March 27, 2013
18 of 65
I first heard the music of Leonard Cohen on Judy Collins’ incredible album In My Life, which was released in 1967. She sang wonderful versions of “Dress Rehearsal Rag” and especially “Suzanne.” I did not know at the time that Cohen was an award winning Canadian poet and novelist, though I recognized that his songs showed a maturity and perspective that was missing from the popular music of the time. When his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, came out the following year, I bought a copy and played it over and over, memorizing the words and sharing it with all my friends.
Cohen’s second album, Songs from a Room, was released in the Fall of 1969. I was in Boulder beginning my Senior year at the University of Colorado. I bought that record, too, and spent many hours listening to it, often with my friend Annette who was also a Leonard Cohen fan. She was an English major and very much in tune with the poetic quality of the lyrics.
This was right after the so-called “Summer of Love” and Boulder was at the center of the counterculture. The best radio station any of us had ever heard was the local KRNW (which later became KBCO – a very successful station, that is no longer what it used to be, and certainly never had the cultural impact of KRNW). The disc jockeys, who played what they wanted without the constraints of corporate play lists, sometimes chose Leonard Cohen songs – but not frequently. Many stations played Judy Collins’ version of “Suzanne,” but only those of us who had purchased the albums knew the unique quality of his music.
KBPI was a rock station in Denver that seemed unsure sure how to react to the changes that were occurring in the arts and society. It cautiously moved toward music that was less “main stream” by devoting air time in the late night and early morning hours to a show featuring that genre. One evening, I was visiting Annette and we were listening to KBPI. The DJ announced that friends of his had told him about a wonderful new artist named Leonard Cohen. He said that he had never heard Cohen’s music, but he had the new album and would play a cut from it. The song he chose was “Tonight Will Be Fine.” Though Annette and I enjoyed listening, that song – and especially Cohen’s voice on that song – is something of an acquired taste (you can listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGjoyKTX2w4). When the song was finished, the DJ apologized to his audience for playing it and promised never to play anything else by Leonard Cohen.
Throughout most of his career, Cohen remained an acquired taste to American audiences. His albums sold poorly and his concerts were sparsely attended. Meanwhile, his music was immensely popular in Canada, Europe and Israel. He performed in stadiums and other large venues on sold-out tours and excited his audiences to the point that there were several near-riots.
In the United States, the concerts were more sedate and informal. I believe it was 1975 when I first saw Cohen in concert – the years run together. Denver had a great music club named Ebbetts Field, located in the Brooks Tower building, and run by concert promoter Chuck Morris. He brought Cohen in for one night, with two shows. I went to the early show with my brother Jim – another longtime Leonard Cohen fan – and his friend, Bob. It was an excellent show, and was over much too soon. At the end of the performance, Chuck Morris came to the stage and announced that the late show was not sold out; and that those of us who wanted to see it could attend for free if we would leave and then come back and present our ticket stubs.
We decided to stay, and since we had to wait for a little while before going back, we went to the coffee shop next door to get something to drink (tea for me). As we were sitting at the table, Leonard Cohen came in, alone, sat at the counter and ordered. Bob is not a shy person, as I tend to be, and he suggested that we invite Mr. Cohen to join us. I started to object that we probably should not bother him, but Bob was already up and approaching the counter. A few minutes later, he and Leonard (we are on a first name basis now) came back to our table. We complimented him on the wonderful show we had seen, and Bob asked if during the second show he would play “Leaving Green Sleeves’ (a song from 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony album). Leonard said rather curtly that he did not play that anymore. Jim was making conversation, and asked Leonard what it had been like to spend time in Cuba during the revolution that put Castro in power. Leonard said that at the time he believed he was doing something important, but he now realized he was simply the “only tourist in Havana.” I thought that was a very clever answer. Later, when I had read more of his works, I learned that it is also a poem from his 1964 collection, Flowers for Hitler. I still feel it was clever, even if it wasn’t spontaneous.
Next, it was Leonard’s turn to make conversation and he asked us what we did for a living. I mentioned that I was a lawyer. Bob said he was a roofer. Leonard opined that tradesmen, such as roofers, were “the salt of the Earth,” and he really admired what they did. Bob, always friendly, invited Leonard to visit a job site the next day. To no one’s surprise but Bob’s, Leonard did not accept the invitation. After perhaps 15 minutes, he excused himself to prepare for the second show. We went back to Ebbett’s Field and thoroughly enjoyed the performance.
As soon as that show concluded, I left for home because I had a rather busy day coming up. Jim and Bob went back to the coffee shop, and once again our buddy Leonard joined them. They talked for a few more minutes until a reporter from the Rocky Mountain News asked to interview Leonard and he left with her.
I have gone to Leonard Cohen concerts since that night (fortunately, my wife Cathy is also a fan), but have never again spoken with him. He is a wonderful performer and is obviously a charismatic individual. Why else would I remember in such detail that night nearly 40 years ago?
It is not merely that I have a good memory. There are other people whose lives were touched by Leonard that night, and who have remembered the details and the charisma for decades. They are not my stories, so I can’t tell them, but let me provide a link to one of them: http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/bergeron.html.