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Long before he played Manhattan and way before Berlin, Leonard Cohen took Edmonton in a mutually transformative storm, say organizers of a festival celebrating the moody Montreal-born poet-troubadour.

"He came to Edmonton a private person and left famous," says Kim Solez president of the Cohennights Arts Society, and lead organizer of the Leonard Cohen International Festival, which begins today and runs until July 28. "He stayed here for a stretch in late 1966, invited as a guest of the University of Alberta's Faculty of Arts and hung out for five weeks."

While in Edmonton, Solez says, Cohen struck up friendships with a fistful of women and wrote a string of poems and songs, including the iconic Sisters of Mercy, a ballad inspired by his relationship with two U of A undergrads (not two backpackers travelling through Edmonton on a cross-Canada trip as is often reported).

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Perhaps even more importantly, Cohen started to get a taste of what real fame was like during his western Canadian sojourn, having just published his infamous novel Beautiful Losers but before he began working on his first album.

"The start of his feeling famous started here in Edmonton, attention that was still brand-new to him. For example, so many people were trooping through his room he was thrown out of the Hotel Macdonald and had to move down the street to the Alberta Hotel," says Solez, an internationally renowned kidney pathologist and dedicated Cohen fan who's chatted with the singer in great detail about his time in Edmonton.

While a typical university-sponsored poetry reading in the era might only attract a couple dozen English students, Cohen's reading-concert event (he performed several times at the U of A) "packed" the 500-seat Tory Turtle Hall, says Patricia Hughes-Fuller, a U of A English undergrad during Cohen's visit.

"We were totally surprised at that turnout and then again when he sold out a concert at the Yardbird Suite," says Hughes-Fuller, referring to a southside Edmonton jazz/blues club. "It was a phenomenal thing to witness and be a part of.

"Leonard Cohen wasn't yet Leonard Cohen" when he arrived in Edmonton, adds Hughes-Fuller, currently an assistant professor of cultural studies at Alberta's Athabasca University. The young poet's appeal was "unanticipated," she says and Cohen struck a chord with more than just English-lit students. "I knew engineers who were interested and moved by his work. There was something in the air," she says.

"He became one of the first Canadian writers to step away from the academy and become a celebrity and a pop culture figure at a time when that was just not done. His visit wasn't a celebrity experience for those of us there. It had a very personal feel."

Hughes-Fuller herself received an immortal souvenir of Cohen's Edmonton trip after he mentioned her in his poem Calm, Alone, the Cedar Guitar: "I'm here with sandalwood / and Patricia's clove pomander" he wrote.

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She gave him the aromatic orange "at one of the Garneau [a U of A-abutting neighbourhood]parties tossed in his honour. He seemed genuinely pleased with the gift," she says. The inspiration for it was a passing citation to one he made in his 1961 poetry book The Spice-Box of Earth.

As for his Yardbird Suite gig, even though music fans in Edmonton at the time knew Cohen had talent they were also seeing "just another guy on the road, more of a speaker than a musician" who was working the "bugs, tricks and techniques," says Michael Dorsey, a seasoned folk musician who played alongside the singer-poet.

"I remember that he was unhappy with this pitch, mainly because he was singing so low that it's hard to keep the pitch and project at the same time.

"We talked a lot about music, practical stuff as well as a bit about philosophy and politics, but ultimately there wasn't much advice that I could give him," Dorsey says.

And Cohen needed no encouraging to participate in Edmonton's energetic arts and music scene.

"Edmonton was pretty open back then, way less rigid and more discipline-blurring that other cities."

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Festival fun

The Leonard Cohen International Festival runs through Monday at various Edmonton venues. Highlights include the this Saturday's Gala Concert hosted by Jann Arden and featuring Canadian and international Cohen-influenced performers including Serena Ryder, Darrell Scott, Tom Rush, Peter Elkas, Roddy Hart. Kate Hammett-Vaughan hosts the event at the Winspear Centre, 8 p.m.

Festival events also include film nights, a multimedia dance-visual performance, academic readings, open-mike nights and an Edmonton-Cohen history tour that includes a spin by the Garneau neighbourhood house where Sisters of Mercy was written. For more information visit the website: cohenites.blogspot.com

G.A.B.

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