Al Purdy

It was 1960, more or less. Milton Acorn and I went to see Leonard Cohen at his pad in Montreal. Acorn was at that time the best poet in Canada. He looked like a fire hydrant that had been pissed on for centuries. And he wrote like an angel. Leonard Cohen-everybody knows who Leonard Cohen is if they live on this planet or any of the ones nearby. Milton Acorn is dead.

Cohen impressed me then as an aristocrat. Not the kind riding in that rattling cart to the French guillotine, but an aristocrat nevertheless. Acorn then and thereafter was a Communist. The encounter between them ought to have been memorable, but I can remember very little about it except the contrast between the two men. Conversation was, of course, about politics. And Cohen said: “Milton, if Communism is ever outlawed in Canada, and the Mounties round up all subversives, you’d be among the first arrested.”

Not true. Acorn was much too obvious a Communist, and like me could never keep his mouth shut. The Mounties would grin and ask him for his autograph.

And another time at Frank Scott’s place in Westmount. Scott was a sort of den mother to writers; a law prof, he fought Premier Duplessis in the courts and won. Cohen had recommended Bob Dylan to Scott, the latter rushing out to buy a couple of records. Then a dozen of us listened to Dylan, lounging around on sofas and carpet, imbibing culture.

I couldn’t stand it. Dylan sounded to me as if he had a bad cold, pneumonia in the offing. I retired to the kitchen where Marian (Frank’s wife) kept the beer.

Well, I admire Cohen a great deal. Having no voice whatever, his voice sounds great. A bit like Margaret Atwood, I’ve always thought. When I first heard him sing “Suzanne” by the river in Montreal, girls passed out a mile away from where his voice was decibelling.

A later memory is meeting Leonard at “The Night of a Hundred Authors” in Toronto. He was moaning that no one had told him he was supposed to wear dinner clothes. I said it wouldn’t have mattered if he was au naturel only his writing was important.

But that’s likely wrong. When you’re a cult figure, your personality is important as well. (I’m lucky: I don’t have one.) However, I still believe Cohen’s writing is more important than his music, will survive his personality and his death. For how long? Until language itself changes in the radioactive future.


Text is taken from the book, “Take This Walz, A Celebration of Leonard Cohen.” Edited by Michael Fournier and Ken Norris, published by The Muses Company, Ste. Anne de Belleview, Quebec, 1994.