by Marni Jackson

Leonard Cohen was in Hamilton, Ont., at the beginning of his two year-long, sold-out world tour, when my phone rang close to midnight.

“I’ll be late getting home,” my husband said on the phone. “I’m backstage with Leonard and the band.”

Damn. That was supposed to be me.

My husband, Brian Johnson, is a writer for Maclean’s, and over the years he has interviewed Cohen a number of times, through good years and bad.   He is full of respect for Cohen as a poet, a musician, a sort of father figure, and an eighty year old who still looks good in a fedora, and remains true to his art. Although his relationship to Leonard is professional, it also feels intimate, and singular.

When Leonard was going through a financial crisis some years ago, (one of his ‘people’ was siphoning off his money), Brian flew down to L.A. to conduct an interview. They ended up going out for dinner to a nice restaurant, with the actress Sandra Oh. She had just finished acting in the movie “Sideways” and “felt like ordering some interesting wines”, Brian said on the phone, with a happy lilt in his voice.

“That’s sounds like fun,” I said gamely. Sandra Oh, Leonard Cohen. Stiff competition! I hung up and jogged over to the cinder-track of a nearby park and walked round and round with my headphones on, listening to “Ten New Songs”(The ponies ride….the girls are young…) renewing my private, exclusive, astral relationship to Leonard (as I call him).

I realize I’m not alone. All over the world, there are fans who maintain shy but meaningful contact with the singer (who has always tended his website with care, like a bonsai gardener). The impression that each one of us enjoys, of having a privileged, personal connection to him, is one of Leonard’s most creative and generous gifts. Readers who connect with his poetry, or fans who make a little nest for themselves inside his songs, come to believe that Cohen has somehow gained access to intimate details about their secret lives. He outs us. We listen to “A Thousand Kisses Deep” or “Alexandra Leaving” as if standing in a spotlight before a mirror.

How did he know about my polka-dot blouse, my forward deck, my brush and comb?

His songs and writing make us feel more fully known, more clearly seen; that’s what art is supposed to do, of course—to offer up confessions that unlock your own. To risk the full human encounter.

The funny thing is that recently I learned that our whole family has experienced the “Leonard effect”, each in our own private fashion.

My relationship with Leonard began in high school, in 1963, when I was 17 and read his first novel, “The Favourite Game”. The hero, Laurence Breavman, is a Montreal university student who spends one summer working at a summer camp, having sex, and falling in and out of love with women. He is living at a certain anguished distance from his life. He’s horny, confused and unhappy—it’s really the perfect novel to read when you’re seventeen. The novel is comic and lyrical by turns, as if Holden Caulfield had migrated north from Manhattan to become a Jewish camp counselor in the Laurentians.

Cohen the great Connector is already in evidence in “The Favourite Game”. “His guitar was always handy,” he writes of Breavman. “The cedar wood was cool against his stomach. The inside of the guitar smelled like the cigar boxes his father used to have. The tone was excellent in the middle of the night. In those late hours the purity of the music always surprised him and almost convinced him that he was creating a sacramental relationship with the girl, the outside city, and himself.” [P. 92]

And, with me, I might add.

Cohen prefaced the novel with a poem of his, that begins:

As the mist leaves no scar
On the dark green hill,
So my body leaves no scar
On you, nor ever will

What romantic seventeen year old girl wouldn’t memorize such a poem? Although Cohen’s early poetry was troubadourish, with little of the dark humour of his later writing (and none of the semen-on-the-windshield joie de vivre of his experimental novel “Beautiful Losers”), it wasn’t sentimental. The writing had precision and edge, and he trusted his reader to meet him halfway. As a teenager longing for life and art to begin, I read his poetry as a dialogue between us on the page.

That’s when you know a poem is pulling its weight: when it speaks to your secret life. (Poets assume we all have one.)

By grade thirteen, I was on a first-name basis with his poems and novel, and felt it was time for us to be formally introduced. Cohen was living in New York at the Chelsea Hotel at the time, where writers, musicians and junkies rented rooms,to pursue dereliction, and their craft. Where Bob Dylan wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. “I remember you well, in the Chelsea Hotel…”Cohen wrote in one song.

Sitting at my Selectric typewriter in Burlington, Ontario, typing with the speed and skill of someone groomed for secretarial glory, I composed a short note to L. Cohen. His poems, I wrote, were like a telephone connecting everyone who read them. It was a terrible, ungainly simile, but I needed to thank him for breaking into my frozen Burlington heart, and for speaking so unpatronizingly to me. For allowing all things, on the page.

(Before Prozac, there was poetry.)

Not long afterward, a letter arrived. My address on the envelope was written in purple fountain-pen ink. Inside was a sheet of semi-transparent (of course!) onionskin stationery.

Dear Marni, the message went, Thank you for your most perfect letter. Leonard.

That got me into my twenties.

But in university, our relationship grew moody from lack of contact. With “Suzanne” and his new career as a folk singer, Leonard became popular—too popular for my taste. I knew that his accolytes would only crush him; he needed my loving distance, my complicit silence. After all, Leonard had touched my perfect body with his mind—we didn’t need anything as coarse as an encounter in time and space.

So we continued to meet whenever we could, in my bed under the lamp, in the aisles of a bookstore as I paged through “The Book of Mercy”, or in the darkness of an audience as his imperfect voice released the dove of a new song…

While waiting for Leonard to carry my groceries home, I met a man, a writer, who had published a small volume of poems. He had also written a novel, “Volcano Days”, that I liked. We fell in with each other. He became a journalist who sometimes interviews stars, and artists. Over the years, he has interviewed Cohen a number of times, and hung out with him at times. One summer day, he interviewed Cohen in his Montreal apartment, and when the conversation was over, and small talk resumed, Brian said “I have to buy some fish on the way home.” “I know where to go, it’s not far,” said Cohen. “I’ll walk you there.”

Later, up north at our cabin,I cook the Cohen-consecrated fish. Delicious. Life is strange; somehow, despite being one of his original Founding Fans, I have become a journalist-in-law to Leonard.

Two years ago, partly to recoup his lost investments, Leonard Cohen embarked on a world tour that became one protracted love-in after another with his global audiences. How wonderful to command such a warm following in your eighth decade!

Early in the tour he played several nights in Hamilton. My husband had already done his backstage interview, and so the two us went to watch the concert, and join the audience. At 74, Cohen was in better shape than ever—sober, calm, and in good voice.

The concert was masterful, a dance of light and dark that lasted three hours. He doffed his grey fedora repeatedly, paying his respects to everyone in the band. In the past, Cohen used to sing onstage with his eyes closed, primed by several bottles of red wine before getting up on stage to perform. Now, his eyes are open, he has moves, he skips, he plays all the songs you want him to, and even re-animates that durable old chesnut, Suzanne. He sings the words with care, in his old, tender timbre; you see the river in Montreal, you glimpse the garbage and the flowers. He brings “Marianne” and “Sisters of Mercy” to life again.

But the evening was not an exercise in nostalgia; it was a new window opening onto a beloved old view. As an encore, Leonard sang “Closing Time” with the band and then, as a joke, he came back onstage, almost sprinting, for yet another encore (there were seven). If L-dog (as my son affectionately calls him) can be this on top of things at 74, then there’s hope for us all. Maybe we don’t have to accept diminishment and decline as we age. Instead we can become more expansive, more generous, cannier at delivering what we have to offer. Ringing the bells that still can ring.

One encore included the hymn-song “If It Be Your Will”, a song about relinquishing control over things. Leonard’s art partly lies in erasing the marks of his own authorship, and making the audience feel in possession of, almost the co-creator, of the music. We’re summoned to become more ourselves, in the presence of this smallish, smiling figure on stage.

He’s there for us. He’s our man.

My son insists he’s not much of a reader, but slyly, he has managed to read a few books, including Leonard Cohen’s. He will make fun of L-dog whenever we get too reverential. His own musical tastes run in different directions (early Mo-town, late Ghostface). But it turns out that he’s had a private relationship with Leonard, too.

When he was seventeen and living at home, my computer was the only one with the working printer. My son would use my desktop to print out assignments and other documents. Years later, when he was in Montreal and going to college, I decided it was time to finally houseclean my computer. I opened the old folder labeled “Casey” on my screen, to make sure I wasn’t erasing anything important. There was a file labeled “Letter to Leonard”. Of course, I opened it (never leave personal documents on your mother’s computer for 7 years).

Dear Leonard Cohen,

It began

I am writing you to say how much I enjoyed your book, The Favourite Game.   I know how much work is involved in creating a novel compared to the recognition it gets. I found it to be a very honest collection of moments…

The letter went on for two more insightful, respectful paragraphs, and closed with thanks. The book had offered some solace, apparently.

I’m sure I never mentioned my own three-line correspondence with Cohen to him. But unbeknownst to me, sometime in his teens, he took down “The Favourite Game” from our bookshelves, read it, and felt spoken to, as I had.

I don’t know if the letter ever got mailed. But I’m sure Leonard got the message.

Published in Zoomer magazine, October 2010