Mr. Cohen and Me

I stepped into an avalanche,
it covered up my soul;
when I am not this hunchback that you see,
I sleep beneath the golden hill.
You who wish to conquer pain,
you must learn, learn to serve me well.
When I am on a pedestal,
you did not raise me there.
Your laws do not compel me
to kneel grotesque and bare.
I myself am the pedestal
for this ugly hump at which you stare.
You say you've gone away from me,
but I can feel you when you breathe.
  from "Avalanche" by Leonard Cohen

1n 1963 I lived in New York; just out of college and I had absolutely no idea what the world was all about or where I was going. I knew that some drugs were scary but I liked to drink a lot. I knew I had to have a job so I went down to an agency. They sent me off to a company where they told me, in effect, "Mr. Shillock, you seem to be a middle-class white boy with a college degree: here's your desk; here's your telephone and your ashtray. We'll bring you some files." Things were simple for white boys in those days.

Evenings I hung out in the Village with friends from college.  One night we were sitting at a table next to a table with two men - one of them a short dark man with soulful eyes in his late 20's. Some of the women at our table started talking to them. They leaned over to talk to us and soon we moved the tables together.

The shorter man was a Canadian poet: very intense, savvy with an ironic edge. He was impressive, even aside from the fact that he had published 3 books of poetry, that he lived on the Greek island of Hydra and that he was in New York for the publication of his first novel. He described partying with the literati and the strange feeling when his novel, such an intimate part of him for so long, suddenly took on a life of its own. He was Leonard Cohen, of course, and the novel was The Favorite Game.

After a while we all went up to one of the women's apartment where she had some pot. I started drinking and we were all smoking. I remember talking to Leonard about John Updike, whose novel had just been reviewed in the New Yorker. I liked Updike, Leonard Cohen didn't. After a while I passed out on the floor. I woke up the next morning and left the apartment while the others were still sleeping.

The occasion was memorable and some of the women corresponded with him a few times. I didn't think much about him until 3 years later when I saw Beautiful Losers reviewed in the Times. They mentioned the author was a Canadian poet who lived in Greece and I wondered. Then a couple years later Songs of Leonard Cohen came out with the photo-booth picture of him on the cover and yes, it was the same man I had talked to in a coffee shop in Greenwich Village.

There were some beautiful songs on the album. His next one, Songs from a Room was darker, harder to grasp. It wasn't until my mid-life crisis, though, and Songs of Love and Hate that I began listening to Leonard Cohen obsessively. LP record changers didn't have a Repeat button, but if you jammed the pickup arm and taped down the sensors it would play the same side over and over. 

I did that with Love and Hate, all day, particularly with first side which began with "Avalanche". The imagery was so powerful and vivid that I felt the song was all about me.  My suffering became an aesthetic experience, My pain was turned into such beauty that it took on a significance that made it seem worthwhile. Mr, Cohen, in those days you saved my life.

And in the middle of my life, the first poem I wrote was:

                                         Quasimodo's Love Song.

You have raised me to this pedestal
where I kneel
like a figure in some dark allegory.
See my naked hump: it stands for Passion.
Chastity is the raking scourge.
Virtue: the hurled thump of paving stones;
and Grace, that I cannot hear
the pantomime of taunts and jeers
from lips babbling over black tongues.

Gypsy girl, mine is not the passion
of that sweet Jesus who loves us all.
He floats in the air with his arms outstretched
while I on my pedestal, kneel to protect
the onion shoot
that sprouts in the darkness between my legs.

Esmeralda, my love is no dumb show;
it grunts and moans at every blow.
It is strong and rank as the sewers of Paris.
It is alive and festering like these pale frogs
that pop from the pustules of my reopened wounds.

(which, in retrospect, seems more cathartic than aesthetic.)

Fast forward to the year 2,000,  to Tucson, AZ. My friend Joni Morris from Minneapolis had set up a reading for me at a place called the Velvet Teacup. We practiced several pieces together and I told her my story about meeting Leonard Cohen, which she hadn't heard before.

The reading was advertised for 6:00 pm on an Easter Sunday. Joni and I showed up at 4:00 with the sound equipment but the place was locked. We rapped on the windows - silence, We shaded our eyes to look through the glass - darkness. We stood outside with our gear, feeling like an outtake from Spinal Tap. Finally Joni took off with some change to find a pay phone to call the manager. The manager said: Sorry, it was Easter and they were closed until 8:00 pm. He had given the staff the day off to be with their families.

Now, everyone should be so fortunate as to have a friend like Joni, someone who is quick witted and who will be totally unscrupulous on their behalf. She said to the owner:
"Look, have you ever heard of a poet named Leonard Cohen?"
"Certainly," he said, "he's a wonderful poet, a great singer-songwriter"
"Well," Joni explained "the man who's here today is a close friend and associate of Leonard Cohen's and he came all the way to Tucson to do this reading."
The cafe owner was mortified. "I'm so sorry," he apologized, "I'll have somebody right there to open it up. Oh, please tell him I'm so sorry he had to wait out in the hot sun."

Blatant name dropping and celebrity mongering, of course. My excuse now is that, if other people are so impressed by it, that's their fault as much as mine.

Seconds after Joni came back from making the call, the barista, abruptly snatched from her family table, came roaring up in her car. She stormed into the coffee house, straightened the tables, wiped stuff up, and let us in. We set up but didn't have time for a sound check which, it turned out, we didn't need. The show went well and we called repeatedly for everyone to be sure to tip the barista. And after a while she did come around.

She heard we were from Minneapolis and asked us if we knew Prince.


  1. I love this story and everything about it, especially Chris and Joni! I can SO see Joni doing this and love it.


  2. Good story well-told and sweetly appropriate. With poetry to boot.

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  4. What a wonderful story for this rabid fan of wonderful stories.