Excerpt: Michael Posner's 'Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years'

Key players in the iconic poet, author, and singer-songwriter's early career remember a college tour he embarked on and the events surrounding it
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on Dec 14, 2020
Leonard Cohen's career spanned decades, beginning in the l960s. (Everett Collection/CP)

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The following is an excerpt from Michael Posner's Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years.

In November, after appearing on a new CBC public affairs show, Sunday, Cohen embarked on a tour of Canadian colleges. That same month—the month Judy Collins released her album with “Suzanne”—Cohen arrived in Edmonton. The trip marked a seminal moment in his transition from poet-novelist to singer-songwriter. Dianne Woodman, then McClelland & Stewart’s Edmonton representative, handled the logistics.

DIANNE WOODMAN: Eli Mandel was teaching at the University of Alberta and was a good friend of Leonard’s. Eli had a group of very talented grad students. They called themselves the Barbarians, after a poem by Gwendolyn MacEwen, “Breakfast for Barbarians.” They were sitting around one night talking about Cohen and Mandel said, “Why don’t we phone him?”

ANN MANDEL: Eli was teaching a graduate course in Victorian poetry. After class, we’d go out for beers or hang out in my apartment. We began to get the idea—let’s phone somebody. Eli liked doing this, seeing if you could contact somebody. One evening, he said, “Let’s try Leonard Cohen.” It was probably 2 or 3 a.m. Eastern time, but he [eventually] reached Leonard and said, “Come to Edmonton to give a reading.” After much urging, Leonard said, “Well, because you caught me in the middle of the night, when I’m serenading my lady and I’m in a good mood, I’ll come.”

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DIANNE WOODMAN: I phoned Jack [McClelland] and asked him if M&S would pay and he said yes. So I booked him into the MacDonald Hotel. Normally, I’d have booked poetry readings, but when I talked to him, he said, “I don’t want to read. I want to sing.” Woodman met him the day he arrived, in a blizzard.

DIANNE WOODMAN: He was wearing this green turtleneck sweater and a leather jacket—no coat. The first thing I did, I took him to the Army and Navy department store and bought him thermal underwear. He was very glad for that. [He was] nice, diffident almost. He wasn’t an aggressive person, an angry person, a troubled person—he was happy. There was no depression.

Woodman arranged a concert for Cohen in the 500-seat Tory Turtle, the largest venue on campus.

DIANNE WOODMAN: It was jammed—I mean, jammed. I had no idea. These kids were sitting on the floor, in the aisles, and he just held them in thrall, with his guitar. The emotional reaction of those kids coming up to him afterwards—some of them could hardly speak.

ANN MANDEL: The first thing he did was hand out joss sticks. He gave a really good reading. There was no music, though he did tell the audience he had a guitar with him.

DIANNE WOODMAN: Mostly, we hung out at the hotel, with Eli and his then wife, Mimi, and his students. He taught me how to eat raw oysters, off silver platters. I haven’t had raw oysters since. Of course, he hit on me, but I was just this naive little Catholic housewife with four kids, putting her husband through medical school. What did I know? It wasn’t a serious thing—just the requisite thing he had to do. He did the concert and a couple of gigs at the Yardbird Suite and then he wouldn’t leave—he loved Edmonton.

ANN MANDEL: He had a kind of open-door policy at the MacDonald. Any kid could bomb into the hotel and go up to the room and hang out with Leonard Cohen. The MacDonald was then a very stuffy hotel and was beginning to get shirty about all these beatniks hanging around.

One night, according to Mandel, Cohen hosted a big party.

ANN MANDEL: There was so much booze and so many kids. It went on and on. Chivas Regal Scotch being passed around. It wasn’t a cheap deal. Some people were getting very drunk. One student passed out on the bathroom floor—John Cook. We agreed to let him lie there. Leonard never hit on me, but he knew I was more or less involved with Eli, even though he was in fact married to Mimi.

MICHAEL DORSEY: At the last party at the Mac, I was singing Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and he told me when Dylan wrote the song, he looked in his mirror and saw Leonard and, at the same time in London, Leonard looked in his mirror and saw Dylan. He recounted this while kneeling in front of my chair, his elbows on my knees, his face inches from my guitar. A very intense gaze.

Cohen’s version seems fanciful, since “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” was first recorded in August 1965, long before Dylan would have been aware of Cohen as a songwriter. It was during that Edmonton trip, however, that Cohen wrote “Sisters of Mercy.” Accounts of its genesis are wildly conflicting. Cohen offered the most fulsome version in a 1974 radio interview.

LEONARD COHEN: I was . . . walking along one of the main streets . . . It was bitter cold. I passed these two girls [Barbara and Lorraine]. They invited me to stand in the doorway with them. Of course I did. Sometime later, we found ourselves in my little hotel room . . . and the three of us were gonna sleep together. Of course, I had all kinds of erotic fantasies of what the evening might bring . . . I think we all jammed into this one small couch . . . and it became clear that it wasn’t the purpose of the evening at all. At one point I found myself unable to sleep. I got up and, by the moonlight, I wrote that poem while these women were sleeping. It was one of the few songs I ever wrote from top to bottom without a line of revision. By the time they woke up . . . I had this completed song to sing to them.

Excerpted from Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years by Michael Posner, 2020. Published by Simon & Schuster Canada.​​​​​​​

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