Appreciation — February 14, 2014, 12:29 pm

I Told You When I Came I Was a Stranger

Leonard Cohen’s first public musical performance

This piece has been posted to Harpers.org in conjunction with 75 at 75, a special project from the 92nd Street Y, in celebration of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s seventy-fifth anniversary, that invites authors to listen to a recording from the center’s archive and write a personal response. Here, Pico Iyer writes about Leonard Cohen’s performance at 92Y in New York City on February 14, 1966.

Leonard Cohen took the stage of the 92nd Street Y in New York on February 14, 1966, as if he had been born to live there. He was preceded on the platform by his old friend and running-mate, the bon-vivant Montreal poet Irving Layton, both of them introduced by the distinguished biographer Leon Edel. Edel described Layton as “Canada’s major poet of today” and Cohen, Layton’s junior by twenty-two years, as someone belonging “to the younger set, to the new avant-garde.” The audience might have expected to hear a literary lion, followed by his cub.

Yet as soon as Cohen took the mike, he commanded it with a rising, effortless charisma that makes one’s heart go out to the seasoned Layton, who should have been the star. Cohen was only thirty-one on that winter night, and was known in Canada as an up-and-coming poet who issued invitations from the stage to women to join him in his hotel room afterward and wasn’t afraid of offering disquisitions on such themes as “the distinction between the Prophet and the Priest.” He was reading from Beautiful Losers, the novel he’d just completed in his house (which lacked electricity or plumbing) on the Greek island of Hydra. Within minutes, as you listen to him now, you hear the high diction he would come to make his own — “penitential” and “austere,” “tormented” and “battalion” — delivered in a courtly, elegant, precise voice that gives away its Canadian origins only in its “out”s.

In one short section he is reading of “the kingly oil of election” and deploying words like “hero” and “saint” and “ordeal”; very quickly he’s ushering his audience into a landscape of ceremonial ironies, speaking of “secret cabals of vegetarians” and intoning, “I envied you the certainty that you would amount to nothing.” Layton had revealed something of the tradition from which Cohen hailed — switching from a poem about Odysseus to one addressed “To The Girls of My Graduating Class” and referring to himself as a “quiet madman, never far from tears.” But Cohen feels much more contemporary and rooted in the streets of Montreal, even as he mixes dictions like a psalmist departing slowly from a love-hotel.

There is nothing boyish or unformed, in short, about Cohen, even as he honors his debts to Montreal, his hieratic elder and the Mohawk virgin before whom, he said, he sometimes lays roses and “two white transistor radios”; what you hear today is the outline of the Zen monk of decades later, plumbing “the old laws of suffering and obscurity.” What you also hear is a maestro who can win you over and then disappear almost in the same breath; there’s a sense of art and rhythm about every moment of his performance. He begins with what might seem a quiet religious offering and slowly mounts to more passionate and radical flights — “God is alive. Magic is afoot” — until finally he culminates in an extraordinary act that few at the time could have anticipated: the performance of a folk song at an institution consecrated to high culture.

The heart of what he read, as a young man before a literary audience, two years away from his first recording and his birth as an international heartthrob, was uncannily close to what the world has come to cherish from him over the past forty-five years: passages of moist sex governed by the laws of religion; talk of God and ritual made physical by the sweat and pant of love. Already we’re hearing of King David and “an old scholar, wild with unspecific grief” (longing for a thirteen-year-old); already King Midas sits unexpectedly close to references to a young girl’s “hopeless nipples.”

The audience laughs as Cohen reads, then breaks into applause; the clapping at the end is instantaneous, deafening, and prolonged. And with his characteristic gift for holding people by seeming not much to care, Cohen delivers damp rhapsodies to “bare-thighed cheerleaderettes,” a tingling description of a man’s hand running up a woman’s legs in a public place, the explosion of a four-letter word announcing the act of love as  “holy, dirty, and beautiful.” Layton in his expansive flights sounds like an irreverent poet, Cohen like one who has put all thoughts of reverence and irreverence aside to ground himself in some higher position.

“Where is grace today?” he reads, having noted that “Women love excess in a man because it separates him from his fellows and makes him lonely.” At one moment, he is saying, “All her flesh is like a mouth” and alluding to “Beethoven panties”; at another, he is murmuring, “I was your mystery and you were my mystery and we rejoiced to learn that mystery was our home,” as if about to draft his most celebrated song, “Hallelujah,” of eighteen years on.

In response to his invitation to the Y, a year before, Cohen had sent a short, typed letter from Hydra, dated “April 16, 1956,” as though he was nine years out of sync (or didn’t have a calendar at all). He noted that he had just finished a novel, and was eager to attend if he could scrape together the money to get over to New York from Greece. The money offered by the Unterberg Poetry Center was immaterial to him, he wrote, but his performance was not. At the end of the letter, addressed to “Mr. Galen Eberl,” a handwritten P.S. asks, “Are you a man?”

Cohen in his youth, in other words, was already the precise and rhythmical soul who holds the stage in concerts from Oberhausen to Hanging Rock forty-eight years on, unafraid of put-on or proclamation, halfway already to being robed acolyte, swain of movie-stars, and inductee into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He’d found his voice when he was young, and in it his allegorical landscape of goddesses and G-d. Irving Layton, whom Cohen would call “our greatest poet, our greatest champion of poetry,” and for whom Cohen had served as quasi-best man, gets all but forgotten, as does his free verse, once Cohen’s pages from his coming novel are revealed as poetry traveling in mufti, using sound as incantation to pull his audience into his rhythmical spell.

Cohen had promised in his letter that he would “certainly prepare myself” for his performance, and he seems to have meted out and paced his every utterance for maximum effect. There is a distinct structure to his most casual-seeming riffs. And when, out of nowhere, he picks up a guitar and, for the first time ever before a large audience, delivers a song — a thin, reedy version of “The Stranger Song,” accompanied by his own strumming, voice shaky as it never was in reading his prose — you realize that this is a man made to speak to millions.  He knows how to draw you in with his uncertainty as much as with his authority.

Cohenites bow before the man’s appearance at the Y as the public birth of the singer, who had just begun listening to Dylan and thinking about how to bring his literary words to a larger audience.  They love the references to juntas and the Middle East — here’s the man-about-town who would sing “I’m Your Man” and “First We Take Manhattan” — and they love the laureate of privacy who is already lingering on every detail of a “garter device” and warm flesh at the top of a nearby thigh. Eighteen months earlier, the National Film Board of Canada had filmed a documentary of four Canadian poets (Layton among them) touring six eastern Canadian universities. But one of the four proved so compelling that the filmmakers edited out the other three and released the film as Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Leonard Cohen.

Charisma can’t be taught or made; it is — as Cohen on Hydra surely knew — a “gift from the gods” in its original meaning. Cohen had it even then, and this meant that his presence and his performance would be something even more than his super-articulate words. Leon Edel keeps mentioning how “new” Cohen is, “one step beyond” and part of a “much more peripatetic” generation.

But he was ageless from the outset. “In our kisses,” he tells the audience at the Y, “we confessed our longing to be born again.”

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More from Pico Iyer:

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