Popular Posts

Saturday, 1 September 2012

When Annie Met Lenny

I was not always the wise older woman I am today. In my mid-twenties, I was smart but naive. How could it have been otherwise? At 26, I had been in and out of several relationships with men my age. "Men are so disappointing," I opined, on the evening I had my first face-to-face talk over Leonard's kitchen table. I was drinking tea with the celebrated "grocer of despair," who had recently turned 43 and looked as disillusioned as I must have sounded.

His response caught me by surprise, and tweaked my vanity. "You're a very sensitive instrument," said the poet, who by then had known me for no more than twenty minutes. "You're like one of those old gadgets the navigators used to steer their course by the heavens."

"You mean, an astrolabe?" I asked. A nicer word than quadrant, and it showed I'd read my 16th century history.

"Yes, exactly. An astrolabe."It rolled off his tongue like a starry promise.

As I pondered the sensual undercurrents, Leonard continued: "Your problem is you keep spinning. You have no centre, no real focus. You need someone who can guide you."

Was he offering to be my pilot through the rapids of life? A thrilling thought which later proved naive in the extreme. Leonard was not fit to be captain of anything, much less of my multi-channeled voyage. But for a while, I fell under his hypnotic spell.

He came to visit me where I lived: a bare little room on the second floor of an old, stone building that bore the magic number 4900. I had moved into it two months earlier, in September 1977. Seven x seven = forty-nine. I felt I had landed in a place of transformation and promise. I had solitude, a table for writing. I was going to be a writer. All I needed was something to focus on.

On the day Leonard visited, he was dressed casually in an old suit jacket and trademark fedora. I opened the door and there he was, grinning in the hallway. I happened to be holding a pair of L-shaped dowsing rods I had brought back from a dowsing convention in Vermont. El-rods, you might call them -- which happened to be his wife's family name. But Susanne Elrod and he were estranged at the time, and he had just released a new album, with a promising title: Death of a Ladies' Man. He seemed ready for a change, otherwise we would not have been meeting like this. I was not so naive as to carry on with a married man.

As he stepped across the threshold, I pointed my dowsing rods at his head. They separated, perhaps expanding to take in the boundaries of his aura. A thought, out of nowhere, made me blurt out: "I see there are two of you. You're the one I like. But then there's that other guy, Leonard Cohen. I'm not sure about him."

He seemed taken aback by this statement from a woman he had recently compared to an astrolabe.It would turn out to be one of those flashes of insight that would resurface, over and over, as I came to know the complex entity known as Leonard Cohen, who was now examining my walls and ceiling, and admiring the view from my curtainless window which faced northeast on a row of three-storey buildings not unlike the one he owned and inhabited on Rue Vallieres.

The third time we met was a week or two later. Inspired in part by his example, I had taken up meditating in the evenings. I was sitting in lotus position, staring at the floor, when the phone rang. A low-pitched gravelly voice inquired, "Were you meditating just now?"

Although normally I would have laughed and confessed, thrilled and impressed by this demonstration of ESP -- for some reason I decided to lie. "No, I was reading."

There was a pause at the other end. "Are you sure  you were reading, and not meditating?"

I hesitated. It wasn't like me not to blurt out the truth, but I felt irritated by this intrusion into my privacy. 'No, I was reading." I could tell he didn't believe me. "Where are you?" I asked, changing the subject, because I felt guilty for lying to my new friend.

"I'm at a phone booth on the Main, outside Schwartzes --" He let out a shout, followed by the clatter of a dropped receiver. After some incomprehensible yelling, Leonard came back on the line. "You won't believe what just happened," he said. "My car was just stolen from the street where I parked it. A brand new rental car. I must have left the keys in it."

I felt his bad luck might have been caused by my little white lie of a moment ago, opening a hairline crack in the universe through which small demons were able to enter his car, grab the keys, and whisk it away to some garage in Pointe-aux-Trembles where it would be painted and remodelled by morning. I offered to run right over and help, in whatever way I could.

When I arrived at the scene of the car-jacking, Leonard was talking to two French-speaking cops, holding notebooks and portable phones. As he described the car and the thieves, he seemed intimidated by the policemen. He seemed fearful of these figures of authority, whom he repeatedly addressed as "Officer" as he blamed himself for the incident. I felt uncomfortable and embarrassed. There was no need to bow and scrape. They were only doing their job, after all, and didn't hold out much hope for recovering the car.

Leonard seemed resigned. We went back to his place, where he took off his coat and kicked off his shoes. "I am now going to go into a deep meditation," he said. "You can sit in that chair there. I'll be about twenty minutes."

I watched as he closed his eyes, started breathing deeply, and seemed to slip into a trance that lasted for what seemed like an hour. This was not how I had learned to meditate. I had been taught to remain wakeful, watch my breath, and expect to be bored most of the time. Leonard, on the other hand, seemed to depart for some other universe. When he returned, he appeared calm, like someone whose questions have received satisfactory answers.

He said the theft of the car was only one of the strange events of that evening. I thought of the phone call, his ESP, and my denial - but he showed me the Indian bracelet he wore around his wrist -- the clasp had broken, for no reason, and he was convinced there was a meaning behind that, too.

He never told me what he had seen and learned during his deep meditation, but he did make it clear that I had been in the picture somewhere.

"I think the universe is telling you to make up your mind, Leonard," I said, drawing on my recent initiation into the art of divination. Anyone can be an oracle if they put their mind to it.

I could tell I had tickled a sore spot. He seemed to take real offense at that suggestion, for some reason.Over the months and years ahead, I would learn there were not just two Leonard Cohen's, but many who came and went. Some were fearful and obedient, others confident and commanding. Some were cruel and secretive, while others were kind and generous. They seemed unaware of one another's existence.

Knowing Leonard was a little like entering a labyrinth without an exit.


Over the years, Leonard would sometimes make oblique references to the people who controlled his career. The way he put it, they were not all in the music business, but occupied a shadow world, from which they doled out rewards and punishment. Once he cryptically remarked, "There are a lot of punishments in this business, if you rebel. And the punishments get worse over time."

Though he never identified his personal Men in Black, he implied they had been around since his early beginnings. There was no question of his walking away. He would introduce them into the conversation, then quickly change the subject.

I found it odd that a man of his age and stature lived in fear of mysterious handlers. Who were they? What kind of power could they hold over him? He was loathe to answer that obvious question.

He also told me about another group that he owed allegiance to -- or maybe they were the same group, viewed in a more positive light. These he described as his co-religionists, men of great accomplishment and spiritual power who also remained nameless. He hinted at a dynamic cabal which acted mainly in secret to change the course of history, and was poised to play a dominant and decisive role in world affairs. Who could they be? What were their goals? He assured me there was a place for me, somewhere, in their plan -- I just had to be patient and loyal. Leonard valued loyalty in his friends, and cultivated a little circle of hangers-on, some of the most confused people I knew, ready to do anything to remain in their hero's good books. It seemed out of character for a semi-reclusive sage not only to tolerate sycophantic slaves but actually encourage them, as he did.

One evening in 1990, Leonard invited me out for spaghetti Bolognese at a small Italian restaurant that he frequented because, as he said, he just loved spaghetti Bolognese. The conversation was halting, almost non-existent. He quoted his friend Irving Layton, who said that the human race deserved to go through a massive "holocaust" as retribution for the one that had decimated the Jews in the Second World War.

I don't much like spaghetti Bolognese, but I dutifully ate as I pondered why he would drop a remark like that into our dinner table conversation. He kept on eating, waiting for me to agree or disagree. To me it felt as if our relationship hung in the balance. It was an "are you with us, or against us?" moment which I would have preferred to ignore. Was he serious? Something dangerous hovered over the checkered tablecloth, and our dismal plates of cold pasta.

"So, am I correct in saying you no longer feel anything for me?" he inquired, after another long silence.

I chewed that over, too, and decided he was right: I felt nothing. Nothing I could put a name on, or put into words. Disappointment, maybe, mixed with shock and dissociation, to be sitting across from a man who might or might not be the "real Leonard Cohen," in a mental and emotional void that seemed to stretch from here to Armageddon.

It was a frigid night in January, and Leonard had a flight to catch. We walked back to his house, where he asked me to help him scrape the ice from his windshield, before he drove himself to the airport. After he had gone, I went around the corner to my flat and lay awake for a while, wondering if he was serious about welcoming another "holocaust" -- and what it all meant.

Maybe it meant nothing. In that case, why say it? In the past he had sprinkled small, dark secrets into our conversations, and when he did this, I always felt it was to test my complicity. In the past, too, he had used the word "geopolitical" when referring to the movement of history, making it clear he didn't much subscribe to my generation's naive agendas.

Here he seemed to be referring to some destructive plan that he implicitly supported. That was the message that lodged in my gut, that night. He believed it would happen. He wanted it to happen. He wanted me to choose. He was giving me a chance to join the winning side in some future war that he knew was coming. Could I keep a secret? Did I have the stamina to carve myself a slice of the Future?

That night when I turned out the light, I also turned the page on Leonard Cohen. It was time to put him and his deepening insanity, behind me.


  1. This is a pretty interesting post...

  2. Thank you, Gwida's A. I hope to get a moment soon to finish it...

  3. I suppose too, that everyone has an agenda and the more money they have for it, the bigger the agenda will be.