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Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Unholy Messiah

September 21, 1980. I had decided to come back to Hydra and save Leonard. It's difficult to look back at the silly young woman who did all this mainly because she was in love at the time. Also, I had just come into some money, i.e. a Canada Council grant to write a novel. The first thing I did with it was buy a ticket to Greece. A few months earlier my mother had died, of complications from a 15-year battle with arthritis. My father had died of a heart attack six years earlier. I was 29, remarkably naive but also fairly sensitive, and heading into my first Saturn return.

Not that these are exactly excuses, but they help me to distance myself from my reckless self of thirty years ago. I was very prone to dreams, back then, and some of my dreams were precognitive. Or rather, I would receive information in them that would later prove accurate. I was also eccentric enough to base some of my decisions and actions on such dreams, just to see what would happen. Often the results were beyond my imaginings.

Over the summer of 1980, while I worked at temporary office jobs, I had received a number of these dream messages concerning Leonard. The gist was, he was back on drugs and his Roshi in California was very worried and disappointed. I had never met the Roshi, but in dreams he appeared as a small, big-hearted, round-faced man who spoke halting Japanese-accented English. This hunch, and the $9,000 cheque from the Canada Council were all it took: I was on a mission: I would go to Hydra, see Leonard, pick up where we had left off several months ago... Which was where? Well, limbo actually, but I was feeling adventurous. I would use all my persuasive powers to woo him over to "my" side: the side of light and love, or so I thought.

My plan went into motion, except that I dillydallied a bit, flying to London then boarding a train that took me to Italy, then the ferry to Patras. At the sight of the Greek coastline, I burst into tears. It was like a homecoming. The bus to Athens took several hours, and finally I caught the ferry to Hydra, arriving in the afternoon of Leonard's 46th birthday. An auspicious coincidence, I thought, until I knocked on his door and was met by Birgit, who told me Leonard had departed with his children and Australian nanny for New York that very morning, leaving her in charge of closing up his house. In her prim, rather Prussian manner she informed me that Leonard was about to begin his second European tour in two years, revisiting a number of cities where he'd given concerts the year before.

Leaving my luggage on the terrace, I stumbled down to the rocks and threw myself into the lukewarm sea. While swimming back and forth, I calmed down enough to concoct a plan. I would go back to Leonard's and beg Birgit to spend a night or two in the extra room. At first she refused, but eventually she gave in, before catching her own flight back to Germany. So for two days and nights, I had the run of Leonard's house. Just so you know: this was not like me, but at the time I was slightly possessed. In fact, I spent a few years living down the shame of the rash actions of that autumn. On the other hand, I learned plenty -- much more than I could process at the time, but much of it lodged in my mind because it seemed to shed light on some very dark places that I would soon be entering.

Most of the time, over those two days, I sat in the library, a small room just off The kitchen, where intuition guided me to a 1974 hardcover edition of  a book on Kabala by Gershom Scholem.  It was quite worn and opened by itself to a much read chapter on Sabbatai Zvi, the "false messiah of Smyrna." I read that chapter and most of the book that day and night. It was not my first encounter with Zvi. The previous December on a trip to London, I had spent the better part of a week at the British Museum, perusing the exhibits. In a display case I had come across an 18th century woodcut depicting Zvi as the Great Dragon, or some sort of anti-Christ. Now, what struck me between the eyes were the numerous ways he resembled Leonard. Zvi loved to sing and compose songs, he was prone to manic-depressive episodes, he had a charismatic personality and an odd, almost surrealistic, streak of humour. I read the chapter with the sense that I was making some earth-shattering, secret discovery: Leonard Cohen was the reincarnation of this 17th century holy madman who had unleashed a messianic fervour that ended in thousands of deaths and untold losses for the Jews of eastern Europe, who joined his movement in droves, sold off their property, and followed his teachings, including the antinomian dictum: Blessed is he who breaks the Commandments.

In a desk drawer in the basement of Leonard's house, I found the confirmation I had been looking for: a notebook he had been keeping over the summer. Obviously, he had not found much time to write, since most of the pages were blank except for a few at the beginning. On one he had scrawled what looked like a warning to himself: I GAVE UP DRUGS BECAUSE I WANTED TO LIVE.

A few pages on, he had written down a tentative schedule of concerts for his upcoming tour. There was a list of cities and dates, the last being Tel Aviv on November 24.

I had always wanted to visit Egypt and Israel. Here was my chance. I pocketed Leonard's notebook -- my second "bad deed" -- maybe I was inspired by Sabbatai Zvi, who believed forbidden acts hasten the arrival of the Messiah. The following day, I left for Athens and the island of Patmos where I thought I might get further inspiration and some answers by visiting the cave of another writer I admired: Saint John the Divine, author of the Book of Revelations. I was searching, really, for the history I had glimpsed in the pages of Gershom Scholem. What was the true nature of Light and Dark, and how would it manifest itself in the Middle East, and was Sabbatai Zvi a prophet or criminal, and why was I so drawn to his story and to ancient sites connected to his movement?

From Patmos I took a ferry to the nearby island of Samos where I spent a month with a German windsurfer, and then I flew to Egypt on a crawl through pyramids and temples, all the time recording my impressions in Leonard`s diary. I crossed the Sinai desert in a taxi, disembarked at El Arish where I saw a few abandoned tanks and other scarred relics of the 1973 Yom Kippur War (in which Leonard participated, entertaining the Israeli troops and even spending time in a trench with Ariel Sharon). From there my travelling companion and I took a bus to Gaza, and another taxi to Jerusalem. By then it was mid-November, which left me a week for touring around Israel (Ein Gedi on the Dead Sea, a kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee, Banyas Gorge in the Golan Heights, and so on) before meeting Leonard's plane at Tel Aviv airport on November 23.

Our reunion, such as it was, was fraught with tension. Leonard and the band were tired and demoralized. They had spent the last two months touring Europe for the second time in two years. Audience members in Germany interrupted one of the concerts to complain that they had paid to see the same concert before. Leonard's magic had worked only intermittently this time around, apparently.

I had met the band a year earlier,  when I had joined Leonard's tour of the UK and Ireland. So I wangled a seat on the bus next to guitarist Mitch Watkins, a couple of rows behind Leonard. We disembarked at a hotel on the beach in Tel Aviv. As the equipment was being unloaded, Leonard and I chatted. I remember he talked about the history of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, scene of a notorious bomb attack by the Irgun. I knew  the nothing about that incident, and I remember he told me that certain heroes of the Warsaw ghetto uprising had gone on to fight for Israeli independence, leaving me with the impression that he was a supporter.

Meanwhile, I still had the notebook I had lifted from his desk on Hydra. In it, I had kept a journal of my travels through Greece, Egypt and Israel. My plan had to see where it led me, as I explored museums and ruins from Athens to Cairo to Tel Aviv, and followed my own typically random trail of odd encounters and coincidences on a kind of do-it-yourself Kaballistic quest that had ultimately led me to the door of a girl named "Annie Cohen" who told me I was at the wrong address. That was the final entry I had inscribed in the stolen diary. Since my name was also Annie, in my Jung-soaked mind at the time this meant I had won my gamble, and there was still hope for our relationship. Or "union" -- or whatever. It stuns me, a bit, all these years later, how as a not-so-young woman I could be so blindly focused on a single outcome, but there was a whole history behind that, too, which I can't get into here.

Let's just say that, since I had met Leonard three years earlier, and even before our first meeting, signs and portents had dogged the trail of our encounters. It seemed whenever we were together, the universe went out of its way to mark the occasion. I believe this is what certain people mean when they speak of "karmic" relationships, the kind that get you thinking you have known the other person for centuries or milennia, and have "unfinished business" to complete. Quite literally, you can feel you are being flooded with ancient information from unknown sources, all compelling you to solve the mystery that has brought you together. Whatever. Some such thing was going on at the time between me and Leonard, although I had the sense that he was already more tired of it than I was.

All that would change, I thought, when I handed him back his notebook. Which I did, the following evening, after I managed to get ten minutes alone with him after the concert. Everyone was trying to see him that night but I slipped through the door just ahead of backup singer Sharon Robinson. Leonard was recovering from the concert, and the usual half-bottle of Vodka he consumed to loosen up on stage. Coming to the point, I pulled out the diary. He recognized it instantly. "Where did you get that?" His face changed as he realized I'd been in his study on Hydra, rifling his drawers. He lunged for the book, flipped through it, reached in his pocket for an exact-o knife -- who would think he carried one? He slit a few pages, the ones in his own handwriting, tore them out, and handed me the rest.

I`d wanted him to read my travel journal, with its revelations and clues regarding the future of the planet which was deeply connected to the outcome of our relationship, but now I saw the absurdity of all that. I sat frozen, dying of embarrassment, while he told me he would read it, but "it needs to be typed."

The following day was a blur, as I hung out with the band, who were drinking heavily and fighting with Leonard over money. They demanded equal billing on all future tours, i.e. it would be `Leonard Cohen and Passenger" but Leonard was telling them he didn't need their services after all and would hire some $300-a-week Armenian musicians the next time he went on tour. Their happy family was disintegrating.  I took refuge for several hours at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum for the day, thinking to regain my self-respect by reading about the murdered Jews of Salonica, the northern Greek city which happened to harbour thousands of secret followers of Sabbatai Zvi.

But also, all that day, there were visits from Israeli dignitaries, including a well-known poet whose name I didn't quite catch, and the usual string of press interviews. Overall, the atmosphere was grave and secretive, nowhere near as festive as it had been the year before. It was the last day of Leonard`s tour, after all, and everyone seemed a little devastated.

Someone --possibly Leonard himself -- told me he was headed for Hydra. I didn`t have the guts to say that was where I was headed, too, but I had a pre-existing plan to spend the winter there on Canada Council money, writing my novel.

Please excuse this travelogue. It`s just a prelude to more interesting things still to come...

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