Many Montrealers are sharing their memories today of Leonard Cohen, who has died at the age of 82. The legendary singer/songwriter, poet and novelist was — and will always be — one of this city’s favourite sons.
I became aware of that fact back in my high school days in the 1960s, when we students were shown a black-and-white National Film Board documentary about Cohen and his creative process. He would rent a sparse room in some old boarding house in the city so as not to be distracted by the luxuries of life, and would wander the streets lost in thought — deep thought. He appealed to me, because I thought of myself back in those days as a deep thinker, too.
I confess I wasn’t much into poetry before I was introduced to Cohen’s words. He inspired me, and no doubt many others of my generation, to pen poetry of our own. But it was his novel The Favourite Game that really grabbed me, not so much for the story he was telling, but more so for his style of writing.
And then came that first album, which I still play to this day. You know it — I don’t have to describe it to you. He struck chords in millions of people with that album of soulful, songful poetry, even if it took some getting used to his voice. Even he joked about his voice, saying years later as he accepted a Juno Award that Canada was the only place in the world that would give him a prize for singing.
How wrong he was, of course. The world loved him for that voice — and love is the greatest prize, isn’t it?
I felt a connection to Leonard Cohen that would later become something of a real connection in a haunting encounter that still stirs my soul to this day. I was about 20 or 21 at the time, and was visiting someone in the Royal Victoria Hospital in downtown Montreal.
I was sitting in the hospital cafeteria by myself, having a cup of coffee, when I heard someone softly singing a few lines of a song at a table across the room. I recognized the voice instantly and looked over at him. He was sitting at a table with his back to me, with two of his friends on the opposite side. They could see me looking at him, and I suppose that is what made Leonard Cohen turn around and look over at me. He looked deep into my eyes, very deep, I felt back then — and still feel now. He recognized something in my soul, as if he had encountered a kindred spirit.
I was gobsmacked. I didn’t say anything, and I looked away. Oh, how I regret that now. How I wish I had said something to him . . . and today, how I wish I had written about this experience before he died, so that he might have known how he had stirred my soul, how he had inspired me. And how I still feel his gaze deep inside me today. It never left me …
Of course, he touched and stirred many souls around the world. Many people felt a connection to him. And he knew that. It was his mission in life, for as he sang in Winter Lady, “you chose your journey long before you came upon this highway.” Yes, that is the teaching of a sage, for the sages know that we do chart our course before we incarnate — time and time and time again.
That is one of the deep thoughts I had as a teenager. I was a seeker, and so was Leonard Cohen — and perhaps that was what he saw when he looked so deep into my eyes. He saw a kindred spirit . . .
I’m not sure if Leonard, in later life, actually believed the spirit transcends the mortal coil after the heart stops beating. I’m quite sure he didn’t believe in a personal God — and neither do I.
But I do believe — I know deep inside — that the spirit is immortal, beyond time itself, for as Voltaire wrote, “it is no more surprising to live twice than it is to live once.”
So, I am quite confident that the spirit of Leonard Cohen is in a state of bliss right now, enjoying the rest that comes in the period between incarnations on this playground we call Earth.
And I know he will be back, again inspiring people with his deepness.
And I know that our paths will cross again.
So, rest in peace, dear traveller.
A la prochaine . . .
Photo credit: Leonard Cohen in performance, from Rama/Wikimedia Commons.