RIP Leonard Cohen: A remembrance by Barry O’Connell

To commemorate the passing of one of the immortals of music and literature, here is a story from our second print issue, all the way back from the summer of 2005. It’s called “There Are No Geneva Conventions Regarding Prisoners of Fame,” and it’s by Barry O’Connell.

RIP, Leonard Cohen.

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Summer night, 1992. My best friend, Pierre, came into town after working on The X-Files in Vancouver. We headed out for drinks at La Cabane but on passing The Main, Pierre had a sudden craving for borscht. We went in and sat down. Pierre began to regale me with stories from the set. Chris Carter this and Duchovny that, and I was thoroughly amused.

In walked Leonard Cohen with a very attractive woman, and they sat at the table opposite from us. My excitement was completely visible to Pierre, who told me to not bother the man. But I felt I couldn’t help myself and decided to wait for the appropriate moment. Later, as we got up to leave, I approached Leonard Cohen very timidly. But he gave me a small smile and I was instantly reassured.

“I hate to bother you, but I’m a big fan and was wondering if I could have your autograph?”

This stereotypical moment, this apparent absurdity, was met by Leonard Cohen with what I can only call grace.

“I’d be delighted,” he said. “What’s your name?” He took out his own pen from his jacket and his own napkin to write it down. I suddenly realized that my mother would truly enjoy this as she has listened to “First We Take Manhattan” a thousand times. She is not a fan. She has never read a book of his or bought an album. She has only bought that song. His deep voice mesmerizes her. She knows very little of Leonard Cohen but I knew she would want to have something from him.

“Actually, my mom is a big fan. Can you write it out to her?” At this, his companion burst out laughing. I suddenly felt embarrassed for him as their ages were noticeably different. But he continued to smile and appeared delighted that my request had made her laugh.

“What’s your mother’s name?”

“Sandy,” I replied. He wrote down on the napkin:

Sandy, I love you.
-Leonard Cohen

It was clearly written except for “Cohen,” which was slightly uneven. I thanked him and turned to leave. Pierre was waiting for me outside and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” I was, a little. I’ve never been a great admirer of Leonard Cohen so I felt like I shouldn’t have made a fuss over him. However, I know that God put Nina Simone on this earth just to record “Suzanne,” and I was glad to have met him.

I paid a visit to my parents a couple days later. My mom was home watching TV but my dad was at a ball game across the street. I showed her the napkin and her mouth fell open. I proceeded to tell her the story, including Cohen’s companion’s laughter. My mom laughed and was overjoyed and grateful that I thought of her. She took the napkin and put it on her bedside table.

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About an hour later, my dad came home and walked into the kitchen where mom and I were having an iced tea. He told me about the game and went to put his jacket away in the bedroom. Thirty-five seconds later I heard, “What the hell is this!” and he burst back into the kitchen. He was livid. He was holding the napkin.

“Who the fuck is Leonard Cooney?”

My mom backed up against the counter. “What?” she asked in a startled, slightly panicked state.

“Who the fuck is Leonard Cooney!” he yelled as he threw the napkin in real anger at her feet.

My mom suddenly realized what was going on and immediately placated him with, “No, no. It’s Leonard Cohen, Leonard Cohen,” and bent to pick up the napkin to show it to him.

“Who the fuck is Leonard Cohen?!”

I, too, was taken aback by my dad’s outburst and the visceral anger he displayed. But I soon saw what was happening and began to laugh. I was also laughing to try and calm him down. I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and my dad grew up on the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks. He’s a retired firefighter and former Golden Glove champion boxer. Most music and all poetry are foreign to him.

My mom was still trying to reduce my dad’s rage. “The singer, Leonard Cohen. Barry and Pierre met him in a restaurant.” With that, my dad glared at me. She continued, “You know: ‘First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin,’ you know.”

My dad was now becoming confused. “What the hell is that?” I noticed his anger dipping a little.

“The Leonard Cohen song,” my mom replied, then turned to me. “Sing it, Barry.”

I’d often done an impression of that song for my Mom. But now I was really starting to laugh and trying to sing it was impossible. But I calmed down a little and was able to tell my dad the story of meeting Leonard Cohen. He eventually understood and started to laugh a little as well. But he was embarrassed. For showing his weakness towards my mom, he had again proved that he was, is and always will be madly in love with her.

As an addendum to this story, last September, as I walked passed the Haddock Gates and turned onto the McGill campus, I saw Leonard Cohen walking towards me, alone. I felt that immediate rush of excitement and amazement upon seeing someone famous in person. But then right after, I was utterly dismayed at how he looked. He is now an old man. A very old man. It upset me. As we got closer to each other, I knew I needed to tell him the story. He met my obvious broad smile with a small one of his own. Time and disease have kicked the crap out of his body. But his grace remains full and complete.

“Mr. Cohen, I’m sorry to bother you but I have to tell you a story.”

He stopped right in front of me and said, “What’s that then?”

I proceeded to tell him about how his autograph played havoc with my dad. He was smiling throughout and laughed out loud when I got to the “Who the fuck is Leonard Cohen?!” part. A deep, wonderful laugh. I ended the telling of the story with my dad finally understanding and all of us laughing. I did not mention my dad’s embarrassment. I said, “See what your autograph did?” He said, “That’s wonderful.” I then said, “I’m just happy to have gotten the chance to tell it to you.”

Some part of me made me not say “I’m just happy to have gotten the chance to FINALLY tell it to you.”

Some part of me, looking at him then, was saying, “I’m just happy to have gotten the chance to tell it to you BEFORE YOU DIE.”

It would have been impossible to describe the look he gave me. But it was there and it was showing me these two parts of myself. After a moment, he reached out and gently touched my arm. He smiled and said,

“I miss jealousy.”