Leonard: A Memoir

Leonard Cohen was my mentor, my encourager and one of my favorite heroes. 

I met him when I first came to Hydra, a rock island in the Aegean where, because it bakes in the sun without much relief from trees, summer seems even hotter than in the rest of Greece.

With others in the foreign community I hung out at Bill’s, a bar run by a public-school educated Englishman who, though he was a friend of Leonard’s, and though, as I later learned, Leonard had financed the enterprise (“I’ll go down to Bill’s Bar, / I can still make it that far”), didn’t care for his lugubrious music. Bill was a Django-Fred Astaire guy, and played Leonard Cohen tapes only when Leonard was around.

Like so many young writers, I gave Leonard something of mine to read. He accepted it graciously, and I supposed that was the end of it, but he came in a few days later and said, “I read your piece—which I fully intended to ignore—and got so involved that I couldn’t leave it to take a piss, and I really had to piss!”

What a charmer. The island opened its arms to me, I spent more and more time on it, and lived there for a few years. Eventually I ran out of money and moved into Athens to teach at the American College, but that’s another story. For me Hydra represents Paradise, not least because it was a sexual romp. Those were days before the new diseases, and the new Victorianism, and it was copulation on an Olympic scale. One did stretching exercises between encounters, and had (as the Americans say) “multiple” partners each day.

Ah, yes.
A no-car island
And of course, Leonard was the poet of the orgiastic. His achievement, in so much of his work, is to treat bare lust with wistful tenderness.

We took ourselves to someone’s bed,
And there we fell together.
Quick as dogs, and truly dead were we—
And free as running water…
The way it’s got to be, my lover.

Having so many ladies raises the problem how to say good-bye, his central theme. He remarks in The Favourite Game that John Donne’s poem of farewell, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” is the very essence of poetry. “Hey, that’s no way to say good-bye.” Leonard said a lot of them. For him it was a sin not to:

But I lingered on her thighs a fatal moment.
I kissed her lips as though I hungered still.
My falsity, it stung me like a hornet.
The poison sank and it paralyzed my will.

—“will” in the Elizabethan sense, as in “willy,” as in Will shaking his big spear.

And then leaning on your window sill
He'll say one day you caused his will
To weaken with your love and warmth and shelter.

One late night at Bill’s he told me the story of “What Does a Woman Want,” which I have tried to reproduce here as closely as possible in his style of phrasing.

I went to see him when he was preparing to leave the island in his costume of choice at the time, dark gray suit, T-shirt and black cowboy boots. The suit had suffered some stains and he was touching it up with Magic Marker. “They’ll never get me,” he said, giving me his wicked smile.
Marianne bathing on The Rock
Shall I tell you what he was? He was gorgeous. (See Gorgeousness.) Not that he thought so. One of his poems speaks of hours in the mirror. “You hide your double chin, even from yourself.” At his tryst with Janis Joplin,

You told me again you preferred handsome men
but for me you would make an exception.
And clenching your fist for the ones like us
who are oppressed by the figures of beauty,
you fixed yourself, you said, "Well never mind,
we are ugly but we have the music."

But he was an undaunted man of action. That’s one reason he admired Hemingway:

The judges said you missed it by a fraction.
Rise up and brace yourself for the attack.
The dreamers ride against the men of action.
Oh, see the men of action falling back.

I love Hemingway too (see Hemingway for Wimps), and Leonard, and action, but my own models were dreamers like Fellini (see Fellini), Robbe-Grillet and Bunuel, not to mention Shakespeare, in whose sea we all swim—adapted, of course, to my musical-comedy mind. I'm too impressionable to have any state of mind for more than a few minutes, but that's my default setting.

Leonard constantly assured me I was going to “hit” (I’m still waiting, Leonard), and I wish I could claim him as an influence. But we were playing different games, and he didn’t altogether approve of mine, which involved frivolity and laughter and je-m'en-foutisme. Though he could be extremely funny himself, in person and in print (Beautiful Losers is a great comic novel), he had a grain of seriousness in him that looked askance at the purely comic.

Whence the seriousness? For one thing this Orthodox Jewish boy had fallen in love with the Catholicism of his beloved Montreal, all those plastic virgins on taxi dashboards. Rue Sainte-Catherine is the main east-west street there, and Beautiful Losers is about the Indian saint we suppose it's named after, Kateri Tekakwitha, and the Jesuits. “Homage to the Jesuits” he says, and their “thirst for souls.”

This was Leonard’s thirst too. World domination was his passion. He wanted all the women, all the fans. He idolized Jesus for that reason, and he idolized Hitler. Oh, yeah. His early book of poems, Flowers for Hitler, goes some way to humanize the Führer. And when the lovers in Beautiful Losers go to Rio, they find him in their beach hotel working as a waiter.

(Which reminds me, his favorite actor was Dirk Bogarde. One thinks of The Night Porter.)

“I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” He’s not talking about his voice voice, though well he might—it’s a superb instrument. He’s talking about his power as a poet. “My voice,” he says in one of his poems, “is in you like a hook.”

A mutual friend met him walking down Fifth Avenue just after the Wall came down, and said, “Isn’t it great?” “Of course it is! My song did it!” He took Berlin.

On the island, though, he was sweet, modest, polite. Good manners were his style.
Donkeyshit Lane, coming down from Leonard's place: "Our steps will always rhyme."
The second source of his seriousness was his scholarly, almost his rabbinical Jewishness. For a brief time he was an Israeli soldier, and saw action. He shocked me, and I let him know it, when he spoke in favor of vengeful bloodletting in Lebanon. Never fond of Islam, he yet had a grudging respect for the Muslim habit of covering their women. “They know that’s all we think about.”

In a late poem he speaks to himself (he’s always speaking to himself) of an insect on his table: “It pleased you not to want to want to kill it.” The “pleased you” is self-mocking; the usual thing is to crush the little fuckers. But then we hear God talking: You are the insect, “so busy in the light of my eyes,” and the “pleased you” resounds as a prayer—May it please you, my Lord—to himself.

He has a wonderful way of pivoting on a word like that:

Thanks for the trouble you took
From her eyes.

His album title, Various Positions (I saw it for the first time in a Tel Aviv shop window) made me laugh out loud.

The third source of his seriousness was depression, which plagued him all his life, for which he was on prescription drugs, and which was the source of some of his best work. “Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows.” He could get way down.
With Suzanne, not the one in the song, but the mother of his children. L suspected she had family in the Jewish mafia, which tickled him.
When I showed him Mortal Coil, he didn’t entirely approve of a book that made fun of death and the dead. “I understand the position,” he allowed—but then came up with a line from near the end of the book (he always read them through, bless him) that amused him: “Don’t worry about photographs of yourself. You don’t look like that.” This matched his taste for directness and simplicity.

He told me once that the ten commandments as they’re written in Deuteronomy have nothing of the formal Thou-shalt-not about them, but are simple colloquial speech: Don’t do that. This is how you reach people, with simple language and simple experiences—sex, God, doing the dishes. Leonard used his intellectual gifts to be pop culture. Beautiful Losers is a submission to pop culture as a spiritual discipline, Ray Charles running his fingers down a cosmic keyboard at the climax.

Leonard wanted to reach everybody. He wanted, as who does not, to be God—and was determined to make good on it. What state of mind is a man in who names his son Adam?

(When his kids came to visit, he was helpless with them. He gave Adam, who was then a scrappy twelve-year-old, Mortal Coil, presumably to keep him occupied. “I like the ‘jokers,’” Adam told me—the name my undertaker calls the corpses. Lorca, two years younger, threw tantrums and threatened to kill herself—not because of my book. Leonard approached her with desperate caution: “Hi, darling!”)

He consulted a fortune-teller once, a palmist, who told him he was going to lose all his money. Here Leonard did influence me: he went into detail about the experience—inking the palms, recording the experience—that I used in The President’s Palm Reader. Decades later Leonard did lose all his money; his assistant in LA cleaned out his bank account and absconded—who knows where she is now?—forcing him to go on tour again. “It would be funny,” he said, “if it happened to somebody else.”

The palmist told him, “You will always be moving between the monastery and the brothel,” and yes, from beginning to end, that was Leonard. In The Favourite Game his teenage alter ego, on discovering sex, looks down from Westmount at the morning city and wonders why anybody’s going to work.
My street
In a poem of later years he declares in prose that the image of a naked woman appears to the average middle-aged man every fifteen seconds. “Where did you get that?” I said. “From Masters and Johnson.” Nietzsche, the Bible, Masters and Johnson—and much more, of course, but these were on his mind.

And he was the hero of the sexual impulse right down to the end: “I was just a tourist in your bed, looking at the view.” What are we going to do without him to defend us against the new puritanism?

We stayed in touch via the posts and film reviews I email to my list of people.

Blog is great.
Just wanted to join the applause.

About Woman in Gold and Helen Mirren’s Body:

Great work, bro
The whole 9 yards
L

Last I heard from him, he said (in verse form, naturally):

the old vehicle has sprung a few leaks
in and out of the shop these days
not much use on the road

That was June last year. I checked in a few weeks ago and didn’t get an answer. Now I know why.

He won some prizes. The Governor General’s Award he didn’t accept. To my private relief he wasn’t offered the Nobel for Literature, which is a guarantee of mediocrity—and something of a consolation prize. Faulkner won because he just wasn’t Joyce. (The poor judges, what would they have done if they’d had to read Joyce? Faulkner they had in translation, but how do you translate Joyce?) Beckett won because he just wasn’t Kafka. And Dylan won because he just isn’t Leonard.

His best friend on Hydra was George L, who looked like the president of the world. First time I met him I said, “So, George, what do you do?” He said, “Well, Bob, I don’t do anything.” Hah! I loved him. I wrote a roman-à-clef about him, and about the island (here it is), in which he’s murdered. Somebody came across him reading it in a café. He said, “I’m trying to find out how I die.” Now he knows—he’s gone too. His daughter’s an actress, though, and I’m making a movie with her.

Let me finish with a long-ago poem I wrote about Leonard:

Here is my plaster statue
Of Leonard Conen,
Best thing groanin.
His spirit is off
Being true to itself
Or possibly trying to renew itself
While here in the silence
I bow my head in homage
To what I have briefly become
To see if I could use,
And muse.

Monkish whorer
I loved your contradictions.
So purely you burn
For fifteen-old girls
(How can I live in the world with your exploits?),
So neatly fold yourself
Into your disciplines.
Everything is a discipline,
It's tiresome
And I don't care for purity.

Doubting psalmist,
Failed saint,
Rabbinical Jesuit
Hearing your own confession
(There can little interfere
Between your mouth and your ear),
Behind each a clinical depression.
Fearer and trembler,
Comforter of puberty,
The bride still unravished,
The song less new.

Hitler groupie
(Who else believed you?),
Israeli warrior,
Meditator,
Partisan hater,
Priest of pop liturgy
Praying for power and
The Arab veil,
The preferred fate for your sister.
Chemistry-set tradition-monger,
Star without capped teeth.
Interesting, if fetal.

Aspirant slave
Who would bribe exaltation,
The soul's, the body's,
With prostration—
It falls off me.

I prefer not to grovel
Unless at gunpoint
Or its equivalent.
No doubt I'll learn.

Retreat meanwhile
To an uncandled niche
In the cathedral,
Bleed in the dark
Like my mother,
Quietly reproach my arrogance
When some whim
Brings me in
From the glaring street
For cool incensed air
And a friendly ceiling,
A ten-minute tourist of your pain.

(For more such in-depth literary criticism, see Nobody Left to Read.)

Leaonard's response to the poem was to lend me money. Which I never repaid. I hope he’s someplace where he doesn’t need it.