By MICHAEL HOLLETT
I only met Leonard Cohen once, briefly, but like millions around the world, mourning today, I felt intimately connected to the brilliant poet and singer-songwriter whose often wounded words seemed like the whispered confessions of a close friend.
My brush with the Canadian great happened in Vancouver in 1991 at the Juno Awards, the year they began taking the awards show on the road across the country. I was lingering in the lobby of the show’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre with a colleague from NOW Magazine, music writer James Marck. The lobby was empty except for us as well mannered attendees had already made their way into the theatre, the show having begun it’s afternoon start to accommodate TV viewers in eastern Canada. A sidewalk joint or maybe one last drink from the theatre’s bar delayed us, luckily.
I spotted the diminutive Cohen as he entered the lobby wearing a suit, a jacket draped across his shoulders, a beautiful younger woman draped on him.
“That’s Leonard Cohen, you’ve got to introduce me,” I said to Marck who had written a cover story about Cohen for NOW. He chuckled nervously hoping to repel my annoying request.
“Seriously, you have to introduce me,” I insisted as firmly as I could muster.
Cohen walked with clearly post-coital distraction and little apparent purpose, his young attendant guiding him like a prize fighter’s corner man.
“Okay, okay,” Marck grudgingly agreed. I stopped hearing him as Cohen approached and I imagined what I would say.
Introductions made, Cohen turned to me with eyes that made whoever they lighted on feel like they had been chosen.
“Hello Michael,” he said with his trademark baritone making my name suddenly sound sacred and my plans for engaging conversation evaporated in a fan boy swoon of adulation. As I gripped the handshake with an intensity that suggested I’d never be letting go, I noticed something on his alabaster coloured skin. A rivulet of brilliantly red blood began where his left side burn ended and silently made its way down his porcelain pale face, its whiteness making the red even redder.
And, then, released, he swept through the auditorium doors leaving me to blissfully contemplate the moment.
Cohen was inducted in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame that night with a classy and gracious acceptance speech that turned into an impromptu reading of his tune, the Tower of Song. The euphoric audience roared their approval. We were later entertained by MC Hammer and a 35 member crew of dancers and musicians.
At a banquet dinner that night, Cohen was sat beside up-and-coming Canadian musicians Colin Cripps and Michelle McAdorey from Crash Vegas. Cohen would take the star struck duo under his wing that night.
Cripps is now a member of Blue Rodeo and says on his Facebook page today the night was “one of the greatest of my life. We shared stories, a dinner, jokes, drinks, smokes and later a cab. He was incredibly generous to me with his time, his attention, his interest. It as like we had been friends forever, but we had only just met, The Punk and the Godfather.”
Cohen was routinely generous with other up and coming musicians. A building he owned in Montreal featured a legendary rehearsal space used by many burgeoning Montreal bands in the 80s and 90s. Cohen even agreed to appear in at least one local band’s music video when they encountered the singer walking a Montreal street, perhaps on his way to his favourite Schwartz’s deli.
I’ll let other writers struggle today trying to capture and explain the essence of Cohen’s undeniable genius. I’ll just say thanks, thanks for writing songs that helped many young teenagers feel less alone and misunderstood, thanks for helping fire an interest in poetry and language in general with his own masterful words providing inspiration and insight. Thanks for turning my record player into a smoldering pool of searing sensuality.
Thanks for the music Leonard and thanks for marking our meeting by spilling some blood, it was perfect, something you never claimed to be.