Remembering Canada's noble laureate
Leonard Cohen’s transformative encounter with the “Sisters of Mercy” at the U of A marked his rise to stardom.
By GEOFF McMASTER
Something shifted in a big way for Leonard Cohen when he arrived at the University of Alberta in 1966.
At the age of 32, he had already acquired modest distinction as a poet and novelist, especially after publishing the controversial Beautiful Losers earlier that year, but all of a sudden he was drawing crowds. Some 500 came to see him perform in the Tory Building at a time when a typical poetry reading on campus would attract two dozen at most.
It was the ‘60s, after all, and students were irresistibly drawn to the dark mystique of this Byronic enfant terrible, says Ken Chapman, a commerce student at the U of A in 1966.
“I first came across him in the Tory building by happenstance and heard him play,” said Chapman. “I kind of followed him around as part of the crowd, and that’s when I realized I didn't want to be in commerce; I wanted to be in English." Under the spell of Cohen’s aura, Chapman did indeed switch his major to English and economics.
"It was his persona, his attitude, his sense of humour,” said Chapman. “It was an angst-ridden time for young people at university in the ‘60s, and his words were very resonant. But it wasn't the politics, it was the romance—he was unbearably romantic.”
Cohen’s unexpected popularity gave rise to high-spirited parties at Edmonton’s Hotel Macdonald where he was staying. It also brought a crush of curious fans to the front desk, overwhelming hotel staff. Amidst the chaos, Cohen soon found himself thrown out with no place to stay.
That’s when he met two U of A undergraduates—Barbara and Elaine—who offered up their basement to Cohen (on the site of what is now the Tamarack House residence on campus). Their hospitality and love, “graceful and green as a stem,” inspired one of his best-known songs, “Sisters of Mercy.”
The success of Cohen’s residency meant that one week was extended to five, with more appearances, including one at the Yardbird Suite, and long nights partying with the Sisters of Mercy at the Alberta Hotel on Jasper Avenue.
From ordinary person to celebrity
“He basically went from an ordinary person to a celebrity while he was here, with all the attributes of that—fans and groupies and everything,” says Kim Solez, a U of A professor of transplant pathology who since 2002 has spearheaded Canada’s first annual Leonard Cohen festival.
Solez says he was struck by Cohen’s intelligence and profound understanding of life after he immigrated to Canada from the U.S. in 1987. He “knew nothing about the country” then, he confesses, but after hearing Cohen on the radio, “it seemed like everything I’d been missing.”
Later, when he was at a medical conference in Scotland, he was struck by the devotion and passion around Robbie Burns day. He thought, “Why couldn’t we do that for Leonard Cohen?” And so he did, becoming something of a Cohen historian along the way.
But it was during those five weeks in 1966, Solez recalls, that Cohen discovered the power and reach of the tower of song. On Dec. 4 of that year he wrote a letter to his lover and muse, Marianne Ihlen (of “So Long, Marianne” fame), about his intentions to become a songwriter.
In future years, Cohen would visit Edmonton to look for the sites of that time that stood out so prominently in his memory. But for the most part “they were gone,” says Solez.
“The part of the Mac he was evicted from was a 300-room, wood-frame building that sat on the front lawn of what is now the Mac.” The irony doesn’t escape Solez that now standing on that hallowed site is a statue of none other than Robbie Burns.
This Dec. 4 marks the 50th anniversary of Cohen’s letter to Marianne, and Solez is planning an event to mark the occasion in collaboration with the Faculty of Arts. It will include performances by local musician Ann Vriend and others, and a reading of the letter by CKUA host Lionel Rault.
Meanwhile, Chapman is working toward having two statues built to commemorate Cohen—one by the Tory Building and one downtown by the site of the old Alberta Hotel (which has since been reconstructed down the street). “I imagine him looking longingly up into one of the hotel-room windows," says Chapman.
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The title track from Cohen's last album, You Want It Darker, released just 17 days before his death.
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Just when many of us thought this past week could not get any worse, Leonard Cohen died. He was known around the world for his soft, lonely, and later famously baritone voice, and for the imagistic, often devotional qualities of his songs. Cohen was also one of the greats of Canadian literature. Primarily known for his poetry such as the 2006 collection, The Book of Longing, his mastery of the intricacies of verse was always at the forefront of his songwriting, even transplanting Spenserian stanza to musical form.
Early in his career, Cohen authored two experimental novels, The Favourite Game (1963) followed by Beautiful Losers (1966). The latter profoundly marked the literature of the ‘60s and postmodern writing in Canada. A number of contemporary authors would follow in his footsteps, including Heather O’Neill, Sean Michael and Michael Ondaatje, to name only a few. That the first two, like his late mentor and friend Irving Layton, are Montrealers is no coincidence. Cohen epitomized the city where he was born, kept a home throughout his life, and is now buried.
Just like the city itself, the impact of Cohen’s art crossed linguistic and cultural borders. The urban landscapes, cultural intensity and religious history of Montreal suffused his work as old haunts, amorous hymns, lyrical prose, poems and songs. He leaves many of us—as I am now just as I write this—rereading those verses, listening to those lyrics over again, attuned perhaps as never before to their resounding light and consolation. “And that is the longing.”
—Marie Carrière, director, Canadian Literature Centre
When I was a kid in the late ‘60s, my dad had a massive reel-to-reel tape player. It was grey with one tape the colour of an old Band-Aid, and he played it on Saturday mornings. It was a compilation of Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, José Feliciano and Leonard Cohen.
Other than CBC Radio, that was pretty much the only music we had. I remember bouncing and singing to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Groundhog,” and I liked listening, very carefully, to Cohen. I loved the way his sentences mattered and moved in directions I could not predict or understand. I loved how the strangeness of his words and images made me stop and wait in complete stillness for what was coming next. We listened to that tape for years.
In 1979, I read Beautiful Losers in high school. Later, I studied Cohen in my Canadian poetry class at Capilano College, and in family student housing at UBC, at grad school, we all listened to Cohen all the time, as we wrote, as we breathed through the ‘90s, through September 11, 2001, and on, grateful for the peculiar and beautiful coherence he gave to the chaos of our lives. This August, driving back from Vancouver, in the early morning, on that lonely stretch from Edson to Edmonton, I listened to Songs of Leonard Cohen. I listened in complete stillness; I heard each line; I waited on each word, and this past week, in the wake of the American election, after Cohen’s death, we listened to him again.
—Christine Stewart, poet and professor of English and film studies
Even before he started writing folk songs, he’d proved himself the most musical of Canadian poets. And one of the most learned. He wrote endlessly of longing, love, mercy and redemption. He compared mythologies with not just interest, but passion. He opened the spice-box of the earth.
We thought him a certain candidate for immortality. So when word of his passing hit social media the day after the catastrophic American election, it felt like closing time for hope itself. And no way to say goodbye. But then we all started reading Leonard Cohen's poetry again. And listening closely to the tower of sound. “As many nights endure,” he wrote, “Without a moon or star. So will we endure, When one is gone and far.” Indeed, we will endure. Cohen taught us how.
—Stephen Slemon, professor of English and film studies
Leonard Cohen held a unique place in the Canadian cultural fabric, in part due to his work as a poet and writer that preceded his musical career. He released his first album in 1967 in his early-to-mid thirties, about a decade after he began to publish poetry. He was an exceptional narrator of universal feelings and experiences: faith, loneliness, romance and relationships. He communicated these themes with a one-of-a-kind voice, remarkable melodies, and lyrics arranged with much care and intent.
Although his musical career would grow as he spent time in New York and its surrounding late-’60s folk scene, and while touring around the world, he left a special mark on Canadian culture through his music. For example, I think of a song like “Everybody Knows,” which plays such a crucial role in Canadian director Adam Egoyan’s Exotica (1994). It never felt as though we only knew Cohen because of Canadian content regulations and regular radio airplay, though he did receive support from the Canadian Council for the Arts in his early days and he has won numerous awards and accolades.
As well, we get a sense of his immense influence on other storytellers and songwriters, which can be gauged by the countless cover versions of his songs. His seemingly natural sense of charisma was admired by many. And his music transcends generations. This past weekend, Sirius XMU, a satellite radio channel geared to fans of new independent music, with the majority of its listeners likely in their late twenties and thirties, has been playing “You Want it Darker,” the title track off his latest album, and it sounds right at home.
—Brian Fauteux, professor of popular music and media studies
My own relationship to Cohen was always through recordings, vinyl, cassettes, television, books. I never did get to see him live. It seemed to me he was a poet, and he would sing whatever he needed to sing. The uses could be multiple. I never got over hearing the first record of his, which had "Suzanne" on it, and the line from "Sisters of Mercy," "When you're not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you've sinned," has always stayed with me.
Somehow, the "Hillary Clinton" version of "Hallelujah" on Saturday Night Live seemed to do him real honour. The title of his last recording asked if we wanted it darker, and it has gotten darker. All the same, there was "Hillary" letting a little light back in, singing through the cracks of everything, reminding us that "love is not a victory march." Like many other things, it's a struggle.
Poets can be hard to figure out. I wonder if we will keep spending time with them, as we have done, and will continue to do, with Leonard Cohen? I hope so. I hope that the technocrats, the instrumentalizers of everything in life, are eventually exposed.
Cohen shows us poets, artists can be, and hopefully, will be discovered again and again, since, like David, we are always more than a bit baffled being here, in need of the secret chord....
—Brad Bucknell, singer-songwriter and professor of English and film studies
For almost as long as there's been a Canada, there's been a University of Alberta. Over the next year, in honour of Canada's 150th anniversary, we're proudly celebrating the people, achievements and ideas that contributed to the making of a confederation.