by JIM KNIPFEL
April 23, 2017
Six Degrees of Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen died at age eighty-two last November, before Morgan and I had a chance to see him perform live. We’d planned to pick up tickets the last time he was scheduled to play Radio City, but after learning fourth balcony seats were going for more than two hundred fifty dollars a pop, we decided to stay home and listen to records instead.
I always liked and admired him a bunch—it’s hard not to—but I was never exactly what you’d call one of those crazy obsessive fans. In fact it usually took a very specific mood and mindset before I felt compelled to slap one of his albums on the stereo. Still, it was while listening to some Leonard Cohen records again this past weekend that it finally occurred to me just how many people I knew who’d had direct, tangential or passing contact with him over the years. Odd thing of it is that while I know any number of people who’ve had encounters with assorted celebrity types from Woody Allen to Anthony Zerbe to Charlton Heston, I can’t think of another single celebrity so many people I know have encountered.
My friend Dave, whom I’ve known some thirty years now, is a brilliant and noted singer-songwriter in his own right, whose subject matter tends toward the dour, the melancholy and the bleakly hilarious. Although from that alone it might make sense he was a big Leonard Cohen fan, I can’t recall offhand if we ever talked about him. For the most part, back then anyway, most of the musical references in our conversations tended to gravitate around Joy Division, Scott Walker, Stan Ridgway, Swans, silly Goth acts and the Velvet Underground. That’s why it was kind of surprising a few years back to hear him describe a Cohen concert he’d attended with his girlfriend as “a deeply spiritual experience.” Dave never ever used language like that, so I had to believe it must have really been something. I’m not exactly certain how this happened, but after the show his girlfriend, who was herself a music publicist of some renown, ended up leaving through a backstage exit at the same time Cohen was heading for his car. She may have held the door for him.
I met Suzanne when we both wrote for the Welcomat in Philly in the late Eighties. She was a smart, funny and spirited woman, if I had to guess maybe twenty years my senior. Every once in a while back when I was commuting to Philly from Brooklyn two days a week, I’d crash on her couch. I remember she was always a huge Tom Waits fan, which was the only music I ever heard her talk about with any real enthusiasm. After leaving Philly for a spell in San Francisco, she retired and returned to her hometown just outside Detroit. We still got together during her annual visits to New York after that, which is where I learned that apart from liberal political activism and volunteering at local bookstores, she was spending her retirement stalking Leonard Cohen around the globe. Whenever she learned he was playing in Spain or France, she and a friend would drop everything to fly over there and see him. She was another who described his concerts in spiritual terms, describing in detail his every onstage gesture and glance. I was never sure if her years-long obsession with him had anything to do with her name.
My friend Linda, an artist who’d been a fellow guard at the Guggenheim, has always had a knack for odd celebrity encounters. She’d chatted with the Coen Brothers at a diner in Santa Fe, met Alan Arkin in a hotel lobby, and Dean Stockwell gave her a guided tour of his personal art collection. She ran into Cohen in the late Nineties during a stay in Los Angeles. She’d stopped into a grungy little taco joint just off Sunset, and there he was standing at the counter waiting for his order. He was huge, she said, and bald, but unmistakably Leonard Cohen. I’d heard he’d become a devout Buddhist or Hindu or something like that, and was supposedly living in India. As incongruous a scene as it seemed all around—I mean, the man who wrote and performed “Famous Blue Raincoat” stopping into a grungy L.A. taco joint for lunch when he was supposed to be all spiritual by the Ganges?—my immediate question to Linda was, “Since when are Buddhists allowed to eat tacos?”
Ken and Laura were the first people I knew when I moved to New York, having been introduced to them by Gretchen Worden, director of the Mutter Medical Museum. They remain two of the most remarkable people on earth. Among other things, they introduced me to artist Joe Coleman, Wisconsin Death Trip author Michael Lesy, WFMU’s Irwin Chusid, and John Strausbaugh, my future editor at the NY Press. One night, back when they lived on St. Marks Place, I was visiting them and Ken popped in a video of Leonard Cohen’s recent appearance on “Austin City Limits.” Cohen was suddenly back in the limelight again, having released his first new album in years. For the performance, he had three female backup singers in sequined dresses as I recall, and as we watched Laura casually mentioned her brother Scott was dating the one on the left. A couple of months later Scott, an L.A.-based photographer who’d done album covers for Wall of Voodoo and filmed Stan Ridgway’s first solo video, came to New York for a visit. Scott was extremely smart and erudite, and extremely particular, I recall, about his hats and his single-malt scotches. While he was here, I took him out to a still desolate and abandoned Coney Island where he shot some beautiful pictures of the decayed and overgrown Thunderbolt roller coaster. We spent the whole day together wandering Coney and the East Village, and that backup singer never came up.
John was another former guard at the Guggenheim, a movie geek and architect who snagged a job in his chosen field after leaving the museum. We stayed in touch, and a few years later, he married a splendid woman from India, which required a long trip to India for an elaborate ceremony. Now, his new wife came from a very good family, and her uncle was considered one of the most respected and popular spiritual gurus in the country, who counted Leonard Cohen among his most devoted followers. Before she met John, his future wife met Cohen at some kind of large family gathering, and he immediately insisted she marry his son. She didn’t, though John has never completely forgiven Cohen for that.
There’s nothing profound in any of this, nothing with the tiniest shred of meaning or significance. It all just came back to me when we put on that Leonard Cohen album this weekend, and I found it kind of interesting. That’s all. I’m sorry.
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