The Maple Leaf Forever
In recent years I broke up with Joni, but I remain faithful to Leonard. Leonard Cohen and I go way back. He was my musical best man back in the eleventh grade. That was the year Tara came to our high school. We would sit on the floor of her parents’ living room listening to Leonard Cohen droning on the hi-fi, smoking Old Port wine-tipped cigarillos. I would serenade her with barely passable renditions of “Suzanne” and “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.” I still can’t fingerpick properly. But I intend to be of enormous value in the nursing home when we’re all on rocking chairs, trying desperately to recall the final verse of “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”.
Leonard was a poet that we knew. John Grierson’s National Film Board documentary, “Ladies and Gentleman, Leonard Cohen”, confirmed that Leonard was cool. He was a bond between us all. He and Joni Mitchell. They were Canadian singer song writers who were quite simply deeper, more poetic, more exploratory. It made you proud to know this ‘literary’ style of making music came from north of the U.S. border. It was a level of communication I aspired to, that led me into adulthood.
Tara and I were married. I became a literary journalist. I kept writing songs, playing in a band. Leonard came to town for an interview. It was like meeting an old friend. I immediately felt I could go down the street and shoot a game of pool with this guy. This was during his “Death of a Lady’s/Ladies Man” era. I related to his Eeyore world view. He said many memorable things that day, my favourite being ‘A book is a small thing in this world’. Our conversation was sincere. It wasn’t simply an exercise. In those days I could still ask genuine questions. I loved his sense of humour.
Afterwards I called Tara and we all went for a walk in Stanley Park. We ate popcorn at English Bay. We have photographs. In retrospect, there was something ceremonial going on. Dressed in a dark suit, as always, Leonard was a ministerial figure. Although he didn’t know us beforehand, he acted as if he did. We weren’t fans, we were friends. Unlike many authors I’ve met, he was curious about what we had to say. Our brief triad was a confirmation of paths taken.
Leonard posed obediently for pictures. I’ve met hundreds of authors-most of the so-called ‘major’ ones in Canada during the 1970s and early ’80s-but only Leonard Cohen and Pierre Berton know how to have their pictures taken. They immediately become co-conspirators. Leonard and I were standing side-by-side when Leonard picked up a large maple leaf. He twirled it then slipped its stem under his belt. He became Adam. It was a spontaneous joke. He posed blank-faced. As Canadian as maple syrup.
I still have that photo. It’s the only photo I keep on my office wall. There’s my pal, Leonard Cohen, with a maple leaf covering his crotch. I’m the intrepid, shoddily-dressed, squinting young journalist who shouldn’t be in the same picture.
Since then we crossed paths on his Book of Mercy tour. That meeting was a confirmation of the first. He was dressed the same. He kindly said he remembered me. Strangely, it didn’t much matter to me whether this was true or not. I’ve been to a concert, bought a few records, kept track of him in the news. Nothing special. But our long-distance relationship endures. I appreciate his work. Now my teenage son is at the same age I was when I met his mother. From the basement, amid blasts of Pearl Jam and the Screaming Trees, I often hear Leonard’s voice. My sons’ friends like him, they dig the words. He is, apparently, still cool.
This is uplifting. To know that Leonard endures. To know that I have chosen wisely in my artistic influences. So it is that we remain loyal, hundreds of thousands of us. When I was a theatre critic for CBC Radio in the early 1980s I gave the news to the show’s producer that Leonard Cohen was coming to town and we could interview him. She told me Leonard Cohen was boring. It was my cue to quit the show.
The world is divided. Some of us are inspired by the fact that Leonard has been able to maintain a consistently artistic outlook. Coming from a young country like Canada, which distrusts art and artists, this practically qualifies Leonard for sainthood. It is a brave and rare thing, to function as Leonard has. He is not known as an intellectual. He eschews politics. He does not teach Creative Writing. He prefers to be photographed eating a banana. Or posing with a maple leaf. Adamite.
Many people have written wise and penetrating views of Leonard Cohen and his work. I am thankful to be able to pay tribute. Thanks, Leonard. Our household thanks you. Our street thanks you. Our neighborhood thanks you. You are in our hearts. You are in our basements. We’re proud of you. You have given us much pleasure. (For a desert island classic, I’d probably pick “Song of Bernadette”, Jennifer Warnes’ version.) When you’re dead, we’ll dangle icons of you from rear view mirrors.
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.
Photo taken at the English Bay entrance to Stanley Park in Vancouver in
1979 by David Boswell.