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Having a laugh with Leonard Cohen

Recalling a chance encounter on a gray New York day



It was a day that felt like a Leonard Cohen song — empty, gray and seemed twice as long and hopeless as it needed to be. I was working in Manhattan then, a city where Cohen had set some of his best work: "Chelsea Hotel #2," say, and "Famous Blue Raincoat." Tunes so bleak and frightening that, once you heard them, you had to put on something for comic relief: like "People Who Died."

But I loved those tunes. Partly for being well-crafted. And also for reminding me I wasn't the only person who had days in which he felt he needed one of those safety razors. The kind they show at the end of In Cold Blood, that lock, so, after you shave your cheeks, you don't go after your wrists. Amazingly, on this deeply-depressed day, I actually met Leonard Cohen. Oh, the laughs we had. My sides still ache when I think about it.

I decided to spend my lunch break at Manny's, a guitar store in New York City. An establishment, where, in those days at least, 20 kids would be playing the riff to "Walk This Way," at the same time. It was OK on a Les Paul. But on a classical guitar, it made you want to go on a Tri-State Killing Spree. Still, I was down, for reasons that were impossible to comprehend.

I was just very depressed about my life, which seemed like a random series of incidents, flying this way and that, like pool balls after a strong, sloppy break. Like I felt when I was 11 and I'd heard they'd just cancelled Gilligan's Island. I know, I know. It was that bad. All they had to do was tell me that McDonald's was never going to make the McRib Sandwich again and I'd have gone over the edge.

Anyway, in Manny's, I took a Gibson 12-string off the wall and sat down to play it. These were the good old days, before music stores started chaining guitars to the wall, so people couldn't steal them. Hey, I still say, if you can stick a Telecaster down your pants and walk out with it undetected, you deserve to keep it.

Still, I sat down to play some suitably weary chords. And not long after, I looked up and who was standing 12 feet away and playing an Ibanez? The only songwriter capable of depressing Lou Reed. Yep, Leonard Cohen. Handsome, dark-suited, his hair still black, approximately my height. Meaning somewhere between an average guy and a member of The Weeble Village. I thought it had to be an hallucination. But the medication hadn't warned me of any such side effects. And anyway, I wasn't on any medication.

Nobody was bothering Mr. Cohen. So, that left it up to me. I really was a big fan. Plus, in those days, I was writing songs. And was so ambitious, I once asked the guy that delivered lunch to Clive Davis, if I could take it up to him. I even offered the guy $20 for his striped shirt and paper hat. A clever move I once saw done in play by Shakespeare. Wait, I mean an episode of The Brady Bunch. Anyway, being half-Canadian and totally depressed, I saw a kindred spirit. But I was also hoping to ask the author of "Suzanne," if he might know someone who would be interested in my songs.

I approached stealthily, still holding my guitar. Cohen was fingerpicking, unsurprisingly, from minor chord to minor chord confirming the rumor that he doesn't actually know any major chords. I eavesdropped, hoping to hear some lyrics about some torturous (and this being Cohen) naked girl, who was tearing him apart as easily as a piece of flash paper. But he just hummed. I don't think I've ever been so nervous. But, I pressed on, anyway.

"Mr. Cohen, hi, my name is Peter," I said. "I'm a huge fan. And, uh, I write songs."

This didn't evoke anything other than the faintest of nods. For some reason, not wanting to appear unduly obnoxious, I then told Leonard I was half-Canadian. A group of people often thought to be the politest in the world.

Cohen seemed to find this whole thing a rude Yankee intrusion. And he was clearly not in the mood to be distracted from trying out his guitar. In a deep, polite voice he said, "I must be dealing with the American half, then."

This induced a profound thought that ran quickly through my brain. That Cohen, aside from his jet-black lyrics and knowledge of 13,000 minor chords, had another gift. He was funny. You had to listen for it. But the humor was there.

"You write songs?" Cohen said, in that bottomless voice. "Well, have you ever found a decent rhyme for the word 'orange'?" Which was either a famous Zen koan or a line from Ogden Nash. I couldn't remember. Before I could answer, Cohen said, "Neither have I. I've been down on my knees in my underwear at The Royalton Hotel, banging my head against the floor. All because I couldn't find a decent rhyme for the word orange."

He didn't smile. But I did. After all, aside from their good manners, Canadians are known for the driest wit this side of the Rockies.

"Would it be imposing too much, if I asked you where I might take my songs?" I wondered, my voice shaking like Cohen had a gun on me.

While he didn't stop fingerpicking, A minor to D minor, E minor to F# minor, Cohen rumbled deeply again. He gave me the name and address of the lawyer he said handled his business affairs.

"He might be able to help you. He's been very good to me. But remember to take one vital thing into account," Leonard said.

"What's that?"

"He's a lawyer," said Cohen, the slightest smile, just barely detectable at the corners of his mouth.

I nodded, so I wouldn't burst out laughing and break the mood of affable melancholy. I told Mr. Cohen how, I, in particular, liked his song "Who By Fire?" He gave me a serious look this time. Probably because the song is pretty much a litany of suicides.

"You're not thinking of killing yourself, are you?" he asked.

I assured Leonard I wasn't. I often felt that way, but, so far, so good.

"OK then, good. Peter, it was a pleasure to meet you."

I thought, after repeating this line back to its creator, that Dylan would never have said such a thing. Then, still down, but in a manageable way, I put the guitar I was holding back, very gently, on the wall. And, like a character in a Leonard Cohen song, I buttoned up my overcoat. And stoically, my Canadian side up, I pushed my depression aside. I started walking. And left the store.

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