In a bid to feel close to her beloved poet, Constance MacDonald visits the cobblestone streets of Hydra where Leonard Cohen once lived.
My mum and I have listened to Leonard Cohen in the car for more than 15 years, but only when it is just us. If anyone else in my family is present they groan at the idea, “no, he’s sooooo depressing, Con.”
When we are together, our journeys are slow. We pull over at op shops, fruit shops in summer (for tayberries), and honesty boxes (for perlas). Sometimes mum waits to take the key out so Leonard can finish his song. It was on one of our car trips in 2013 that we saw a corflute board with some sweet, sweet words: Leonard Cohen - Live in New Zealand.
We bought tickets, and months later we went to his concert. He sounded even better than on the bargain bin CDs. We cried, Leonard cried. Then two-and-a-half years later he died. The concert mum and I went to turned out to be his second to last that he ever did (the last was a week later in Auckland).
Although that sounds mysterious, there is no mystery, Leonard Cohen was not a member of the 27-Club (in fact he only started making music when he was 33). He lived to the ripe age of 82.
One of the reasons he was touring at 79-years-old was financial. His manager, Kelley Lynch, had drained his accounts. Naughty girl! I remember when he died. I was at my desk in Tokyo, where I was teaching English at a high school. I wiped away my tears and straightened my pea-green skirt and blazer suit (I was desperately trying to cosplay as a teacher). I thought about how he had been attributed the title “Patron Saint of Young People Living in Cities Waiting for Something to Happen”. I felt that.
I am writing this from London, the city where, 63 years ago, Leonard Cohen was caught in a downpour and sought shelter in a branch of the Bank of Greece. The teller told him of the endless sun in Greece and he made a snap decision that he was moving (I am sure he was not the first person to move out of London for weather-related reasons).
He first arrived in Hydra as a 25-year-old with an unfinished novel in hand. A year later, he bought a small house there (cannot relate), where he lived and wrote for seven years. He continued to visit and stay until a few years before his death. He wrote some of his most well-known songs and books of poetry there.
Bird on a Wire was born in Hydra. When he first arrived on the island there were no wires; no telephones or electricity. Then, slowly, concrete poles were erected, and wires strung, and birds sat on these wires. He wrote about this, thinking about “how civilisation had caught up with” him and how he “wasn't going to be able to escape after all” and “live this eleventh-century life”.
Some may say he was all doom and gloom, but I prefer the words reflective and insightful. I would go into battle for this man, if you cannot already tell.
A few months ago I went to Leonard Cohen’s front door. The island of Hydra, Greece, is small, and is, compared to other Greek Islands, an infrequent ferry ride away from Piraeus. The streets are a series of cobbled paths, cats searching for rubbish bin morsels, quick turns, and dead ends which Google Maps cannot keep up with. There are no cars, only donkeys and horses. The street his house is on has since been named after him.
I sat on his doorstep. Just a lone girl sitting on Leonard’s doorstep. Lady’s Man. I wondered how many cigarettes he had lit up here, on his way out, or stomped out on his way in. He probably kissed Marianne on this doorstep. Along with many other women.
By all accounts, his relationship timelines were rather blurry. Oops, one would start before another ended. The island was far too small for that kind of carry on. The door was locked, nobody was inside. I looked through the windows and saw the rooms I had seen him in. In many of these photos he has his bare feet out, prompting a healthy gallery on Wikifeet.
I swum in the afternoon in the Aegean Sea, like Leonard did. I went to a bar he frequented and ordered an allongé (a long black coffee) like he would. I walked along paths he had. I thought about his poem The Sweetest Little Song: 'You go your way / I’ll go your way too.'
I was going his way. I sat on a stone bench built by his biggest online fan club, to date 30,727 members strong, The Leonard Cohen Forum. I have been a member for a decade, but it has been around for at least double that time.
I tried to find a postcard with his face on it at one of the little shops near the port of Hydra, nothing. All that was available was a curious and dusty straw hat with L. Cohen 1962-1995 written on the rim. Despite extensive efforts I cannot shed light on why these dates were chosen. A cat in a boot in front of a blue door would have to do. I wrote the postcard to Teddy, my very fresh nephew, only six weeks old, and signed off the correspondence as Leonard Cohen often would: “All good things”.
If you ever see me at a party (it sometimes happens) and feel like hearing a Leonard Cohen tidbit, just give me a keyword. Let’s play. First up, Leonard Cohen + horse. In August, 1970, while stuck in a traffic jam in the south of France, he and his entourage, full of wine, decided it would be quicker to ride horses to the concert they were playing.
Okay, now, Leonard Cohen + cocktail. Of course my brilliant boy invented a cocktail. Invented may be a generous word, but I will always encourage generosity in his lore. In 1975 he created a drink that every bar will have the ingredients of (which does make me wonder how he could possibly be the first to combine the trio… I digress). The Red Needle can be made with 60mL tequila, a slice of lemon, and cranberry juice to fill the glass.
As the day drew to a close in Hydra, the temperature dropped and my singlet became quite suddenly, not enough. Let’s do, Leonard Cohen + nipples. There is a lot of material to choose from here, but let's go with his poem The Night Of Santiago:
I touched her sleeping breasts
They opened to me urgently
Like lilies from the dead
Behind a fine embroider
Her nipples rose like bread.
I could play this word association game all day, try me!
In 2009 a photo was uploaded to Flickr depicting the back of a jacket embroidered with the words “Leonard Cohen Was Right”. He was, he is, and will always be.