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Today's quote:

Saturday, November 12, 2016

I will not weep nor make a scene,
just say 'thank you, life' for having been

Evening at Dousko's Taverna on Hydra - October 1960
"They are still singing down at Dousko's, sitting under the ancient pine tree, in the deep night of fixed and falling stars" - Leonard Cohen


Leonard Cohen, the world-famous Montreal-born Canadian poet, novelist, singer, songwriter and professional manic-depressive, has died. Le monde de la musique a perdu un de ses visionnaires les plus prolifiques et vénérés.

What many people do not know is that Leonard Cohen learned the Greek language in his twenties, loved the Greek way of life and carried the komboloi; his home for twenty years was on Hydra. He gave concerts in front of tens of thousands of people, but the first concert he ever gave was in the back room of the Katsikas Brothers Grocery Store on the Hydra waterfront in 1960.

Hydra in 1962

What were the 'Greece years' and how did Leonard Cohen come to speak Greek and love the Greek way of life? In March of 1960 London was cold and wet. One day Leonard Cohen, then a young unknown Canadian poet, was returning to his apartment from a visit to the dentist when London decided to turn on one of those downpours that only London can. Seeking shelter from the rain he walked into a branch of the Bank of Greece. There he began talking to a teller who told him about Greece and its sun-drenched beaches.

Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen on Hydra

A few weeks later, Leonard arrived in Piraeus, where he boarded a ferry for Hydra, one of the Saronic islands, then 4 hours from Piraeus. When he arrived he discovered an English-speaking community of artists and writers headed by the Australian writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift. George and Charmian invited Leonard to stay in the spare room of their house which they had bought in 1955 and became known as the 'House by the Well' or 'The Australia House' by the bemused locals. Seven months later Leonard Cohen, aged 26, bought a house on the hill above Hydra town. This became his permanent home.

Leonard Cohen & Nancy Bacal - Hydra 1964

Leonard Cohen became a close friend of the Johnstons. As far as Cohen was concerned the Johnstons were doing exactly what Cohen wanted to do, live on an exotic Greek island and write novels.

Leonard Cohen on the terrace of his house on Hydra

As he said in an interview for ABC radio (Australia) in March 1980: ‘I knew George Johnston and his wife Charmian Clift very well because I lived in Greece in those days on the same island... I guess it was from 60 to maybe 65 on Hydra. The Johnstons were there. There were just a few foreigners there in those days. The Johnstons were central figures. They were older. They were doing what we all wanted to do which was to write and to make a living out of writing. They were very wonderful, colorful, hospitable people. They helped me settle in. They gave me a table and chair and bed and really helped me out. I heard a lot about Australia . You're on a little Greek island and there's nothing much to do but sit around and talk. George was a magnificent talker. He used to talk about his life here. He was Australian, there's no question about it. Now that I've come here, I see just how Australian he was. I don't know if I can characterize what an Australian is, but I know one when I meet one.'

A Postcard from Leonard Cohen to George Johnston - February 1962

At lunchtime they would sit outside the Katsikas Brothers store on the waterfront and wait for the ferry from Piraeus which brought mail and more artists and writers looking for adventure. At night they sat under the old pine tree at Douskos Taverna and talk philosophy, politics, religion, drink and sing.

It was here that Cohen began writing the song 'Bird On A Wire'. The song reflects the changing landscape on Hydra when telephone and electricity poles and wires were installed and Cohen saw birds sitting on the wires just outside his bedroom window.

In 1988 Leonard Cohen revisited his house in Hydra, where he wrote 'Bird on a Wire' ("and there's the wire"!) and many other songs. This is the house he shared with Marianne, his muse, and the Marianne of 'So long Marianne'. He is accompanied by his backing singers Perla Batalla and Julie Chistensen. Part of the 1988 film 'Songs from the Life of Leonard Cohen'.

And it was here that George Johnston introduced Cohen to his most famous muse, Marianne Ihlen. It was on Hydra that Cohen lived with Marianne for nearly ten years. She was the inspiration for the song 'So Long Marianne' when the pair broke up.

Marianne and Leonard

Marianne Ihlen was diagnosed with leukemia in late July 2016. Her friends contacted Cohen to tell him she was dying. Leonard Cohen penned a poignant final letter to her, writing: "Well Marianne it's come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I've always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road."

She died, aged 81, on 28 July 2016, in Oslo. Leonard Cohen followed her shortly after, dying on 7 November 2016.

Leonard Cohen was a classic gentleman with an incredible charm who had fallen under the spell of Hydra and its people just as I did when I visited it, time and again, during my not-quite-two years in Greece. I think of it every time I stroke my komboloi.