It was in the school cafeteria at Oakwood Collegiate Institute in Toronto. The air smelled of grease. I was probably eating a packed lunch, although there is a small chance I was gnawing on the “spicy” “fries” that the cafeteria served.
I was sitting there with my friends Bill and Nicki (I think that’s how she spelled it). Bill was bugging Nicki to sing something.
“Come ooooooon!” he said.
So she sang it. There in the cafeteria, gently, with no accompaniment except the background chatter and the clangs from the kitchen.
“Suzanne takes you down
to her place near the river,
you can hear the boats go by
and you can spend the night beside her…”
And there it was. My introduction to Leonard Cohen.
A few weeks or maybe months later, I was in my aunt Fern’s car. She always had very nice company cars, and it was the first car I’d ever been in with a CD player (I’m dating myself here, but it was the early 90s, okay?). I noticed an orangey-yellow CD in her collection. On the cover was a photo of a man in a mirror, adjusting his shirt in front of floral curtains. I borrowed that CD that day, from my very generous aunt Fern, and only returned it more than a decade later.
In the intervening time, I managed to collect every album he’d ever recorded, including a couple of concert bootlegs and the execrable Night Magic, which was far less easy in the days before digital music. I read both his novels and had a dog-eared copy of Stranger Music that I loved so much that when I got a replacement for the one damaged in my family 1996 house fire, I gave it away and kept the fire-damaged one. It somehow fit the voice of the author, I thought.
One of the biggest regrets of my life was that I didn’t attend his early 90s (93? 94?) concert in Toronto at the O’keefe centre, despite another friend Erinn encouraging me to. I wasn’t really into concerts then (and had, in fact, never been to one yet). Since then, I’ve never been in the right place at the right time; and now I never will be.
The world changed when my father died. The world has now changed again. My remote literary and artistic… is “mentor” too strong a word? is “spirit animal” any better?… well, he’s gone. He was never here, I suppose, but at least while he lived I could imagine, perhaps, one day, a meeting. I wouldn’t have asked him anything too deep; I wouldn’t want any of the mystery removed. I might have just said “Hello, Leonard.”