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The night Leonard Cohen taught me that Magic Is Alive

This photo finds Leonard Cohen out front of his Montreal house in 1977. At that time, I was living just a few blocks away, and I would walk past every once in a while, hoping to catch sight of him. I never did. A few years later, however, I got to spend an evening with him. I tell the story in my book 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. Here is an edited excerpt: 

“Magic is alive,” Leonard Cohen wrote in an old favorite incantation. “Many poor men lied. Many sick men lied. Magic never weakened. Magic never hid. Magic always ruled.” Those short sentences, which appear in a passage from his novel Beautiful Losers, have resonated through his life. I give you an illustrative incident that occurred in Alberta in 1984. I was working as books editor and columnist at the Calgary Herald. As such, in that far distant world, I interviewed a lot of touring authors. Usually, I would meet them at the office. Some I would take to lunch, and with a few, I would try for dinner.
So when Cohen was passing through town, promoting a poetry book called Book of Mercy, I arranged through his publisher to meet him for dinner in the downtown hotel where he was staying. I arrived a few minutes early and realized that the restaurant was all wrong: white linen table cloths, hovering waiters, and a couple of businessmen eating alone. Deadly. Instead of entering, I waited at the entrance. Cohen arrived seconds later. We shook hands and, as we stepped inside, we exchanged a glance. Like Cohen, I had come of age in Montreal, and had a taste for smoked-meat sandwiches. “We would have to jump into my car,” I said. “But I do know a bistro that might work?” Cohen said, “Let’s do it.”
Before we left, he wanted to collect something from his room. This proved to be a portable tape recorder and, in these pre-digital days, a cassette tape of songs he would be putting on his next record album. With these in hand, we jumped into my old beater and drove across the Bow River to an eatery called Flix (now long gone). Decorated with old movie posters, it boasted “Montreal smoked meat sandwiches.” We ate three of these between us and drank too much red wine as we talked about his book and I scribbled notes. Wolfing down fries, Cohen shook his head: “That other place would’ve killed us.”
He talked a bit about Book of Mercy, but was more interested in sharing his new songs. I happily put on the earphones and, as we ate and drank, listened to half a dozen tunes destined for Various Positions. I remember Dance Me to the End of Love and Hallelujah, and being especially taken with The Law: “There’s a law, there’s an arm, there’s a hand.” The evening was already unforgettable. 
At one point, after he had talked about travelling around Europe by bus, and moving day and night, I asked him, “Don’t you find that, well, a bit gruesome?” He grinned and said, “The more gruesome it gets, the better I like it.”
 As we prepared to leave the restaurant, Cohen visited the washroom. On his way back, a waitress stopped him. I saw her hand him a slip of paper. He glanced at this note and reacted with excitement. After a while he broke off and returned, looking crestfallen. I asked if everything was all right and he said, “Yes, yes. I’ll show you something outside.”
Out front of Flix, Cohen handed me the note he had received. It began, “Dearest Leonard.”
Here you have to know, as any serious Cohen fan does, that in 1966, the troubadour spent a few weeks in Edmonton, 280 km north of where we now stood. One wintry night during a blizzard, he arrived back at his hotel and found two young women with backpacks sheltering in the doorway. They had hitchhiked across Canada and run out of money. Cohen insisted that they stay in his hotel room. He gave them the double bed and they quickly fell asleep. He sat in the armchair and, as he looked out at the storm, found himself humming a tune.  He picked up his guitar and wrote Sisters of Mercy. Apparently, this was the only time he ever produced a song without sweating over every word. “When they awakened in the morning,” he told biographer Ira Nadel, “I sang them the song exactly as it is, perfect, completely formed.”
Eighteen years after that incident, out front of Flix, Cohen showed me the note written and signed by one of the original Sisters, Lorraine. Neither of us had registered anyone else in the restaurant. The note said that the other Sister, Barbara, was living in San Francisco. Shaking his head, Cohen said, “Why didn’t she come over to the table?”
“Maybe she saw that we were working?”
“She didn’t want to intrude!” He slapped his forehead. “What delicacy!”
But what astonished me, as I told him, was that she ended up in Flix on a week night at precisely the same moment as we did. And we had arrived so utterly by chance. I shook my head: “Magic is alive.”
I was quoting, of course, from Beautiful Losers, which has rightly been described as “by turns historical and surreal, religious and obscene, comic and ecstatic.” One writer called it “the most radical (and beautiful) experimental novel ever published in Canada.” I had marveled over it in 1966, when it appeared, and all these years later, I couldn’t help myself. I asked Cohen, more than once, when he might give us another novel. He remained noncommittal. But when I pulled up in front of his hotel to drop him off, and we were shaking hands, I gave it one last try: “So you’re going to write another novel?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m going to do it.”
“Fantastic!” But, yes, I wanted more: “When are you going to start?’
He took a beat and, straight-faced, answered: “I'm going to start tonight."
For a second, he had me. But then I got the joke and burst out laughing. And Cohen laughed too, threw his head back and laughed, and we shook hands a second time, both of us laughing, and then, suddenly, he was gone. 

Ken McGoogan
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Stephen Morrissey said...

Really enjoyed reading this!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing such a memorable encounter, Mr. McGoogan. Leonard Cohen enriched our reflections on life, depicting love, sorrow and humanity in a most sober and melodic way. His light shines on in our hearts.

Barry Grills said...

Thanks for this, Ken. Bittersweet anecdote. Now I miss him even more. Cheers, Barry

Ken McGoogan said...

Me too. Been listening to Closing Time over and over again. Leonard!

Anonymous said...

Good stuff right here.. Leonard was a legend and will continue to be one wherever he is now.

dempa said...

I love him

Unknown said...

Thx Ken. This was the first song I ever heard by Leonard - Sisters of Mercy - so it was a somewhat poignant story for me. .... Ian

alvy said...

I love this story, thank you for brightening my day with this.

Anonymous said...

I remember reading this story in the Calgary Herald, when I was a high school student and very much into Leonard Cohen. What a magical moment of kismet. Thank you so much for sharing :-)

Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.