still say) I knew what to expect, cause I just got a tape of his Paris shows.

Another thing was a friendly welcome. And here comes my “WELCOME BACK sign story”:

As I said Leonard Cohen’s arrival to Poland – still broken after years of martial law – was an extraordinary event. To me it was a dream come true. So I’ve had an idea for a concert sign that some friendly wives helped to prepare. We made this sign with few white sheets sewn together and painted letters using – an important detail – two different colors (black and red for the LC initials). At the only existing photograph the letters seem brighter. It is in B&W.

The sign – when spread wide – said: WELCOME BACK. Neither imaginative nor appropriate, wouldn’t you say? Well, not necessarily. For the idea was to fold it. When Leonard Cohen entered the stage for the first time, we had the BACK part folded and shown only a friendly WELCOME. I swear he noticed – we had excellent seats at the first row of the amphitheater (best seats in the house, take my word on that) and the sign was huge. When Mr. Cohen left the stage for the intermission it was a humble COME BACK letting him know we’ll be patiently waiting. Needless to say, when he showed up again for the second part of the show, we had the triumphant WELCOME BACK waiting and he seemed slightly confused… Or maybe it was just our imagination overcoming our sign holders’ pride. I wonder if he remembers it at all.

As you should guess by now the encores (Tennessee Waltz and the second performance of Bird On A Wire that never made it to the tape of the show and hence to the bootleg album) had us waving: COME BACK, WELCOME BACK, COME BACK, WELCOME BACK, COME BACK…

I suppose doing a trick like this today would get me and my friends all over the news. Back then there was no Polish TV present at the show and almost no journalists (we attended the show privately smuggling our cameras and recording devices). A friend of ours – his name was Lelek and I have no idea where he is now – noticed our gang from a high balcony seat and taking one shot he got left in the camera memorized the moment and the sign. And an evening of hope and beauty I shall never forget. I am that young guy right above the “O” (25 years old back then), the Mickey Mouse hair at my right belongs to Tomek Nowak, a lifelong friend and one of today’s top Polish copywriters in advertisement business. Our girlfriends both bent down to pickup their purses. It is the very moment the lights went back on.

The show itself was a good one. Not a great one by Leonard Cohen’s standards and by comparison to the bulk of his recorded performances available these days in such abundance. The tension was almost palpable. People gathered for the extraordinary artistic event but they did not leave their political expectations at the door. They should have and they better would have but they didn’t. It may seem difficult to comprehend to people who grew up under normal conditions in free countries. But in a totalitarian country everything is political.

And so the Warsaw audience listened to songs – both smart and beautiful – but waited for a statement. A political statement. I felt it and I didn’t sympathize with that. I was different. This put Mr. Cohen in a very delicate position. He sensed that tension. He felt anticipation. There was also an amount of hope involved – no matter how silly it may seem today.
But obviously he did not come as the Messiah to free the land and lead it’s crowds to freedom. He came to perform his songs and it was more than we had the right to hope for. But he spoke, like he always does. The magic of his voice was making a contact but the tension prevailed. Everybody wanted to hear The Word – the one word that was both sacred and forbidden. Solidarity. He finally said it and the audience erupted like it was more important then any of his own words. Or songs. I still think it was sad. We were the oppressed people.

We didn’t realize then he was under different kind of pressure at the very same time. His band didn’t want any troubles. They came to play the music and get paid for doing it. They didn’t want anything to interrupt the tour. They had come from very safe Sweden and were on their way to very safe Italy. Poland was a “side job”. And they were all professionals.

As I mentioned before I recorded the show as many other people did. I also took some color photographs from the audience and a friend of mine took some B&W shots from the balcony. There is also a VHS tape of the entire Warsaw show – the one and only copy I kept safe and secret for 20 years. How I got a hold of it I rather not tell. The Warsaw bootleg album that appeared a couple of years ago for the twentieth anniversary of the show comes from the audio track of that tape. It was conceived by Artur Jarocinski from Krakow – the greatest collector of the works of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan in Poland. He got the photos off the official Polish website and the quality of the prints is very low. But it sounds all right.

On the left: a cassette bootleg was released soon after the show by Akademickie Radio Pomorze, Szczecin, Cat # ARP 036/1-2. This release was produced by Maciej Zembaty, Marek Wojcik and Henryk Waniek. 21 songs on two cassettes (58:10 + 57:30). A CD bootleg was to follow 20 years later!

I asked Artur (who was a little baby at a time of the show) to help me with this material and thus got all Leonard Cohen announcements written down by him so you can follow everything the artist said on the stage of Warsaw’s Sala Kongresowa in 1985. I wish Leonard Cohen would come back to Poland. It’s a free country now and we would listen to his words and songs all the more carefully. I hope he tours some time soon. I hope he comes back. Welcome back.

The complete transription of the show is on the next page
- with more photos and some sound samples!!

And you know what? When I really think about it now he helped us to become free after all. Exactly the way he likes it: “in other little ways” (as he put it in the book). Because a nation comes to freedom in thousands of steps – some of them huge leaps, the others little. And the evening with Leonard Cohen more than twenty years ago was an evening of hope. Difficult as much to him as it was to us. Not necessarily political but intimate. And I learned to appreciate the power of intimacy. There are moments when nothing can get between you and the other person. And when this person is Leonard Cohen himself you feel blessed. And you feel free.

Now, more then 20 years after the Warsaw concert, I am proud to be the Polish translator of the „Book of Longing”. It came out in Poland in November 2006. Thank you, Teacher.

Daniel Wyszogrodzki is a journalist, translator and author and lives in Warsaw. In July 2001 he met with Leonard at the Four Seasons Hotel in Berlin to talk about the new record Ten New Songs.

Black and white photos © Lelek.
Color photos © Daniel Wyszogrodzki.