I like to say – and I've said it a few times – that I once shared a bed with Leonard Cohen. Not an unmade bed, mind you. We weren't lovers like that – although I can say, along with millions of others at this sad moment, that I loved the man.
No, the bedding was quite chaste. It happened one grey February morning in a Toronto hotel room in 2006, the day after, in fact, Cohen had attended a ceremony inducting him into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. I'd had a long interview with him before that event (which featured Willie Nelson performing Cohen's Bird on a Wire – a measure, I thought, of Cohen's transgenre appeal) and now was about to interview his inamorata at the time, the singer-songwriter Anjani Thomas. She had a new recording on the verge of release, called Blue Alert, for which Cohen had provided the song lyrics and production.
As we were finishing our conversation and The Globe and Mail photographer began to position Anjani for some shots, in strolled Cohen. He looked quite pale and small, but as ever his presentation was immaculate, his hair grey and close-cropped, his suit a superbly tailored dark double-breasted job worn over a tieless purple shirt.
Space in the room was sparse, so Cohen proceeded to slide onto the king-size bed that dominated the room, propping his head on some pillows, stretching his legs out. Noticing me standing, he moved to the middle of the bed and patted the mattress with his left hand. It was an invitation to lie beside him, so I did. Does anyone refuse Leonard Cohen? And so we lay there side-by-side in companionable silence, sometimes exchanging observations about this and that, but mostly just watching the photographer and Anjani do their thing. Occasionally, Cohen would offer his consort an encouragement or a compliment. "You look beautiful today, darling," is one I remember.
That wasn't my first episode with Cohen. I'd interviewed him three times before, had a few other brushes with his greatness over the years, included his e-mail, phone mail and Montreal street address in my Rolodex. But in no way were we close to being even acquaintances. After watching him perform, brilliantly, at a concert in Toronto's Air Canada Centre in December, 2012, I was moved to send him a short congratulatory e-mail. The concert had been a long one, more than three hours, and throughout its duration Cohen had often dropped to his knees as a kind of supplicant, raising his left hand in an imploring gesture like a Jewish James Brown, albeit minus the extreme calisthenics and perspiration.
This worried me. Cohen, after all, was 78 at the time, in many ways at the peak of his songwriting craft but still … 78. The tour was going to be a long one; in fact, it would only end in late December, 2013, in Australia. So, to express my concern, I told him, in quotation marks, to "take care of your health and get plenty of rest." Bob Dylanologists will recognize that as a line, or at least a gloss on a line, from Nothing Was Delivered, a song from Bob's fabled "basement tapes" sessions but first popularized in 1968 by the Byrds. I thought it was a pretty hip allusion with just the right soupçon of cool, and one that Cohen, a great admirer of Dylan, would "get." I felt it was sure to elicit a response but alas, no, all was silence in the digital ether.
Thing is about Cohen, he had a gift for intimacy or at least the semblance of intimacy, even as he was famous for his departures. If he could get you on his wavelength, one-on-one, it was a wonderful place to be. He had a kind of self-possession (not to mention charismatic self-obsession) that you wanted to get close to, and once you'd been there you wanted to get back. Plus, there was the hypnotic rumble of his voice, the courtliness of his manners, the knack for intoning what sounded like wisdom in fully formed, syntactically correct paragraphs, not just sentences. There was a gravitas that made him the centre of the universe.
My first Cohen concert was in October, 1988, at Edmonton's Jubilee Auditorium. I'd interviewed him four years before, when he was promoting, I think, a collection of poetry called Book of Mercy. Edmonton held a special place in his heart, he told me then. It was there, during a relatively lengthy stay in late 1966, that he met the two young university students – female, of course – who inspired the classic Sisters of Mercy, subsequently released on his 1967 debut album. "You always remember a place that's given you a great song," he said, and mentioned how earlier in the day he'd gone looking for the hotel where he'd stayed almost 20 years earlier, chastely (it seems) bedded the sisters and wrote the song. He didn't find it.
The Edmonton concert was superb, the audience delirious with tears of happiness. After, the woman who was to become my wife and two female friends rushed to the backstage exit, hoping to say a few words to the master before he boarded his tour bus, to press the flesh, however briefly. Eventually, Cohen did show, surrounded by roadies and security personnel. It was cold and I remember him being bundled up, a Lynyrd Skynyrd baseball cap on his head. Not knowing what to say, I blurted out how great the concert had been and hey, we met four years ago, remember? "Beautiful, man," was the reply. My girlfriend handed him her concert program and he asked to whom he should address it. "Lynda," she said. "With a 'y.' " "Oh, the posh spelling," hooted one of Cohen's aides. Then, noticing one of our friends, he proceeded to kiss her on the cheek, saying afterward: "See you later, babe."
Well, what could we do except rush to our car and wait for the bus to leave the parking lot . When it did, we followed close behind for about 15 minutes, not knowing exactly what we were doing or where we were going. Eventually, our ardour cooled. Was it the cold? The seep of sanity? The unseemliness of being thirtysomething Leonard Cohen groupies? The fact we had jobs to go to the next morning? Whatever the reason, the bus soon slipped from view and we let Leonard Cohen go gently into that good night.