This story is about a man who was truly one of the better people in this world, though he no longer shares it with us. Because today commemorates the second anniversary of his passing—here’s my record of that time I had dinner with the great Leonard Cohen.
“Welcome friends.” Leonard Cohen extends a hand that turns into a warm hug as he ushers Mark and I into his Montreal home. Behind us on the sidewalk, a small man in his forties wearing John Lennon glasses was pacing back and forth, trying to work up the courage to knock. As Leonard came into view, the man froze, confronted with the realization of a fantasy imagined and reimagined.
Anjani, embraces us inside while Leonard moves to greet the trembling fan with an outstretched hand. The home looks like its owner: warm, charming, understated. We’re introduced to the other guests. Leonard’s childhood friend, sculptor Mort Rosengarten, wore wine-stained lips and a lively, gentle personality. He seemed quite comfortable in his outdoor jacket. Another good friend, Nancy Southam, (author and editor of Pierre (2006) stories of the late, great Trudeau as told by friends and peers, to which Leonard has contributed a chapter) lives in a converted fire station—complete with original pole. That makes six of us. Leonard comes back inside and calls on Mort to accompany him to go grab some chicken for our dinner. I offer our car, but he waves me off, reassuringly pointing through the window, across the park with the little gazebo, at some shops in the distance. “It’s just around the corner, you can watch me from here!” He promises to grab something veg-friendly for me, some “great wine from Mohammed”—the boy who works at the convenience store—and he’s gone.
I first met Leonard last February at a release party for Anjani’s upcoming album. The only member of the press, I’d been invited as Anjani’s guest. I’d interviewed her the day before and we instantly bonded, it would be the beginning of a longstanding friendship. Tonight, the room was intimately lit with candles and the heady scent of fresh orchids punched through the expectant atmosphere of Zazou Lounge, a small downtown Toronto spot on King West’s Restaurant Row. Separated into little conversational clusters around the gleaming octagonal wooden bar, the patrons included about thirty of the most influential people of music media and entertainment across Canada—from Moses Znaimer to Lisa Zbitnew, President of Sony Canada. Despite the group’s familiarity with celebrity, the buzz of conversation lulled each time the main door opened, then resumed as the newcomer was recognized as a doorman or colleague. Anjani’s album Blue Alert is truly great, but the real carrot that’s lured in these industry big shots is the album’s co-producer and lyricist, Mr. Leonard Cohen.
“Just around the corner from here.”
At 71 years of age, Cohen has reluctantly entered the fourth decade of a celebrated career. Long adored and respected by fans and peers, it seems Cohen’s predicament is a perpetual struggle between celebrity and normalcy. Though he once referred to his art as the search for “a kind of balance in the chaos of existence”, a medium through which he might regulate his “state of grace”, the fame resulting from his work has led to a discrepancy between an ongoing pursuit of solitude and the expression of his talents. Arguably Canada’s most important poet-artist, Cohen’s career had been prolific until his 1996 entry to the Mount Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles. There, he adopted the Dharma name Jikan, meaning ‘silent one’, and fulfilled this prophecy for several years until his need for expression was irrepressible, resulting in two new albums. Both releases, Ten New Songs and Dear Heather, were followed by an extended retreat to Mount Baldy, order and meditation.
Leonard stifles a giggle as he sits straight up in his seat, the Montreal Yellow Pages carefully balancing on his head. Anjani Thomas, his life partner, is casually packing away leftovers from dinner, while we sit comfortably at the little wooden dining table: well-fed and warmed with wine. As a host, the great man is kind and playful, unpretentious and generous with warmth. Anjani walks back into the cozy area that serves as both the living and dining room, removes the phonebook from Leonard’s head and begins lovingly massaging his ears. “Well it’s on St. Laurent,” he says, abandoning the search for directions to the best oyster bar in Montreal, “just around the corner from here”.
* * *
When the door opened at the listening party and Cohen entered, a few beats of silence preceded the applause. Despite everything you might anticipate, there’s something deeply unbalancing about coming face to face with the man in real life. He’s wearing his signature look: a smart suit—in this case, a dark grey, double-breasted pin-stripe over a crisp white shirt and bolo tie—but he is enveloped in a thick halo of intensity. You can feel his presence in your deepest self and it’s awesome and rattling every time. His eyes danced briefly with everyone in the room before he bowed humbly, hands pressed together in a prayer-like gesture and moved to stand beside Anjani. Time seemed to leap back a half century—the twenty year-old poet would hypnotize us with his thoughts on longing, loss, spirituality, and sexual desire. We are mesmerized. Softly, and with reverence, Cohen begins to speak about the Blue Alert, rapidly bringing the assembly back to the here and now.
“I think I’m lost. Which way is Spain?”
Cohen is older and more subdued than the man we remember in the iconic black and white photos, but his intense green eyes and cocked poor-boy cap, betray a boyish quality and a kind of otherworldliness. He is the grown version of the dashing, cerebral and sensual hero of the 1965 documentary ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen’, enhanced with a new humility. Despite his love of Montreal and his great acclaim in Canada, he has lived well in Greece, England and the United States, making an indelible mark on many of his globally celebrated peers. Last February, at his induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, internationally renowned artists spoke of him as both prophet and idol.
U2’s Bono, an icon in his own right, had carefully prepared his tribute speech delivered via satellite at the event, “I would not know how high to jump or how far I was falling without Leonard Cohen. His songs are conversations I have been trying to have all of my life withsome of the same people… Jesus Christ, Judas Iscariot, Yahweh, all the women in the world, Buddha.” Performing at the event, singer-songwriter, Ron Sexsmith, confided in me, “I could have done the entire tribute show all by myself…just throw me a guitar and a mic and I’m off.” He went on to list the many Cohen covers he’s played throughout his career, describing their author as “the greatest of all artists of his genre”. Even Zack Werner, the Cowell-like judge on Canadian Idol, joked “Leonard would definitely make it through to the finals [of the Idol competition] even if it was just on the basis of how attractive he is. Hell, even I’d sleep with him.” Among the younger generation of musicians influenced by Cohen, Rufus Wainwright, having just covered “Everybody Knows” at the tribute, whispered “I really believe he’s the greatest living poet on earth.”
* * *
At dinner, Mort reminds Leonard of a journey he took as teenager in a big steamboat. “He was heading for Europe,” Mort snorts “but the boat broke down in the St. Lawrence and they had to wait there a month for the technician to come in from Sweden.” Cohen laughs remembering, “We almost starved to death about half an hour from shore.” The table is in tears as Leonard adds, “About three weeks into the wait, a guy paddles by in a canoe shouting to us, “I think I’m lost. Which way is Spain?”
“Haven’t you learned your lesson?”
Cohen is at ease at the album release party as he chats about Anjani, himself, the album and the relationship between the three. The “brevity” of speech that he had apologized for two nights before at the Canadian Songwriters induction, seems to be reserved only for occasions where he himself is the guest of honour. Imagining himself a peripheral figure on this night, he is lively and uninhibited by certified praise for Anjani. His eyes shine with pride as he declares, “She is my partner and the light of my life.”
From the start, Cohen was well known for his poetry, his prose, his song, and his overt worship of the fairer sex. Tonight, more than fifty years later, we pose for a photo and as his hand touches the base of my neck, I feel a spark of the electricity that must have overwhelmed many women. Anjani tells me their relationship “began as a friendship and evolved” over time. I ask her if she finds it lonely to be a talented, intelligent woman trying to secure a place in this industry and in life at the side of a man of such widely acknowledged genius and success. She thinks for a moment, replying frankly, “No. But I have had to carve out my place, to claim my space for myself. I was working on my own records, he was doing his own projects too—but he was in the spotlight having success with Ten New Songs. At some points I felt that there wasn’t really any room for me and I’d think, ‘What am I doing here?’ But then, you make accommodations for genius and it works both ways…”
Kelley Lynch, Cohen’s former lover and business parter of 16 years, chose a different path. In March of this year, she was indicted on counts of fraud, negligence and mismanagement of his funds to the tune of $9 million. Despite this ruling, however, a single appeal could mean that the near octogenarian likely wouldn’t see a penny of his earnings.
* * *
Sated and content, after a gorgeous dinner of beef ribs, roast potatoes, a delicious vegetarian avocado and chickpea dish, several magnificent wines and Limited Edition O’Henry bars with fruit tartlets, we lean back in our little wooden chairs.
“Where’s the chicken?” asks Leonard. Everyone laughs. We’d all assumed they decided to get ribs instead. “No, we definitely bought the chicken”, Leonard says and Mort agrees. After a thorough search of the house, Leonard is going through his pockets for the receipt. “Leonard never keeps his receipts” Anjani says. “Haven’t you learned your lesson?” shoots Nancy with a wry wink.
* * *
Having introduced Blue Alert to the crowd, Cohen stands with his back to the wall, trapped between the caterer’s table and a large decorative pole. He’s been cornered by two men, but seems perfectly comfortable. One of them is Moses Znaimer, his brown hair slicked back and informally tied at the nape of his neck into a signature ponytail. A fellow Montrealer and McGill University alum, Znaimer’s revolutionary concept of turning the backstage studio into the main action, spawned City TV, Much Music, and a plethora of offshoots and projects to follow, earning him a huge name in Toronto’s creative landscape. The other is a tall curly-haired guy with glasses that I don’t recognize. Both men have bent forward to accommodate Cohen’s slight stoop, a physical trait that’s followed Leonard since he first caught the interest of the public eye in the 1960s (and perhaps before then.) It gives the conversation a conspiratorial appearance, as though they might be planning a complete overhaul of the music industry. Meanwhile other media giants pace the outskirts of this privileged circle, waiting for a word with the man himself. Cohen listens intently to his conversation partners, but I detect a longing glance toward the silver platter just to his right—dark rye toasts piled high with rich, pink smoked salmon and capers perched on a table just out of reach.
Everybody knows that Leonard Cohen values his privacy. Following the loss of his retirement fund, Cohen has, by his own admission, been pushed to release a mass of work that he would probably have left on the shelf to age a little longer were the necessity less urgent. As it stands, despite the court ruling in Cohen’s favour, Lynch has completely ignored the suit as well as a subpoena issued for her financial records. It’s rumoured that her current financial status has resulted in the disconnection of her phone. As it stands, Cohen has been left with little choice but to step back into public view, to rebuild his finances and rekindle his career.
* * *
Leonard is wrangling in French on the phone with the deli across the street, trying to crack the case of the lost chicken. We shout out advice from the sidelines. “Call 911” offers Anjani and Mark adds, “Missing Poultry division”. We go into giggling fits and Nancy shouts out “subject may be lightly roasted”. Leonard crumbles into giggles and has to leave the room to complete the call. “Why don’t you just tell them who you are?” Mark pipes up and although Leonard doesn’t hear, the three others quickly flash him ‘ix-nay on the amous-fay’ looks.
With a new album, a book of poetry and a documentary all due in the summer of this year, Cohen will be forced to face a barrage of media and publicity intruding on the sanctuary he has carefully crafted for himself. So the pressure is on for his manager, Michelle Findlay, as she guides his career, attempting to balance the necessary publicity with Cohen’s well-guarded privacy. She shares this delicate task with Cohen’s other publicity agents/gatekeepers at Sony BMG, McClelland & Stewart, and Lionsgate Films. But most of the support and responsibility falls to Anjani herself. In addition to her own career commitments, she often appears in place of Cohen in interviews that require his comment. The young woman he met in 1985, singing background vocals on “Hallelujah” has become the partner he searched the world for. In our interview, the day before the listening party, Anjani told me, “I appreciate what he’s able to command within himself and what he needs in order to be able to command it… we go out of our way to be as kind to each other as we can be.”
Tonight, she reminisces about the day we met, how our timing was perfect for this get together in Montreal, how great that we decided stay in for an intimate dinner at Leonard’s family home, and whether we’d be able to meet up for Passover in Toronto. “It’s bashert”, she says using the Hebrew word for ‘destiny’. I think it’s slightly out of context as the term usually refers to the coming together of souls for marriage, but it still feels right and natural and true. Maybe she learned it from Leonard, a descendent of the priestly Jewish ‘Kohanim’, the clan all the ‘Cohens’ belong to. Maybe he’d initially used it to describe the magnitude of their connection…
* * *
As the listening party draws to a close, Anjani gracefully swoops in on the crowd gathered around Leonard and guides him off towards the food-laden tables with a bright smile on her lovely face. He apologizes graciously to all, confessing “I haven’t eaten all day.” Eating aside, at 71, Leonard Cohen is still reaping all the pleasures life has to offer: success, the respect of his peers, the worship of many anonymous strangers, true love, and hopefully, plenty of Mohammed’s good wine.