Essays

How I (Finally) Met Leonard Cohen

Ann Diamond


Published as Stranger Song in Geist #72 and The Geist 20th Anniversary Collector's Issue

In 1966, when I was fifteen years old, I saw Leonard Cohen sing “The Stranger Song” on Canadian television. Not long afterwards, I took the subway from the dormitory suburb where I lived with my parents, into downtown Montreal and to Classics Bookstore, where I bought my first book of poetry, The Spice-Box of Earth, for which Cohen had won much critical praise. Magic was afoot.

In 1968, when I was starting university, I went to my first poetry reading. At the Rainbow Bar and Grill on Stanley Street there was standing room only as Patrick Lane, visiting from out west, read his poems, and then called out to a figure hunched in a corner near the bar. “Ladies and gentlemen, Leonard Cohen is here in the audience and I’d like to invite him up on stage to read for us.”

Applause. A slight man in a dark jacket approached the stage, head down, and spoke to Lane for a moment, then melted back into the crowd. Lane told us Leonard Cohen had declined to read—he had come only to listen. The audience groaned in disappointment. In the interval a madman suddenly stormed the stage, grabbed the mike and began to rave and weep. No one knew what to do, except Patrick Lane, who embraced him like a brother. The man returned to his seat and the crowd composed itself to listen to the next reader, but everyone kept looking around for Leonard Cohen, who had vanished.

The following week a letter appeared in the pages of the student newspaper for which I was news editor. It was signed by one of the poets who had read that same evening. Reaching back into the recent literary history of Montreal, the poet built a case accusing Leonard Cohen of “selling out.” What exactly had been sold, and to whom? What had he done to deserve this ranting assault? At seventeen I read hidden knowledge, and no small amount of envy, between the lines.

On a rainy night in October 1970, when the Canadian armed forces had occupied Montreal, I crossed paths with Leonard Cohen. To my magical way of thinking at the time, that accidental meeting under Measures of War was the climax of a spiralling descent that had begun when I fainted in my Romantic literature class during a lecture on the cosmology of William Blake.

I wish I knew the exact night it happened. I would like to situate that street corner moment in the context of historical events. It was a warmish rainy night, but nights can be warm in Montreal even into November. Was there tension in the air? Had I seen soldiers during my walk? Was I afraid? Had Labour Minister Pierre Laporte’s body already been discovered in the trunk of a car? All I know is that on that night, I was out testing the limits of my new-found personal liberty.

A few weeks earlier, at the beginning of an honours program in English literature, I had discovered I hated English literature and the students who studied it—a prissy, blinkered bunch of bookworms who could not read a poem without first consulting the critical literature. Besides, I wanted Russian novels and Polish poets! Not endless annotated sonnets by Herbert Spencer.

Downtown in the bars, all the talkers were excited and on edge. To hear them go on, they were on first-name terms with the principal players in the political drama. They lined them up like bottles-soldiers and cops on the right, politicians in the middle, nationalists and separatists over to the left with their backs to the wall.

Montreal was in a state of apprehended insurrection. Our flower child prime minister had proven he had an iron fist in his velvet glove. The Indian beads and trips behind the Iron Curtain had never really softened a personality that came of age during the Second World War. Add to that our collective state of induced schizophrenia, thanks to the hallucinogens flooding the streets.

I had been getting my feet wet in more ways than one. In late September, as the leaves rustled in anticipation of autumn, I had spent the night with a minor poet—handsome, bearded, neurotic, charming, the son of a cardiologist. He was twenty-five, an older man—but at least not yet decrepit like the thirty-four-year-old sociology prof who had recently asked me out. To boot, he’d published poems. I liked his private-school manners and studied aura of privilege, the way he took everything so lightly—me included—viewing life as a crooked game in which the dice were mysteriously loaded in his favour.

In my mind I relived our meandering walk back to his place through a tangled forest along a dried-out canal inside the stone walls of the Sulpician monastery on Sherbrooke Street; then the turn onto the avenue where he lived—monastically, I thought—and wrote his verses, then our night together in the big bed in his windy flat overlooking a park.

Magic is unrepeatable and always recedes, like a wave, leaving us beached with the dried-out relics of imagination. As a way of coping with the vacuum left by my first night with a poet, I decided to become a poet myself.

A few days later I was caught red-handed, revising a poem in thick blue magic marker on the wall of a stairwell at the university. The first draft, also on the wall, had been photographed and shown on the front page of the student newspaper—my first publication. Seeing it in print, I’d found it incomplete and had returned to the stairwell to add a coda. That’s when I was apprehended by a rent-a-cop who was stationed nearby.

He marched me down to the office of Dean Magnus Flynn, whom I knew by reputation. I’d been news editor of the student paper at Sir George Williams University after student activists occupied the computer centre, set up camp and began holding media conferences. Magnus Flynn had emerged as “the enemy”—super­ficially charming, deeply devious, as we said at the time, after many of the students went to jail and others were beaten in back rooms by Montreal police. I had never met Magnus Flynn face to face during those weeks when my colleagues were plotting counter-tactics in the newsroom. After all, weren’t we at war with everything he represented? Now, two years later, Flynn looked old and tired, or perhaps bored. Until that day in the stairwell I had maintained a 4.0 grade-point average, but mirrored in his eyes I saw not a silly girl from the suburbs who had recently stumbled in love, but a ragged representative of a generation that was going berserk.

Magnus Flynn threatened me with expulsion for defacing university property, but I headed him off. Fine with me, I said—I was planning to quit anyway, out of sheer boredom, and would be happy to leave that very minute. We were both surprised. Write a poem on a wall, drop out of school and ruin your life in a single bound. I didn’t care what Magnus Flynn thought of my decision to take to the streets with the rest of my generation. We were going to rattle society to its foundations. That same week I withdrew from my courses and began my new life, free of institutional commitments and constraints.

What would my parents say when they found out their daughter was a university dropout? I postponed telling them the exciting news and awaited instructions from the gods of coincidence, in whom I placed my trust.

In those days, it was easy to join the revolution. You could sign up on any street corner. “Into the streets!” was where you went to find like-minded children with weird hair and clothes. I had been in the streets a lot that year, marching for this and shouting slogans against that. The future would sort itself out, as simple as breathing. Until then, I’d lived inside books. Now that I was free, I went for endless walks, and read the pavement like a concrete poem, a symbolist scroll unveiling my concerns, obsessions and fears. I waited for a map of my future to surface on those strolls, taken in the spirit of Stephen Dedalus patrolling Dublin’s beaches in search of the “uncreated consciousness” of his race.

Ishared a three-room, $42-a-month unheated cold-water flat with my new friend Charlotte, recently back from a year at the Sorbonne. Or rather, Charlotte and I paid the rent, and her boyfriend David slept over. In Paris, they had been tear-gassed in a minor uprising, and the ­experience had radicalized them. David was twenty-three, a handsome young Leon Trotsky whose main occupation was filling our heads with political theories and attempting to convert the neighbours to the revolutionary struggle, when he wasn’t fighting with Charlotte in the kitchen, where they shared a creaking cot.

On that October night in 1970, I was in a state of emergency. I had gone out searching for the minor poet, who had rejected me. I believed we could sort things out and I wanted a word with him about all that had happened since our night together. Normally on a Friday, he could be found at the Bistro, a well-known hangout for intellectuals and artists, journalists and drunks. Leonard Cohen also drank at the Bistro in those days, and a few years earlier, Pierre Trudeau had been a regular.

I was testing the power of coincidence. If the poet and I were meant to meet, he would appear. And if not? Something would fill the gap.

As often happens in James Joyce stories, just before the epiphany, it began to pour rain. Having walked without an umbrella several kilometres from my flat near Parc Lafontaine to the steps of the Museum of Fine Arts, I was deep downtown, soaking wet.

In my drenched jeans and worn-out sandals, with my long stringy hair glued to my head, I arrived at the corner of Bishop and Sherbrooke. And sure enough.

A little black Volkswagen Beetle stood paused at a red light. At the wheel was a handsome man with an illustrious nose and a full head of dark hair. Next to him in the front seat sat a stunning dark-haired woman, elegantly dressed and made up. She stared blankly ahead, but the man’s eyes watched me from the space between his windshield wipers.

His window was rolled down. Nothing between us but warm, wet air. I squinted through the rain to get a better look at the face I recognized from television, book jackets, newspapers.

Reaching the sidewalk, I turned around and called: “I know who you are!”

“And I know who you are!” he shot back. For a moment I believed him.

“Why?” An impossible question. I should have said, “Who?” He might have obliged with a ready answer I could repeat later in the bar. “Leonard Cohen called me a—” Drowned mermaid. Travelling lady of the night. Some useful phrase that would anchor the lost wreck of a young woman.

Instead, the light changed to green. The man behind the wheel smiled grimly, shook his head and stepped on the gas.

Seven years later, at his kitchen table, I would ask him if he remembered our first encounter. He would not. Right now, though, I’d had enough for one night’s glimpse of the future. And I’d learned an important lesson: one poet leads to another. The universe provides for the pure in heart. On a street corner I’d had a flickering encounter with a mythical figure whose novel Beautiful Losers was one of the sacred texts of the day.

On the walk home, I felt exalted and breathless. I was floating above my occupied city like Kateri Tekakwitha, at one with all the Mohawks and other disembodied saints. I was hovering over unmarked graves, deciphering an unwritten novel on the facades of old stone buildings. Weaving through closely guarded streets, I covered the thirty blocks back to Panet Street, not a fashionable area then, but cheap and bordering on quaint.

My roommates were sleeping. I fell into bed and wrote in my notebook for a while by the light of the street lamp outside. Someday I might run into Leonard Cohen again and share my life story, the song of a Mohawk saint stranded in revolutionary times.

When the War Measures Act was declared, much of the air was forced out of our dreams and hopes. David fled to Berkeley one night, after hearing that his friends had been arrested and were being held at Parthenais Prison as suspected terrorists. Our crowded flat seemed colder and emptier without his long speeches. Before he left, he told us the police were arresting people on suspicion of being “Cubists”—Castro supporters. In a city that had little going for it but poetry, it was suddenly unsafe to be a surrealist.

I was unemployed and living off savings from my recent summer job, groping for a way through a world that appeared to be disintegrating. It always is, but how could I know that then? In self-defence, I began writing down all my dreams.

The second time I failed to meet Leonard Cohen was in the summer of 1972. I had returned to university but was addicted to drama. I lived in a commune that was the headquarters of the local women’s liberation movement, and had managed to get arrested with a group of students protesting the demolition of old houses in our neighbourhood.

On this hot night in July we were celebrating our night in jail, and had gone out dancing. Now we were weaving our way east along Sherbrooke, past the Ritz-Carlton Hotel west of McGill.

Out of nowhere, the name “Leonard Cohen” was spoken inside my head by a deep male voice. The effect was so powerful, I stopped and turned ninety degrees. On the opposite side of the street, a little black Volkswagen waited at a ­traffic light.

This time the passenger seat was empty, and the driver seemed to recognize me. Of course that was impossible, but he was waving. A beckoning gesture. Was he suggesting I cross the street and get into the car with him? I hesitated, then called to my friends, “Hey look, everybody! It’s Leonard Cohen!” In the glare of the streetlights, there was no mistaking him. Was he saddened, even offended, by my light, mocking tone? I hurried to catch up with my friends, with the sinking feeling that I was running from a great opportunity. For the rest of the way home I wondered why I didn’t just climb into the Volkswagen and see what happened next.

Later that summer, Leonard Cohen showed up at an event at the University Settlement on St. Urbain, where a group of musicians and actors from Ann Arbor were giving a performance. He walked in with a friend toward the end of the evening. A visiting performer recognized him and whispered that Leonard Cohen was there. I assured him this stranger was only a look-alike, yet another local poet and Cohen impersonator. I was so sure of myself that I hesitated to join the circle that formed around the fake Cohen—until someone handed him a guitar and he began to sing. That voice erased all doubt.

The fourth time I didn’t meet him was in the summer of 1975. Late one afternoon I was walking through the McGill ghetto and Leonard Cohen passed me at the corner of Hutchison, riding on a moped. He slowed down to stare at me and I ignored him. By then I had heard a few stories that made me feel I didn’t want to meet him after all. A minute later, he buzzed by again, still staring in an irritating way. I walked on. He circled the block once again. I thought, If he does that one more time, I’ll speak to him. But he didn’t.

One day in 1977, I was pushing my bicycle down the sidewalk near my apartment off the Main when Leonard Cohen appeared a foot or two away. Then, as often before, I decided to put off meeting him until the time was right. A friend of mine, a carpenter named Peter, was renovating one of Cohen’s buildings on rue St. Dominique, and I told him about my close ­encounters, which were beginning to weigh on my conscience. Peter offered to handle the introductions. A day or two later, Peter told him about a woman who wanted to meet him, and that she was very tall. “The girl with the bicycle? How tall is she?” asked Leonard Cohen, jumping in the air several times to demonstrate his readiness to meet a giant.

One evening at about 9:00 my phone rang while I was all twisted up in a yoga pose. A deep male voice said, “Hello Ann? This is Leonard Cohen. We have to stop meeting like this.”

He lived a few blocks away, opposite a little park on rue Vallières. I put on sneakers and ran the five blocks to his door, which he opened by pulling on a cord from his second-floor apartment. He was conservatively dressed in dark velour trousers and a sweater. Every room of his place was decorated with the same ugly red Persian carpet, reminiscent of an old brothel or gambling den.

In the kitchen he made tea, which tasted Russian although there was no samovar. I was nervous. After half an hour, I asked if I was boring him yet. He said people were always boring one another—that was the nature of human life. I asked him how old he was. He seemed to resent the question. “Forty-three.”

Elvis had died a few weeks earlier, and Leonard was reading his biography. They had some things in common, he said. For example, Elvis’s mother had nurtured her son’s genius from early childhood.

Leonard turned on the radio and mournful gypsy music poured out. He called it “the complaint of a man who is not a bird.” His mother called on the telephone and asked him what he was doing. “Reading, Ma. Yes, I’m just here alone, studying.” She talked for a long time, and he interjected the occasional “Yes, Ma. No, you’re not going to die, Ma.” He put the receiver to my ear for a minute. “It won’t be much longer now,” she said in a shaky voice.

After he hung up, he sighed. “My mother is the most boring person in the world. Now she’s got cancer.” He got out his guitar and played “Red River Valley,” insisting that I sing along. He said I had a beautiful voice, and that “Red River Valley” was his all-time favourite song. Could either absurd statement be true? I thought not.

He put the guitar away and showed me the little room off the hallway where he said his three-year-old daughter always slept when she visited with her older brother. On the wall was a print of the Annunciation. I knelt on the bed for a better look at the angel and the dove descending, as he watched me from the end of the bed. I said, “I feel like a little girl.” He said, “You are a little girl.”

The next morning when I arrived at my temp typing job in a downtown bank, I was dazed, delirious. Leonard phoned me that night and said he felt the same way. “Let’s get together, later in the week. Or whenever you want. Just phone me anytime, darling. I’ll be waiting to hear from you.”

There are times—mainly in youth—when we believe ourselves deserving of exceptional blessings. Times when fate reaches a hand down into the aquarium where we’ve been circling, and offers us a glimpse of a world beyond. Are we really meant to breathe air? Or to end up gasping on the floor?

My tiny room now seemed like a vestibule on the steps of a vast mansion I was destined to explore. Starting out from my little room, I would write. Writing would be my ticket home.

This story appears in the Geist 20th Anniversary Collector's Issue. Reserve your copy now. Subscribe today.

Web Exclusive: Follow Ann Diamond and Leonard Cohen around the streets of Montreal in this interactive map.

All images by Leonard Cohen, courtesy of Drabinsky Gallery in Toronto: Montreal Visitor #2, Montreal Woman #1, Montreal Visitor #1.

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Ann Diamond

Ann Diamond is a Montreal-born writer who has taught creative writing at Concordia University and University College of the Cariboo. Her story “The Second Life of Kiril Kadiiski” appeared in Geist 75. Visit her at anndiamond.net.


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