My Accidental Encounter With Leonard Cohen
This is the story of how I met Leonard Cohen. I don’t know how fitting a eulogy it is, but it’s all I’ve got.
It was January. There was not much snow on the ground in Toronto when I boarded the train to Montreal. I could have flown because my travel was being paid for by Weekend Magazine. But I chose the train instead.
I am mildly claustrophobic, a bonus that comes with Tic Syndrome, my main affliction. The train takes longer to get you where you’re going but it’s much more comfortable and you kind of get to see the butt-end of the cities and towns you travel through.
Four and a half hours later I was walking through the Underground City up to Boulevard Rene-Levesque, (although it wasn’t called that back then) ,where I climbed up into the real world.
This is where I got a healthy dose of Montreal reality and realized I was in a far different weather zone from where I started. As I halted a cab, I noticed that the temperature was all of 10 Celsius degrees colder than it was in Toronto.
There was a good six inches of snow on the street and another six scheduled to fall over the next few hours. It was also blowing hard and the visibility was low and my cab driver was constantly cursing in French, as his windshield wipers weren’t really worth a damn.
I’d been to Montreal a lot over the years, and so none of this was anything new. I just sat back and hoped we would make it up the hill to the Mount Royal address I was headed for.
We were slipping and sliding all over the road but in Montreal it’s hard to tell an out of control cab from anything else. They’re all crazy there and drive like they are trying to constantly prove it.
It took longer than I thought but eventually I was deposited at my destination. A large three storey brick house that was as stately as any three story brick house I had ever seen. Except that it was on a street that was filed with them. Many of them had good sized evergreens in front, all draped in fresh snow.
I hoofed it up the driveway to the side entrance which appeared to actually be the main entrance to the house and rang the bell.
A few moments later Mordecai Richer, looking a bit disheveled opens the door. He stared at me absently for a few seconds and then had an aha moment when he remembered our appointment.
“Mr Murray?” He said.
“Yes sir…but you can call me Jim.”+
“Please come in. It’s really coming down out there.”
“Yeah, my driver said there was going to be a foot before it’s done.”
I shook off the snow and kicked my boots against the bricks and entered the house.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I took off my coat and hung it on a hook, one of about a dozen in that area along the entranceway. It was cluttered with coats and hats and scarves and boots. It was obvious that a large family lived in this house.
I was led to the kitchen and offered tea from an amazing assortment. I’m an Earl Grey guy. While Mr Richler was making the tea we chatted a bit about what kind of shot I wanted and he agreed that would be OK.
We settled back into his study, which was filled with books and dominated by a huge desk with very little on it outside of some mail, a stack of paper and what looked like an old Remington typewriter.
I went about getting out my equipment when I heard a knock on the door.
A moment later Mr Richler came back in and settled down at his desk and said nothing. I started a conversation with him, because I liked to photograph people while they were talking in addition to getting a couple posed shots.
Just as I was ready to start shooting, about five minutes later, a man sauntered into the room holding a large mug of tea.
“Mr. Murray, meet Mr Cohen. He’s here for moral support.” said Richler.
I rose and we shook hands. “ Don’t let me interfere. I’ll just sit quietly and drink my tea.” he said.
I was blown away. These were the two biggest literary giants in Canada and I had them all to myself.
My head was filled with questions, but I literally had nothing to say. But it didn’t matter. I was in hog heaven.
“I take it you are a fan of Mr. Cohen’s musings”. Richler said. “Musings, I like that, did you just come up with that off the top of your head?” Cohen asked.
“ As a matter of fact, I did.” Richler replied and they were off to the races.
They bantered back and forth for half an hour. I took pictures of them both and even got in the odd sentence here and there, mostly to settle some sort of literary dispute, like I had anythng of substance to contribute.
What was amazing was that here I was sitting with two literary giants and feeling quite at home. This had nothing to do with me, it was really both of them together. They were exuberant and gentle at the same time. They argued fiercely but with genuine respect for one another.
An hour slipped by in the blink of an eye. I had three rolls of film shot and the literary experience of my life.
Just then, the house became very noisy as Mr Richler’s family streamed in from the storm. He rose and engaged them all in a great family hug.
Cohen and I exchanged looks and Cohen said. “One of the perks of being a true family man”.
I was introduced and invited to stay for lunch but begged off as I had a mid afternoon train to catch and wasn’t sure how long it would take me to get to the station.
I floated on a cloud all the way back to Toronto. When I dropped off the film to Robert Priest at Weekend Magazine he asked how it went.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Both of these great men have passed now and the world is much poorer for their passing. But the world has also been enriched by their amazing bodies of work.
My memories of that snowy day in Montreal are as vivid more than 40 years later as they were on that morning when I got to meet a couple more of my heroes.
PS: I met Leonard Cohen again at a book fair in Toronto. He was signing copies of The Energy Of Slaves, I believe. He looked up at me as he handed me the signed copy, stared for a minute, then said…”Murray, the photographer who looks Jewish, but is not.” We laughed and I shook my head. ‘You are amazing sir.”
“I’m working on it”. he said.
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