Leonard Cohen has died, another contemporary icon, just three years younger than I.
We met him. Bill had recently taken over as manager of the Manitoba Theatre Centre (succeeding Tom Hendry) and we were very new to the theatre business and its social life. John Hirsch had invited Leonard to come to MTC to give a reading, performance, whatever, and he also invited Winnipeg-based jazz guitarist, Lennie Breau, They were to perform on the Sunday afternoon.
Board members of MTC gave a private dinner in honour of Leonard the Saturday night before the event and we picked him up at his hotel to take him. He was a hit, up to a point. By that time - 1966 - Leonard was known as a poet and a novelist (2 novels, 1963 and 1966). Board members everywhere are very similar, especially those in a cultural board. No matter the size of the city they live in or the arts organization they are involved with, they consider themselves the elite:
elite, noun: best, pick, cream, crème de la crème, flower,nonpareil, elect; high society, jet set, beautiful people, beau monde, haut monde, glitterati; aristocracy, nobility, upper class.
(I remember saying to a wealthy friend of mine that I thought we were upper middle class."Try lower-upper," she said.)
Of course, our board members spoke French. Un peu. They were hardly bi-lingual, living in Winnipeg, but they tried, and they all took turns talking to Leonard in their Prairie French accents. He went along with it graciously. Then he told a story in French, using a word no one recognized. Nor did I, still fairly fresh from my academic double honours degree in French and English. I don't think I can repeat the word here either in French or in English. It's not one the New York Times would print and I think my blog would balk at it, as well. Let me just say that it's a slang word referring to a part of the female anatomy in the nether regions and it begins with the letter c in both languages. When one of the board members asked Leonard what it meant, he told her. After that, everyone had trouble speaking to him, either in French or English.
Back at the theatre at the beginning of the week, Bill went into the Green Room to get cigarettes before going home. (We both quit a couple of years later after reading the Surgeon-General's Report.) Two of the actresses from the current production (our first as staff)) strolled into the room and kept on with their conversation.
"I can't believe you slept with Leonard," one of them said. "I am so jealous!"
"I'm not committed to anyone right now," said the other one.
At that, Bill pocketed his cigarettes and turned to say goodbye to the women.
"I'm going home, now," he said, "to my wife, my four children, my dog, my cat and my tropical fish. Good night."
He reported all this to me and wondered, as he often did, whether we had made a mistake by joining the theatre. It was a different life.
But I have to tell you about the Event.
At that time, as I have told you, Leonard Cohen was a a poet and a novelist, well-known in Canada. I don't know why John Hirsch invited him and Lennie Breau to perform on a double bill. John had amazing prescience. It was a quiet winter day in Winnipeg, a Sunday afternoon. Not many people attended. The two men took turns, Leonard reading some of his poetry in his later familiar sepulchral voice, and Lennie Breau improvising on his guitar. I think they were both bored. Then - I don't know which one started it - they began to ad lib, improv, riff together. You could see Leonard picking his way through to something like a song.
His first album was Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967).