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Leonard Cohen - the Greece years

With his Australian tour underway, we take a look at prolific artist Leonard Cohen's Greek connection

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Leonard Cohen (R) with Marianne C. Stang Jensen Ihlen (L) in Hydra in the '60s. The song So Long, Marianne was written to and about her.

03 December 2013

This month Australia plays host to Leonard Cohen, the world famous Canadian poet, novelist, singer, songwriter and professional manic-depressive. What many people do not know is that Leonard Cohen learned the Greek language in his twenties, loves the Greek way of life and carries the komboloi; his home for twenty years was on Hydra.
Cohen now gives 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. Through his life on Hydra he also has a most interesting connection with Melbourne.
One of Leonard Cohen's closest friends, Steve Sanfield, said, "One of the things I wanted to mention… is really how important those Greece years and the Greek sensibility were to Leonard and his development. Leonard likes Greek music and Greek food, he speaks Greek pretty well for a foreigner, and there's no rushing with Leonard, it's 'Well, let's have a cup of coffee and we'll talk about it.' He and I both carry komboloi."
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.
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. Seven months later Leonard Cohen, aged 26, bought a house on the hill above Hydra town. This became his permanent home.
George Johnston and Charmian Clift had arrived on Hydra in 1955 with their two young children and soon after bought a house. This house became known as the 'House by the Well' or 'The Australia House' by the bemused locals.
George Johnston was born in Melbourne and his family lived in Elsternwick. He was a talented writer and a journalist at Melbourne's The Argus newspaper. Charmian Clift was born in Kiama, NSW. She also was a talented writer and worked at The Argus.
George and Charmian met in January of 1946 in The Argus building, which is still situated on the corner of Elizabeth and La Trobe streets, and immediately fell in love. They were married 2 years later in Sydney after George was appointed features editor of the Sydney Sun. Both George and Charmian wanted to write novels. Their first collaboration High Valley in 1949 won the Sydney Morning Herald Literary prize. After a posting to London as editor of the London Sun, George and Charmian moved first to Kalymnos and then to Hydra to write novels full-time.
Hydra had almost no electricity, few telephones and no cars or trucks. But it had an ever-changing bohemian community which George and Charmian immediately fell in love with. George and Charmian were in their element, very hospitable, hard drinking and partying and presided over the cosmopolitan assortment of authors, painters and musicians who frequented the island. In the '50s many movies were also made on Hydra so many famous actors and directors frequented: Michael Cacoyannis, Sophia Loren, Alan Ladd, Melina Mercouri, Tony Perkins, and many others. George and Charmian became close friends with Michael Cacoyanis and most of the actors.
Leonard Cohen also 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.
At lunchtime they sat outside the Katsikas Brothers store on the waterfront, waiting for the ferry from Piraeus which brought mail and more artists and writers looking for adventure. At night they would sit 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.
It was here that George Johnston introduced Cohen to his most famous muse, Marianne. It was on Hydra that Cohen lived with Marianne for nearly 10 years. She was the inspiration for the song So Long Marianne.
In February of 1964 George and Charmian decided to move back to Australia. Leonard gave up trying to be a novelist and began turning his poems into songs. He went to New York and offered his song Suzanne to Judy Collins. She recorded Suzanne in 1966. In February 1967 Judy Collins introduced Leonard to a New York audience as the writer of Suzanne. He has been performing on the world stage ever since. The current world tour is likely to be the last, as he turns 80 in September of 2014.
Leonard Cohen is a classic gentleman with incredible charm. The influence of the Greek people of Hydra, George Johnston, Charmian Clift, Marianne, still show as he strokes the komboloi. Many of his poems and songs tell the story of that golden era of the 1960s on Hydra.
* There are hundreds of photographs of the bohemian community of Hydra on the Google LIFE Magazine archive.

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