Monday, September 21, 2009

happy birthday, mr cohen

as you doubtless know, it's leonard cohen's 75th birthday today! he's my biggest writing hero. the first time i remember hearing him was his early 90s album, the future, which was largely the soundtrack to natural born killers. i remember sitting up an listening amazed to the most real voice i'd ever heard, and my 14-year-old's admiration was mixed with pubescent confusion, because it was my parents playing the music.

how could something so cool come from them?

did that mean ... maybe...? ?? they weren't total losers? and that ... mebbe ... they might understand the profound depths of my teenage soul???


this eventually came full circle, when i went with my parents to see cohen and the cohn last year.

anyway, in tribute to the great man, here's a travel column i wrote for the old daily news a couple of years ago after my trip to cohen's greek island, hydra.

also, here's a clip of a 1980 movie about leonard. he's sitting on the balcony in montreal, translating un canadien errant. during my 7 years wandering abroad, i often wept myself to sleep, softly singing these words...

The hydrofoil skips over the deep blue waters of the Saronic Gulf, the azure sky burning overhead. Athens soon fades. Aegina, Methana, Poros: Hydra. The ferry nuzzles against the dock in the U-shaped harbour, and the few remaining travellers disembark.

Nothing moves quickly on Hydra. The day trippers wander slowly amongst the shops and cafes.

There are no cars here, no trucks, but there are birds, and wires, now.

Those staying wheel their noisy suitcases to the waiting line of donkeys and servants. Darkly tanned men hoist the luggage onto the beasts, and lead the guests to their hotels.

I wait until all are gone, leaning against a post at the end of the harbour. I’m not here for the paradise beaches, nor to dive the Aegean Sea. I’m here to find Leonard Cohen.

It was from the idyllic island in 1965 that the CBC introduced the poet to his nation in Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen. On the poster for the film, he stands on a ship in Hydra’s harbour, dressed as a casual sailor. Five years earlier, at age 26, Cohen had bought a house here. He wrote to his mother: “I live on a hill and life has been going on here exactly the same for hundreds of years.”

But things changed. The long arm of modernity stuck its finger into Cohen’s bohemian backwater, and tall poles went up to hold the wires for the telephones. Cohen, saddened by this and catching sight of a bird resting on this strange, uncomfortable nest, wrote his legendary Bird on the Wire.

“I would stare out the window at these telephone wires and think, how civilization had caught up with me and I wasn’t going to be able to escape after all,” he later said.
It was also on Hydra that Cohen met Marianne; and from here he wrote So Long, Marianne, and the album Songs From a Room; the back of the CD is a picture of Marianne sitting at his typewriter in his house on Hydra.

I sit at a café, a few feet from the harbour, flipping through The Spice Box of Earth, peering over the ragged top. Eight rough fishermen grunt and drag a boat out of the clean water. Gulls wheel through the clear air, dreaming of scraps. Through his poetry, Cohen tells me he has not lingered in European monasteries. I don’t believe him, but it does give me an idea.

Beyond the harbour, houses climb a steep hill. I’ve heard a monastery sits at the summit. I finish the sweet Greek coffee, drop some euros on the table, put the poetry in my backpack, and leave the village.

The path winds up a steep road. I pass a man and his donkey. The man is not sweating. Only tourists sweat in Greece. In the backyard of a whitewashed house, a rooster crows, while a mule and a dog ignore it. As I get beyond all the houses, the path narrows, branches. A hand-painted sign points me in the right direction. I smile.

The mountain is called Eros. Cohen must have smiled at that.

I climb on, heat hovering in the air. I press through the hard bush and emerge on the summit, which has been cleared. A stone floor covers it. In front of me is a white building. The stones around the door have been painted brick. A prophet in a chariot pulled by four white horses rides over the door. Elijah, on his chariot of fire. Elijah, the fierce Old Testament prophet who heard the still, small voice of God.

The climber of Mount Eros arrives at a monastery.

Cohen must have smiled.

I walk to the edge, seat myself on the wall. A tall monk in long black robes, long black beard and a black hat walks past me toward the chapel. I smile. He nods back, lost in prayer.

Below is the village; across the water is the mainland. The island has two other mountains. Stone walls crawl over them like chains. Clouds cover the distant peak, but here, the light is strong.

Cohen wrote a poem called Hydra - “Pain cannot compromise this light,” he says.

A small, nearly still breeze comes across the Gulf of Hydra. I inhale deeply as the sun presses down on me, setting everything a golden blaze.

Cohen is here.
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