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Singing Leonard Cohen Songs Keeps The Darkness At Bay

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LEONARD COHEN
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As a teenager growing up in Vancouver in the 70's, I was always enamoured of a tale my mother told that, if fate had dictated, could have made me Leonard Cohen's love child.

It was 1966 and he was a young poet on tour. She was a 22-year-old half-Lebanese beauty, working my father through university. I was a good two years away from incarnation.

They met at one of his readings on SFU campus, and she invited him for a dinner of tabouleh and svihah, giving him her number. A few hours later he rang, but my father answered. Leonard never came.

Unlike Leonard, my father was a man of few words, and he never divulged what the conversation had entailed. Later, when he disappeared into absentee fatherism -- as popular in the 70s as Cohen's music -- abandoning us for a commune in the wilderness and several other families, I clung to my mother's story about Leonard, imagining what might have transpired if the "golden voice" had been my daddy.

I grew up singing his songs and playing them on my guitar. By age 12, while my peers were deep into Blondie and The Ramones, I knew all the lyrics and most of the chords to his music.

When I was a 20-year-old student of Spanish literature in Madrid, writing a thesis on surrealist poetry and carrying a book of Lorca poems with me in my knapsack, I used to sing his songs for tourists at the Parque Retiro, making them into deep flamencoized incantations. One day, those incantations bore fruit.

It was Ramadan, May 1988, and I was even more spaced out than usual, subsisting on a strange student diet of fig cakes and arroz y garbanzo. After an afternoon at the Prado, I found myself wandering one evening near the palacio de deportes and magically happened upon a Leonard Cohen en concierto esta noche sign. But what would I do? How would I ever afford a ticket?

A scalper appeared as if on cue. I reached into my wallet and found a ten-pound note I had been saving for emergencies. Soon I had a ticket.

I was quite early, so decided to write a note to Leonard on one of the two Angel de la Musica postcards -- a Renaissance painting of a cherub singing with a lute in hand -- I had acquired that day at the Prado.

I told the whole dinner that never was story, mentioned that I was a singer/ songwriter myself, and hopefully gave it to a stagehand who said he would pass it on.

Five glorious hours later, after hits from his then current I'm Your Man album like the Lorca inspired Take This Waltz and golden oldies like So Long Marianne (I had purchased a pirated cassette tape of Songs of Leonard Cohen in the Madrid metro and the first few chords at the beginning of that song always made me choke up with nostalgia for some kind of Canada I longed for), it happened. I got to meet Leonard.

He came out of the backstage door looking like a kindly Jewish grandfather, not quite the lady-killer I had imagined. He saw me clutching the same postcard of the Angel of Music and approached me.

"You're the girl who gave me that angel card," he said, with that famously rich baritone voice. "Thank you. That angel really helped me tonight."

And with that, he was gone, off into the dark madrileño night.

Later on, when I lived in Beirut and spent time in other Middle Eastern war zones, I found his songs somehow expressed the essence of those places in an uncanny way. Wandering through Beirut's ruined downtown, Dance Me to the End of Love seemed like a perfect companion song. When I lived in Jerusalem, anything from New Skin for An Old Ceremony but especially Is this What you Wanted and There is a War seemed to express the Israel/Palestine conundrum in a way that the TV news could not.

And when I found myself driving through close to curfew time post invasion Baghdad with the Greek ambassador one night Stories of the Street (written in Franco era Spain but well suited to 2003 era Iraq) seemed like the obvious song to keep the darkness at bay.

The stories of the street are mine, the Spanish voices laugh.
The Cadillacs go creeping now through the night and the poison gas,....

And where do all these highways go, now that we are free?
Why are the armies marching still that were coming home to me?

Later, when I included the scene in the chapter of Dancing in the No Fly Zone called Baghdad By Night, and after gaining permission to excerpt some of the lines, I received a lovely email from Leonard.

On December 3, 2005, he wrote:

Dear Hadani Ditmars,

So kind of you to write.
Forgive my tardy reply.
Been on the road.
I'm happy my songs have been useful.
Please do let me see your book.

Warm Regards,

Leonard.

I was gobsmacked. But how to respond? How could I ever match the cool brevity and poetic generosity of his prose? I could not. After waiting a week, I sent him a gushing reply.

I left a signed copy of my book for him at his then Vancouver agent -- Sam Feldman's office, but I don't know if he ever received it. Soon he would change agents, and email addresses, and I would never see him again.

Thank you dear Leonard for the gift of your songs -- songs that have been very useful indeed. They have helped me navigate the shifting waters of my heart, and acted as beacons when the storms came.

I'm sorry that you never came to dinner that night. You would have enjoyed the tabouleh I'm sure. But you will always be my daddy, and your voice will always take me home.

I will be thinking of you this Friday, when I sing your songs yet again, to remember what is important and to keep the creeping darkness at bay.

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