One Degree of Separation - Leonard Cohen in Memoriam, Suzanne, Janis, Julie and Me

On a brilliant morning in the spring of 1977, I first saw the most beautiful woman who ever touched my life and arrived within one degree of separation of Leonard Cohen

Julie Marie Vaillancourt was the 17 year old daughter of Suzanne Verdal McCallister and sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, and as it turned out this "Suzanne" was the muse who truly launched Leonard Cohen’s career as a songwriter.  I was setting up the bar at Restaurant St. Michel in Houston, Texas when Suzanne walked in followed by her daughter Julie.  They asked to see the owner Francois Goedhuys, who was in the kitchen supervising preparations for the weekday lunch rush.   I showed them to a table and went into the kitchen.  Francois appeared and after coffee and croissants Julie was hired to bus tables…

A long story short, I was twenty-seven with a distinct preference for older women and to tell the truth I was thinking that I might hook up with Suzanne. 

The last thing I ever imagined was that I’d fall in love with her seventeen year old Gypsy virgin daughter, or that Julie and I would end up living together in Los Angeles, or that I’d be driven mad from a broken heart when she returned to Montreal at Suzanne’s invitation.  As I said, it’s long story that will be addressed in the ongoing saga of JMac1949 Memories.  This post is supposed to be a memorial to Leonard Cohen.

Cohen began his career as a writer and poet as a student at McGill University in Montreal, publishing his first poetry in March 1954 in the magazine CIV/n.  After dabbling with Law School and a stint at Columbia University in New York City, he returned to Montreal in 1957, worked odd jobs and in 1961 he published The Spice-Box of Earth.  Eventually he left Montreal and bought a house on Hydra, a Greek island in the Saronic Gulf.  Where he wrote and published the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964), and the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). His novel The Favourite Game was an autobiographical bildungsroman about a young man who discovers his identity through writing. Beautiful Losers received a good deal of attention from the Canadian press and stirred up controversy because of a number of sexually graphic passages.  In 1966 Cohen also published Parasites of Heaven, a book of poems.  None of this brought him much notice outside of Canada.  He moved to New York and it was the poem that became the lyric of his song "Suzanne" which became a hit for Judy Collins and Noel Harrison that brought him fame not fortune as a songwriter and recording artist.

In 1967 he included the song on his first album Songs of Leonard Cohen.  No one can deny the poetry of the lyric...

...but of the songs on that first album I always preferred “Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye,” “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong" and “Sisters of Mercy.”

As I look through his later music I’ve come to realize how through meeting Janis Joplin I came within only one degree of separation from Cohen.  He sang about their brief liaison in his room at The Chelsea Hotel ...

...and later regretted connecting her name to the song referred to it as "the sole indiscretion in my professional life." He added regarding his kiss and tell: "Looking back I'm sorry I did because there are some lines in it that are extremely intimate."

There are so many Leonard Cohen songs that were complete commercial failures on their initial release: Bird on a Wire, Everybody Knows and perhaps his most famous and most covered song Hallelujah all went unnoticed until they were recorded by other singers or ended up in the soundtrack of some movie.  

From 1994-99, he took up life in a Zen Monastery and served as a personal aide and secretary to Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi.  He made and lost a fortune, ripped off by family friend and business manager Kelley Lynch, and made it all back while touring live for much of the last 15 years of his life. 

Have no doubt that Leonard Cohen was hardly a saint.  He was driven by dark passions and doubt and he hurt more than his share of people, but in his own way he found his path through an extraordinary life:

Yes, you who must leave everything that you cannot control
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul
Well, I've been where you're hanging, I think I can see how you're pinned
When you're not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you've sinned

He left us with a treasure trove of poetry, music and art and I hope that he’s found Marianne, grasped her hand again and that they are lying down beside one another surrounded by those mythic Sisters of Mercy...

... and it is my most fervent hope that Julie Marie Vaillancourt is safe in the arms of her partner, surrounded by family and laughing with her grandchildren.

Addendum: Kosh found a link to a Yiddish Cover of Hallelujah so I'm including it in the body of the post:

Except for attributed photos and text, all content is copyrighted © 2016 JKM (an apparently ineffectual boilerplate joke?)

Views: 433

Comment by Zanelle on November 11, 2016 at 9:05pm

Oh my!!!! Thank you for this intimate connection with Suzanne and her daughter. That song always had a special place in my heart as my name is Suzanne and my mother hated that song. It seems to be the story of my life too but you have the real story. wow!!!! He was a great poet.

Comment by Maui Surfer on November 11, 2016 at 9:08pm

You can hear the boats go by; you can spend the night forever

Waxing nostalgic is oh so common but 1977, now that was a year. Lahaina rockstar paradise.

Comment by Zanelle on November 11, 2016 at 9:09pm
Here is a link David McCaine put up on fb. He sold Almosta Ranch you know after his wife died and he is living in Texas with his kids.

Comment by Ron Powell on November 11, 2016 at 9:21pm

 Great tribute and intriguing info re the woman who left....

 

Comment by Foolish Monkey on November 11, 2016 at 9:23pm

jm, terrific piece.  so interesting.  what a life you've lived!  you knew suzanne!!!  I knew she had to be a real person...those lyrics are too close to the heart.  beautiful!  thanks!  

Comment by Rosigami on November 11, 2016 at 10:32pm

Thanks for this, James. R&L

Comment by Theodora L'Engle Knight on November 12, 2016 at 12:45am

oh god, this is so excellent!! and so moving and touching. love the 1 degree of separation. you have lived a very full and fascinating life, my friend. what a supremely talented man. just one gorgeous song after another. i think that he sang one of his songs in the title sequence of a recent cable mini-series. have to look it up on IMDB. excellent song and that gruff crusty inimitable voice.

Comment by Theodora L'Engle Knight on November 12, 2016 at 12:47am

yep, it was True Detective. worth checking out the song. for sure. it's called Nevermind.

Comment by Rodney Roe on November 12, 2016 at 6:18am

I always saw Cohen as a lyricist poet.  His voice grated for no reason that i can identify since I like Leon Russell and Randy Neuman, neither of whom have great voices.  I preferred to hear someone else singing Leonard Cohen's songs.  Thanks for sharing your experiences in his orb.

Comment by Boanerges on November 12, 2016 at 7:24am

Fascinating as always, JMac. I didn't know about the Joplin connection. It's heresy, I know, but I have to confess I never really got Cohen. Still, his talents were unmistakable.

As for the women in his life, perhaps the most significant was Marianne Ihlen, who died of leukemia in Norway in July. He wrote to her, "Our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon", according to the National Post. She appeared on the back of "Songs from a Room", draped in a towel, at their home in Hydra.

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