Drawing by Hugh Orr, fall 1985.
A Leonard Cohen tribute show
Listen to the hummingbird … (recorded July 2016)
Les Vieux (from Six Montreal Poets, 1957)
Elegy (from Six Montreal Poets, 1957)
Twelve O’Clock Chant (CBC radio, 1958)
Intro / Verdun Asylum story (reading at McGill University, 1964)
Prayer For A Messiah (reading at McGill University, 1964)
The Park, from The Favourite Game (Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen s/t 1964) The Music Crept By Us (Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen s/t 1964)
Beautiful Losers excerpt (reading at YM/YWHA NYC 1966)
Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye (CBC circa 1966)
The Traveler (The Stranger Song) (reading at YM/YWHA NYC 1966)
What I’m Doing Here (Canadian Poets 1 LP, 1966)
Style (Canadian Poets 1 LP, 1966)
Poen (Beautiful Losers) (from the NFB film s/t 1967)
Stories of the Street
Suzanne (BBC recording, Paris Theatre, London UK spring 1968)
Seems So Long Ago, Nancy
Poems (Isle of Wight 31 Aug 70)
One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong (Isle of Wight 31 Aug 70)
The Partisan (Joe Dassin TV show 1970)
Sing Another Song, Boys (Isle of Wight 31 Aug 70)
Love Calls You By Your Name
Poem 1 (Bird on a Wire s/t 1972)
Story of Isaac (Berlin 1972)
Poem 4 (Bird on a Wire s/t 1972)
I Got a Home in Gloryland (Bird on a Wire s/t 1972)
Who By Fire
Do I Have To Dance All Night? (7″ single 1976)
This Marriage (CBC TV 8 Feb 79)
Night Comes On
In The Eyes of Men (WNEW FM 28 Apr 85)
Days of Kindness (CBC Morningside 1993)
“Soon, we all will die …” (reading from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, from the 1994 NFB documentary)
Find the podcast of this broadcast here (go by the dates).
Below, you’ll find a couple of previously-published reminisces of encounters with Leonard Cohen in the 1980s.
in search of the poetic in everday life
One fine summer day, as I was cruising through the Plateau on my bike, I came upon a big cardboard box full of discarded old LPs on Berri Street, just a little south of Duluth. I immediately set about checking them out; I stuffed as many as I could into my knapsack, then bagged a bunch and stuck those in my bike rack. I took about sixty of them home. I can’t even remember what I got from that bonanza any more … a lot of stupid shit like Hermans Hermits and one of Petula Clark’s French albums … stuff I wouldn’t ever pay even a buck for, but if it’s free, well … the nicest find from that batch was Dylan’s 1966 masterpiece Blonde on Blonde.
Of course, the album (actually a 2 LP set) was pretty much destroyed, or else why would it be in a box of orphaned records by the curb? But what am I really after, when I scavenge a Bob Dylan album out of the trash? I’ve already got it on cassette, and if I’m really eager I can quickly borrow a copy of it and burn a CD. What I’m after isn’t the glorious, mythical superior sound quality of vinyl, per se, but rather the overall ambience of the objet d’art which a vinyl album is. CDs and cassettes have always sucked for the simple fact that they are so tiny … itsy-bitsy wee texts and miniscule fields of artwork and design – when was the last time anyone was blown away by a CD’s cover art?
LPs are twelve inches by twelve inches square (those are old school measurements from the before times) … sometimes gatefold (like Blonde on Blonde), sometimes with complicated inner sleeves (like Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here) or groovy label art (ditto). So my vinyl collection boasts a number of unplayable discs, from Jethro Tull’s Aqualung to CSNY’s Deja Vu. While I love collecting old LPs, I don’t have a ‘audiophile’ fixation on only listening to music on vinyl … my hearing is the shits anyway, having had a long career of listening to tunes on ghetto blasters, Sony Walkmans and third-rate sets of speakers and headphones. It makes no never mind to me if it’s on vinyl, cassette or CD, as long as it plays. (The only exceptions I can think of are certain early CD versions of analogue recordings, like Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, which are badly mastered and sound incredibly tinny and flat when compared to the original vinyl.)
Anyway, I’m looking at the blurry, out-of-focus, enigmatic squint of Mr. Dylan on the twelve by twelve inch album cover of Blonde on Blonde. I’ve always had an on-again, off-again engagement with Dylan’s oeuvre … awareness of Blonde on Blonde came along at a later date than much of my Dylan exposure, simply because Blonde on Blonde was never in my brother’s record collection. I remembered Peter’s reedy, rasping voice quoting the lyric of ‘Rainy Day Woman # 12 and 35’ as we rolled up another spliff from a seemingly bottomless bag of homegrown. ‘Everybody must get stoned!’ That was the week back in 1986 when I came up from Halifax to visit … we sure laughed a lot, then … in fact, just a stone’s throw from where I was rooting through that box of albums was 4001 Berri, the setting of the very first poetry reading I’d ever attended, thanks to my poet friend Peter.
In the spring of 1986 I was working in a parking lot in Halifax, living with a woman and writing. I wrote prose and I wrote poetry. Sometimes I wrote something that fell in between the two … especially when I was stoned. Writing stoned was something I did a lot of that year, something that I haven’t done a lot of since … that was a special year. The capacious parking lot booth was my studio, equipped with a portable typewriter, a ghetto blaster and a near-endless supply of cheap grass. I’d made a promise to myself, that year, that I was going to work, I was going to pay my debts, I was going to write, and I was going to smoke as much pot as I pleased – which was a lot. I just wanted to bash away at the stoney face of our deathly Canadian ‘culture’ with a mallet, day and night, I wanted to shed it … I honed my writer soul staring at the night reflection of my face in the plastic window of the parking lot booth, blasting joint after joint, exuding unconscious sludge onto the page.
What I was doing wasn’t happening in a vacuum; I knew a tiny number of others who had launched themselves into the creative realm without benefit of a school curriculum. Some were musicians, some were visual artists like Hugh. In my case, I’d already attained a degree in history, and it had only nearly cost my mind, my spirit and my life. I’d dropped out of a second degree in journalism when it became clear that I was just going through the motions … eventually I had to ask myself, what would be the point of getting a degree despite the fact that my heart was entirely not in it? So I just walked away from schools in general … the majority of my effort went into simply becoming what I wanted to be.
That spring, Hugh was in Montréal living on pogey. We traded enormous letters running to 20 and 30 pages, concerning our ever-expanding and constantly-mutating concepts of art, life and everything else. We beavered away at our works, my poems and stories, his drawings, paintings and sculptures, because they were, as Hugh once said, ‘The universe.’ For us, art wasn’t a job or a career, it was everything. We’d already passed through that desperate moment when one realizes this life we’re being handed is a crock of shit – it ‘administers’ everything to death. It comes swooping around from this angle then that, trying to insinuate itself into everything good about existence: Desire. Love. Beauty. Art. To quote one of Peter’s poems, ‘It moves like a razor predator.’ We’d chosen the revolutionary path of confounding it with our own concepts, our own universes.
Really, it puzzles me why we hadn’t gone the route of the schools. One term at NSCAD had been enough to turn Hugh off formal art education for good. In my case, I guess I modelled myself on Kerouac, who just went ahead and wrote books. It seemed to make sense at the time; write a book, then if it’s good enough, someone will publish it. If I had realized how difficult a task that really is, maybe I’d have tried a different route. More likely, I’d have given up. But none of this explains the real sense of joy, of release, of rightness that this ‘going ahead and doing it’ brought in its wake. I had already established that there was no rational reason to exist in this farrago of power and fear we call ‘society’ … going around crushing each other day and night … better to try to escape it somehow. One could always drink, of course, but hallucinogens added an even greater freight of daring to the mix. Getting drunk to escape is bullshit anyway, this whole society is drunk out of its skull all the time … the great killing machine and its dutch courage.
So the problem was this: what could I do to make my life more bearable? I’d been burdened for years by a feeling that I just didn’t cut it at all … I wasn’t up to the challenge … I was just going through the motions … what a relief, then, to just drop everything and write!
Hugh and I exchanged cassette tapes as well as letters, that spring. One of his tapes featured excerpts from the 1980 Vehicule Poets LP Sounds Like … I was enchanted by the voices of Pat Walsh, Ken Norris, Claudia Lapp, Peter Van Toorn and Endre Farkas, among others. Like many of Hugh’s tapes, there was no playlist included, so part of the magic of listening was the mystery of Who These People Were. ‘Omnivashivaya, omnivashivaya, omnivashivaya, omnivashivaya …’ On another mix tape he sent was a reading by Peter, a new friend of his who happened to be a poet. Peter’s words … I was simply floored by his poem, ‘Hitler by T.B. Hitler.’ It was a poem that Hugh and I would have deemed ‘perfect’, in the sense that it perfectly meshed with our own sensibilities at the moment when we first heard it. It meshed, it became part of us, it helped name some part of ourselves which until then had been nameless.
Peter’s poem was like a miniature encyclopedia of all the great features of poetry: vivid imagery, musicality, rhythm, intensity, insight, the power of simple repetition, the unifying power of the theme. Even the way he accepted his own ‘mistakes’ – typos, illegibility – into the flow of his reading taught me something. Peter seemed to be inhabiting a poetic sensibility, a headspace where I wanted to go. In his letters, Hugh fed my sense of inadequacy, my jealousy, with romantic stories of Peter’s poetic life on the streets of Montreal. By the time I flew to Montreal for a week-long visit in June, I was hungry to simply soak up everything I could from his hard-won poetry skills.
While I was living quietly, scribbling in the parking lot booth, loving, drifting benignly through the tight-knit creative community of Halifax, Hugh had found the sort of underground bohemia I’d only ever known in books. I have memories of candle lit sessions of song round the kitchen table, the passing of the joint and the bottle of red wine, forays to tiny clubs to dance to cow punk and hard rock; there are memories of angry lovers, of sad lovers, of lovers soaking together in the big old bath tub … through all this the presence of Peter wove itself. Peter, offering to buy me a coffee at the corner of Ste-Catherine and St-Laurent, and when I agreed he immediately set about panhandling until he had enough change. Peter, flirting with a beautiful woman in Dunkin Donuts as evening gave way to dawn. Peter and Hugh playing a leisurely game of chess under the wrought-iron moon face that guarded the front window of a hippie café on St-Denis. Peter, taking his mock-Shakespearean leave from Hugh’s apartment, calling farewells from the veranda, from the spiral stairs, from the alleyway below, until his voice faded away into the distance as he meandered home.
Peter’s home was an utter shambles. Hugh brought me down to his apartment on the day of the poetry reading, and I found it exactly as described in Hugh’s letters. The door, kicked in so many times by various junkie ‘friends’ who wanted a place to flop that it remained permanently open to all and sundry. The apartment, musty, more like a camp than a dwelling place, the sad old mattresses on the floors, dishevelled bedclothes, wretched furnishings. There was absolutely nothing left of value in the apartment. Anything that could be sold had been stolen. We brought coffee in foam cups from a greasy spoon on Ste-Catherine East because he couldn’t even keep food in his apartment. Peter was a saint, he loved these people … in the midst of the decrepitude, the disarray, the destruction of any sense of past or future, there sat Peter in the kitchen by the rickety little table. He was suffused with a holy light. Next to him, on the table, was a pile of papers a foot high. His poems. Poems written and poems typed. Poems scribbled on greasy menus, poems inscribed on lined foolscap, poems jotted on torn scraps. Peter was nervously trying to decide which poems to read. ‘Just pick some at random,’ Hugh said, and then we went out on the balcony to sip the coffee we’d brought. We stared up through lines of hanging laundry to the bottom of the great humming bridge. A thin Quebecoise in a tattered grey jersey, one of Peter’s room-mates, came onto the balcony to bum a cigarette. When she’d drifted away I asked Hugh, ‘Is that the one who dumped an ashtray on Peter’s face when he was asleep?’
‘That’s her,’ Hugh said.
We hiked to the Brewery Mission for supper, then northward to Hugh’s apartment, where we smoked a fat joint before heading out for the poetry reading on Berri Street. I hate to break the news to those who think of weed as some sort of devilish scourge, but it’s actually an effective antidote to the dumbed-down dullness of a drab industrial nowhere constantly importuning us for more – more money, more work, more attention. It’s an important tool for the spirit seeking a modicum of happiness now, not some time in the hypothetical future … it opens up the world and lets one discover one’s poetic visions. Montreal was ripe with summer energies, colourful crowds constantly poured forth from the Mont-Royal metro entrance. The nearly naked bodies had an intoxicating effect. Hugh went about everywhere shirtless, revelling in his youth. Peter went around with a sports jacket over a shirt and undershirt, his black hair cut short. I wore a t-shirt and jeans and I sweated and sweated. But I remember, more than anything else, how happy I was, then.
The poetry reading had been organized by his poet friend Artie. Artie was there outside 4001 Berri when we arrived, beautifully dishevelled in a white shirt and jeans, looking stressed out and distracted.
‘I wonder if anyone will come?’ Peter asked the air.
I said, ‘Did you put up any posters?’
Peter nodded. ‘Yeah, Artie put one up at The Word … it’s a used bookstore … and there was another one too, somewhere.’ I looked at Hugh and smiled.
A handful of people had gathered outside the brick building on Berri. Hugh and I started out sitting on the sidewalk, leaning our backs on the wall; as time passed our positions became more and more horizontal, until we were completely sprawled across the sidewalk. Artie became more and more agitated – it transpired that there had been a miscommunication, a mistake, something had gone wrong, and the room where the reading was supposed to take place was booked for something else that night. The absurdity of the situation struck me then … here was a handful of people – three poets and their closest friends – standing on the sidewalk, wondering where to hold a poetry reading. ‘Well, why not right here?’ I suggested. ‘Have the reading on the street. Why not? This is nice.’
And it was nice. The sun was setting, and sent slanting rays all down Berri Street. The apartment houses were dappled in shadow with bright sunlit patches. The foilage of the trees seemed to pulsate. Everything was glowing.
‘I’m comfortable,’ Hugh said. ‘Come on, let’s have some poetry!’
‘Wait, wait!’ Artie said, holding up one hand. ‘Before we begin, I have a good friend coming. I know he’s coming. But he’s not here yet, and we can’t start without him.’
I set about making a fresh batch of cigarettes with my cigarette machine. I sent Peter to the corner store with ten dollars for a few cans of beer. Presently a Mercedes pulled up to the curb, and out stepped Leonard Cohen and his companion, a young woman armed with a camera. Artie’s friend had arrived! Artie hastily explained the situation, said he hoped Leonard didn’t mind having the poetry reading out on the sidewalk like this. Leonard didn’t mind. He sat, smiling, on a cement step.
Hugh and I exchanged conspiratorial glances at each other. Before Hugh had left Halifax for Montreal, we’d discovered Leonard Cohen’s early albums in the record library of the campus radio station. That same fall, I’d picked up The Spice Box of Earth at a bazaar for fifty cents – it was probably the first poetry I’d voluntarily read in my life. His words, music and voice had entered our personal mythic voyage in search of the poetic in everday life, and now here he was, wearing a blue suit, sitting on a cement step a few feet away from us. We kept checking him out, trying to be subtle about it. Then I caught him checking us out. He looked away quickly, as if embarassed by his shocking display of natural curiosity. Leonard Cohen was shy!
The reading was underway. Peter went first, and he read one poem: ‘Hitler by T.B. Hitler.’ Of course, it wasn’t a poem in favour of Hitler or praising Hitler, but – like some of Cohen’s poems about Hitler, poems Peter had probably read – it was a poem about the Hitler in all of us. It was a probe into what was human about Hitler, what he shared, psychologically, ontologically, emotionally, with the rest of humanity. What it was about him that we knew deeply, secretly, about ourselves – what we knew and didn’t want to know. It was a poem about power and the love of power.
This is only a Nazi regime as it was
That is, only a Nazi regime on a smaller scale
Only a Nazi regime by the way it looks
Only a Nazi regime in the way it runs
But the men and girls in it have softer hearts for the Nazis
Than for themselves
He read to Leonard Cohen. He put everything into it, it was a fine reading, and at the end of it, Cohen nodded slightly, approvingly.
Artie followed with a sheaf of poems about the nature of love. Love of man for woman. He seemed to be attacking this idea of love, and he looked at his friend on the cement step as if he were addressing an argument to him. Smiling wryly, shaking his head good-naturedly, Leonard Cohen didn’t agree with Artie.
Both Peter and Artie had chosen to kneel on the hard cement of the sidewalk as they read. It lent a sense of drama to the reading – of course, Cohen was seated, and Hugh and I were listening and watching from an almost completely supine position, so in a sense they were only trying to connect with their audience members. The third poet stood. He delivered a series of poems in a clipped, professorial tone. I can’t to this day remember who he was. I listened, but only politely.
The sun had gone down further, the poets and audience were mingled together in the shadows of dusk. The trees sang their susurrus as friends took their leave. ‘This was the best poetry reading I’ve ever been to,’ Leonard Cohen declared. And then we all went our separate ways. I went back to Halifax with the feeling that my life had been altered forever. In a matter of weeks, I was looking at my first published poem in New Works, a local zine.
Two excerpts from de[con]struction
I’d almost filled my little beige notebook with such poem-sketches. Nets cast to contain the inchoate void of time spent alone. The black notebook was crammed with scribblings, drawings, mementoes. The city was cold, but it was spring. Streets draining dead dirt-caked islands of ice, ancient garbage and dogshit like old corpses found under dirty white sheets on a flophouse mattress. In the time it took to fill that notebook I’d lost everything, but the loss of a girlfriend, a job, a home, a record collection, only reflected something deeper I couldn’t shake. A blast across the continent and back and I couldn’t shake it. Rocky Mountain goats perched on tiny ledges a hundred feet overhead, ruminating on dry mouthfuls of grass. Antelopes bounding on the stoned brown steppes of Alberta and across the highway ahead of us, leaping like pole-vaulters in formation over cattle fences, flowing over the land in the same crazy way flocks of birds wheel and gyre, schools of fish swim … what is mind to them? Jennifer Warnes sang Leonard Cohen – it was Leonard in drag – on the American station we picked up north of Lake Superior: “They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom for trying to change the system from within.” I didn’t know it was Cohen’s words, or who the singer was, but it sank its hooks in with a familiar bite. “I don’t like what you did to my sister.…”
When Margueritte just walked into the apartment one night, another self-proclaimed writer running on neurotic mania, I thought at first she might be the answer to Roger’s loneliness. But he hated her viscerally, instinctively, like a mongoose confronted by a cobra. It quickly became clear she was crazier than the rest of us. “I know Leonard Cohen,” she announced to us matter-of-factly as she chain-smoked. I could imagine Cohen’s intense discomfort if this was actually the case. Margueritte would lay in wait for an audience, then tear off her shoes, hurl them down and walk away from them; an obsessive-compulsive pantomime we were expected somehow to decipher. Things started disappearing from our place – a camera, a sweater, a cassette, a tote bag. For the first time that summer we started locking the doors before we went to bed. Kath reappeared in the midst of all this to explode. “What the fuck’s going on here?!” Evan and I just shrugged. She stashed her stereo with Trish, vowed to live with a woman that fall, and took off to New York.
Trish and I, and some of the others in our orbit often had breakfast at a tiny restaurant up the street on Rachel. There was barely enough room for a couple of small tables for two by the window, wedged against the row of stools at the counter. Bacon and eggs, fries and coffee for two bucks. Someone said Leonard Cohen had been seen eating there, but the only stars we ever saw were some weary Doughboys back from a tour, dreadlocked heads nodding over their plates. We didn’t see Cohen until one day when Trish and I were looking for an apartment, and took a break on a bench in the Portugese park near his house. It was a hot day, and we saw him crossing the park decked out in khaki shorts, a loose white shirt and holding a couple of plastic bags full of groceries. He looked fit and affable, like an elder statesman of some imaginary republic.