This is not meant to aggrandize my relationship with Leonard. We knew each other but not well. We never hung out together except that once… I lived just down the street from him on St Dominique and we would see each other in passing both of us bundled up against the frost and cold.I was the young editor of the local underground Montreal newspaper even though i was 16 years old.
We would see each other around in restaurants in Montreal and our mutual favorite iconic hangouts Moishe’s Steak House,The Main deli,Ben’s deli,the Bagel shop…. The longest time i spent with him was 5 hours that were magical in my store Incredible Records in Toronto.
There we got down to the heart of the matter. We discussed everything from love to sex to politics to buddhism to Montreal experiences to music. It was quite an afternoon.
His death affected me very much and i am having fun here weaving threads together that are at once nebulous but also interesting.
I am reading about Leonard in the book by Sylvie Simmons I’m Your Man. We are all 6 degrees apart the mystic say and i am proving it.This is not so much a post about Leonard as it is how we are all interconnected in certain ways …
I love this quote by Leonard..
“I shouldn’t be in Canada at all..I belong beside the Mediterranean.My ancestors made a terrible mistake. But i have to keep coming back to Montreal to renew my neurotic affiliations.”
I have always maintained that too and look at me now living beside the ocean in California where Leonard also lived and I also in Spain on an island north of North Africa…and i too have a deep connection with Montreal and my ancestors like Leonard’s also lived there also since the 1800’s
There are so many people we had in common actually ,some of the same people flitting in and out of our lives . ..One of the people mentioned albeit briefly is Sam Gesser who was a friend and business associate of my family for many years.
He tried to entice my dad in a partnership with him as Harry Belafonte’s manger but Dad wanted to do the record business instead. Sam was in partnership with Moe Asch of Folkways producing Leonard on a Montreal poetry album.
My father later took over the distribution of Folkways for Canada for many years . Other names i see are Garth Hudson of the Band a customer in my record store and John Hammond who signed Leonard to Columbia and knew Dad.I know his son the blues player ..
Irving Layton of course his mentor who tried to date my mother before she was my mother. She always expressed a particular distaste for poor Irving because of his sexual braggadocio..she was a nice Jewish girl….
There is Bob Fass the radio folk guy in NYC who i interviewed when i was covering Woodstock 2 for the Toronto Sun back in the 90’s . He was instrumental in the early days when Leonard was in NYC when he was just getting into being a songwriter.
There are so many others but if you have been around music all your life it all makes sense.
I was a young kid of 16,17 living for a time in New York.He knew Allen Ginsberg and Allen lived next door to where i was staying with Tuli Kupferberg the Beat poet and rock icon with the band The Fugs which Allen was also in. That was at 381 E 10th st in the Lower East Side…Allen’s famous poem mentions a poet who was suicidal and jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and survived and walked away naked in the streets. That was Tuli .
Leonard at that time lived in the Chelsea and i frequented the Hotel Earl immortalized in Joan Baez ‘s song Diamonds and Rust.You know “that crummy hotel looking over Washington Square …”
I also note that Leonard would favor a certain seedy hotel at the corner of St Catherine and St Laurent .
I have a story about this hotel which i have never told .
It was a whorehouse actually and rooms were rented by the hour and and when i was a young runaway with other runaways at the tender age of 15 we rented a room there for about 6 of us runaways that night because we were homeless and i hung out with the whores who were rather sweet and regarded me with some misplaced perhaps older sister affection as men came in and out….
I had no idea Leonard was down the hall at the time..I went by it a couple of months ago and it is still there.
One other thing i felt simpatico with Leonard was i too would wander the streets of Montreal at the age of 13,14,15 attracted by the seedy areas and stores and clubs i had no business being in at that age. I was also attracted to cafes on dark streets and would go to the Main on St Laurent where Leonard was fond of going for a smoked meat sandwich whereas most people went across the street to Schwartz’s ..The Main was where the taxi drivers and the pimps and their girlfriends and small time gangsters and French working class would hang out and for some reason i preferred it at that young age. I was desperate to taste what i perceived as real life like Leonard. …
Another story i have never told was how i learned a famous soul group was going to be playing at this all black bar in the red light area of Montreal and with a friend we sneaked out of our houses to go down and check it out.
Here we were two little Jewish white kids in an upstairs black bar waiting for this group to appear ,totally out of place and trying desperately to be cool and fit in and sipping very expensive cokes at i think 5 bucks apiece and we waited and waited but the group never showed up and we were eventually shown the door at 11pm .I believe the group was Sam and Dave…
I am sure Leonard knew that place.
This place was next to the whorehouse hotel that Leonard favored.
Another person in common is Steven Schreter who runs the family business Schreter’s a clothing store on St Laurent or the” Main “as we Montrealers call it. Leonard would buy his slippers from Steven and he liked to pad around the hood in them .
Steven and i were in Jewish People’s School (a parochial school),together and one day in the third grade Steven pulled me aside before school started and asked if i wanted to play hookie.
I had no idea what hookie was but i readily agreed and so we took off and rode buses all day to the Garland bus terminal, for no reason whatever that i can recall except for the thrill of it all perhaps , until school let out and we went back and got busted .
Our parents came down the next day with us in tow as we felt the wrath of the principal .I claimed that i thought he meant hockey. The school made it clear that i was not welcomed back the next year and so i went to a Protestant school where each morning i said the Lord’s prayer and sang “Onwards Jewish soldiers. ” I mean “Christian soldiers “but whatever….
Leonard’s family owned Freedman’s a clothing manufacturer .This was where we got all our clothes from because my father’s first cousin Sid Cohen ran the place for Leonard’s family.
Leonard used to work there as well as my older brother Brian.
Brian recently told me the story that i never heard before of the time he was working there and rather privileged because he was the relative of Sid Cohen and that wonderful rock festival came to town ,Festival Express with Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead and the Band and no way Brian was going to miss this so he called in sick.
He was very sick enough that he copped some tickets and went to the festival for the 3 day weekend .
While there he innocuously swigged from a bottle of koolaid and he didn’t realize it was spiked with some heavy pure LSD.
Soon he was flying and the rest of it was a total blur…
.He came in on Monday bright eyed and bushy tailed in spite of his debauched weekend and Sid Cohen called him into his office.
Sid by the way used to be a hard ass colonel in the Canadian army during the WW2
.He suffered no fools .
As Brian tells the story there Brian was tanned and looking fit and Sid looked him over from head to toe with scintillating eagle eyes barely betraying the anger rising in him.
“So you were very sick”he barked.
“Yes “Brian admitted weakly .”I couldn’t get out of bed all weekend.. It was terrible…”
Sid opened up the daily paper and spread out the front page .
There was a picture of a hippie dancing naked at the Festival Express concert on the front page !!!!!
.It was Brian in all his transcendent LSD stoned out of his fucking mind glory.!!!!
“what happened next ?” I asked Brian wanting all the gory details.
Brian matter of factly told me ,
“I was sent down to work in the basement with the grunts and subhumans picking scraps of clothing where there was no air-conditioning . Then i quit and Sid Cohen hasn’t talked to me since ”
Brian guffawed….. You see Brian was always the goodie goodie in the family.I was the black sheep and Brian out blacksheeped me which at that time was near impossible given my feats .It was glorious.I knew he had it in him!!!!!
Leonard’s uncle was always there as well as his first cousin David who looked quite like Leonard in fact he fooled me a few times but he was a real hustler in the office and i preferred the poetry of Leonard much more . When i entered the music business world i bought my suits from Freedman’s and David would make the suggestions. He did his best to make my transition from young hippie poet to businessman as gentle as he could muster..Then again his bottom line was the money…
I would see Leonard every now and then at Moishe’s the venerable steakhouse in Montreal.I could never afford it myself so i would gladly go with my parents ,especially my mother who loved their chopped liver and steak.It was a family tradition.My mother was born around the corner on St Dominique steps away fro Leonard’s house .
Moishe’s is the epitome of a high class jewish steakhouse. Moishe as legend has it was a waiter who won the restaurant in a poker game from the original owner.
My grandfather once told me that he knew Moishe when he ran a whorehouse and would make steaks on a hot plate for the customers. I slyly asked my grandfather how he knew that and i dodged the slap that came with his admonishment. I was 10 at the time…
“None of your business “,he exclaimed .
I was just at Moishe’s reminiscing and i told this story to his grandson the present owner and he squirmed as i told it.
There is the myth and then there is the truth .
I was just messing with Larry Lighter.
I enjoyed his discomfort as he was struggling to get on his tuxedo for the night’s duties.
Look they all came from humble origins right off the boat form Eastern Europe without a pot to piss in.
My family is also of the Cohen lineage a fact that came rather late to us when my father inquired of his estranged first cousin in Vancouver he barely knew.
In typical Dad fashion he called him up one day after not seeing him since he was 17 and asked what tribe we belonged to and it turned out we were Cohens the priestly clan its a direct line to Moses’s brother Aaron. They did a DNA study awhile ago and found about 80% of the Cohens had separate markers from the other tribes of Jews,namely the Levi’s and the Israelites. So Leonard and i are cousins in a distant sense if you want to go there….
When i was in Israel i found out being a Cohen brings certain connotations . I was once heavily involved in a passionate relationship with a woman who was a Krav Maga expert and black belt and we lived together on a right wing settlement on the West Bank near Jerusalem not so long ago. Her name was Cohen and she would beat the hell out of me during the day as she taught me Krav Maga the Israeli commando version of self defense where we would wrestle guns and knives out of each other’s hands and make fierce love during the night … I mentioned i was also a Cohen and things went south after that. If i had kept my mouth shut i might have been still living on a right wing settlement in the West Bank taking guns and knives away from E….during the day and making fierce love at night.It’s just as well.I had other fish to fry…
A Cohen cannot be in a relationship or marriage with another Cohen and she demanded i undergo a religious ceremony to De Cohenize myself.I had a dread it was kinda a reverse circumcision ….
I balked at being de Cohenized and the relationship and passion quickly cooled. To the religious it was taboo ….I was considered unkosher ,treyfe as far as she was concerned. I became an Untouchable…
I realized last year while doing research that Leonard’s grandfather and my great grandfather were immigrants from the same area in Lithuania and in Montreal in the early 1880’s at a time when there were mere hundreds of Jews ..My grandmother was born in Montreal in 1890 . Leonard’s grandfather and mine were both among the wealthy my great grandfather owning much property in fact a whole street in Park Extension of dozens of row houses. So i assume they knew each other .How could it not be and i regret not having this revelation earlier and discussing it with Leonard. So there is a connection that way ….
Montreal so far as the Jewish community is involved is very incestuous much like New Orleans folks are. In N’awlins the old timers demand ,”Where ya at?” meaning who’s your family….
They all came on the boats together and peddled shmatas (Yiddish for rags) together and sold chickens down in the Rachel Street market down the street where Leonard had his house . Despite all the future pretensions when everyone came into the Nouveau Riche these were our roots ,There can be no denying. I would mention a name of someone from Montreal in the Jewish community and i would often ask my mother and she would quickly respond ” Oh yes we lived next door to them on St Dominique st .,”
I once asked her about Mordechai Richler the writer and she said “Yes we went to St Agathe together as children .He was in the next door cottage when he was 5 years old.
Stuff like that…
My grandfather,Alter Palayew and i ,we were very alike in some ways.He was a socialist ,former communist ,a hobo who hopped freight trains across America in the Dirty Thirties looking for work and adventure and he rode all the way to San Francisco to Third and Howard where he found a flop house and looked for work as a house painter.He talked about that grand time all his life.Since his first poem at 14 until his death at 93 he wrote poetry in Yiddish all of which i have.His earliest poem is about the Russian Revolution where he was born in Brest Litovsk also the home of Begin and Ariel Sharon’s father .
He always regretted he missed the actual revolution because he wanted to fight but at the age of 15 he emigrated to Canada with his parents.He and his father ,a pious man with a long beard and payoit ,earlocks hanging down would work painting the railroad ties maybe with creosote back in Russia.,one way of eking a living .
Back in Canada he played mandolin ,Russian and Yiddish folksongs,painted houses and doors and wrote poetry hanging out with Leonard Cohen at Ben’s Deli in Montreal .
He raised a family in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto across the street from where Leonard has a place now.
He was an intellectual and philosopher and a Zionist and loved Israel .He was well versed in all the Russian authors and was widely read. He is pictured below with me ….I still has his old mandolin by my fireplace…
One thing Leonard and i have in common is that we both flew into Israel during the Yom Kippur 73 war.I came in from Ibiza and Formentera,the magical Spanish islands i was living on and i live on today for several months the past 4 yeras.and Leonard flew in from Hydra in Greece. My friend Teresa who lives in my California town ironically drove Leonard to the docks then. She was his neighbor.
When i flew into the war in 73 to Israel i was living in Spain as i said before having been arrested by Franco’s Guardia Civil for calling them Fucking Nazi pigs when i was questioned and rousted because of my hippie appearance and i was marooned on the small island of Formentera . I finally got off the island and in Ibiza i read my first English paper in 2 months and that was the first day of the 73 War and it looked real bad like Israel might go down so i managed to get to Barcelona and from there flew to Rome and from there i pleaded with the El Al manager to get me on the first plane into the country.
I was 20 ,long hair ,but i knew in that instant after reading the paper on that small Iberian island ,i knew exactly who i was and what i needed to do.
The Holocaust ,the horror of it and my at that time suppressed love for Israel and the Jewish people rolled into me like a spirit train.
In that moment as i stood on the cobblestoned street of Ibiza i knew finally who i was
.I flew into Israel ,the only one on board not a soldier and the airport was blacked out and all the windows were covered,
Overhead were the roar of jets flying into battle.
I took a bus to the name i remembered that was my family’s kibbutz.There were over 50 members of my family there .I had met my great aunt once in 1965 .
The bus dropped me off .This was right at the border with Jordan.I approached the kibbutz on a dirt road .About 5 people with guns came out of the brush and said ,Who are you?
I said “My family lives here and i am from Canada.”
“Who is your family ? ”
I said “The Alters,,Cilla and Alter.”
The soldier with the gun pointed at me lowered it and embraced me saying
” I am Jonathan your cousin.”
Everything is ironic. Everything is connected. Everywhere are threads binding us together . I see this so clearly now.
I went to the north near Syria and Jordan and Leonard entertained troops in Sinai . He wrote several great songs during this time. . During the War i was 20 and Leonard was 40.
One day Leonard came into my record store Incredible Records when i had it in Toronto and it was great because my dad was there who is a legendary figure in the record biz and Leonard spent about 5 hours ,all afternoon in the store and Dad and I and Leonard had a wonderful hang out talking about Montreal where we are all from and people we have in common and we talked about food and women and poetry and books and my grandfather who knew Leonard in the early days at Ben’s Deli,he being a Yiddish poet.
Leonard after 5 hours of coffee drinking and crawling on his knees going over records bought over a 1,000 dollars worth and declared he had found everything he has always looked for in one place.
It was like a zen satori !!!! He left and then 10 minutes later came back an said give me a paper and pen and he wrote this inscription.
“This is the greatest record store in the country!”
In the photos shown there is the note Leonard wrote to me when he visited Incredible Records my store in Toronto ,another photo is me as a young man with my Grandfather the Yiddish poet who knew Leonard ,Leonard in front of his house on St Dominique St doors away from where my mother was born and a block away from my flat when i was 16 years old. another photo is of Richard Dreyfus in front of the legendary Wilensky’s a place Leonard and i would frequent .It has been there for 80 years serving the same sandwich the Special which you order with a cherry coke which they make the old fashioned way and you sit on one of 7 stools at the counter….the other photos show Schreter’s the clothing store across from Leonard’s house and run by my old friend from 3’rd grade.Another photo show’s Ben’s across fro McGill U where Leonard went and there he would hang out with poets and writers among them my Grandfather… There is a photo of Leonard in Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 73 singing to the troops in Sinai.Shown in the photo is Ariel Sharon who was my General when i was in the army in the 80’s and Matti Caspi the singer…The other photos show the HOOD where Leonard and I lived and i visit often.