When Leonard Cohen made his debut at a tavern in Hydra

A creative hub and a fabled artistic colony, post-war Hydra comes alive in the upcoming book 'Half the Perfect World'. In this extract, the authors describe the setting where the Canadian poet first presented his songs

One of the most picturesque islands of Greece, Hydra became the focus of attraction for a community of international artists who settled there in the 1950s and 1960s. From acclaimed Greek painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika to legendary poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen, a vast array of artists called the little island home, adding to its international allure. Now this part of Hydra’s history is thoroughly examined and presented in a book, Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964. Written by scholars Paul Genoni (of Curtin University) and Tanya Dalziell (of the University of Western Australia), it sheds light on the private lives and relationships of this creative expatriate community’s members, through previously unseen letters, manuscripts, diaries and photographs.

In the following edited extract, the writers describe the role of taverns, as incubators of talent, and particularly Douskos tavern, from where Leonard Cohen launched his decades-long trajectory in music.

While the Katsikas grocery store-come-bar was the focus of expatriate social life for the time George Johnston and Charmian Clift were on Hydra, it was far from the only place where they would gather. Redmond Wallis’ diaries refer to a number of similar venues such as Grafos, Tassos, Lulus and Quintos, which were also visited frequently. Another of the alternatives was the Xeri Elia (Dry Olive) Taverna, which was and is commonly known as Douskos, taking the name of the family that has owned and run the business since 1825.

Douskos is located several minutes’ walk from the agora, up the narrow laneways leading from the south-east corner of the dockside, and in the 1950s and early ’60s it was one of the few eating and drinking venues found away from the waterfront. James Burke noted that for the expatriates Douskos “is, next to Katsikas itself, the favourite Hydra hangout.” It is likely that Douskos was preferred when relief from the dockside activity was needed, and photographs featuring the island’s visitors suggest it was a place they gathered in the evenings. Although Douskos doesn’t enjoy the water views that are a part of many other social spaces on the island, it nonetheless opens onto a delightful public courtyard that has long been shaded by several large trees to give relief from the summer sun, and which also provides a welcoming outdoor space for evening meals. For Johnston and Clift the tavern had the additional appeal of being a very short walk from their house.

Not only is Douskos renowned as Hydra’s oldest tavern, but it is also now indelibly associated with the island’s artist-colony because of an evening in the summer of 1960 when a group of international residents and visitors were joined by James Burke and his camera. Since Burke’s Hydra photographs have surfaced, it is these Douskos images that have been the most widely reproduced and distributed. And those that are most frequently seen, particularly since the singer’s death in November 2016, feature Leonard Cohen, seated with a guitar at the centre of a small group of expatriates, with Clift immediately beside him. The full set of Burke’s photos taken on that evening at Douskos—there are some 140—provides great insight into the social lives of the expatriates. On this evening Burke started photographing as the island’s international visitors started their evening inside the tavern. A series of images depict the group sharing dinner, undoubtedly looking like any similar group of young people of their day enjoying each other’s company, conversation and food (reported by Burke to be “spaghetti”).

Once the revellers have moved into the courtyard, we witness the activity across the course of the evening, as they sit grouped around the guitar, laughing and singing, smoking and drinking, pulling up chairs, changing places and walking in-and-out of frame, while firstly Cohen and then Axel Jensen take turns strumming a guitar (borrowed from the tavern) and leading the singing. As Burke recorded, “Singing and wine-drinking outside Douskos continues until early morning.

There were at least 18 foreigners gathered in the Douskos courtyard on that evening, and they were a very international group. They included Australians (Johnston and Clift); Americans (Demetri and Carolyn Gassoumis, Fidel Caliesch, Charles Heckstall, Inge Schneier); Norwegians (Axel Jensen and Marianne Ihlen); New Zealanders (Redmond and Robyn Wallis); English (David Goschen and Christopher Booker); a Canadian (Cohen), a German (Klaus Merkel), and possibly other nationalities as well. Burke’s photos record an apparently harmonious and convivial evening, with this youthful party clearly comfortable in each other’s company. Most of those present were in their 20’s – Johnston, then 48, and Clift 37, were almost certainly the oldest—and in generational terms the pictures present an amalgam of the 1950s beat generation together with what we now recognise as an incipient form of 1960s counter-culture—the advent of which is hardly indicated by the coats and ties worn by Cohen, Wallis and Jensen, three upper middle-class young men from widely spread points of the globe.
For Johnston and Clift, revelling in their role as the unappointed leaders of this contingent, such an evening must have represented the very lifestyle— the exotic appeal of a foreign summer, the heightened sociability, the ardent conversation, the embrace of cultural difference—they had been seeking when they abandoned firstly the monochrome cultural sterility of post-war Sydney, and secondly drab, cold and expensive mid-’50s London. Evenings such as this, Burke’s photos suggest, were the expatriate’s reward.

While Burke’s Douskos photographs include many of the key players of the Hydra artist colony at that time, these are ‘Leonard Cohen’ photographs; it is Cohen who is the focus for Burke’s camera and, commanding the guitar, he is also the centre of attention amongst the small group of onlookers. While his career as a guitar playing singer-songwriter was still some years away, these pictures capture his fledgling ability to engage an audience. Only Johnston and David Goschen, both sitting to the rear and often looking away as they engage in various conversations, seem to be outside Cohen’s immediate audience. By the time Jensen takes up the guitar the small crowd appears to be dispersing, gradually dwindling in size over a number of images.

For Cohen, this must have been a high point of his time on Hydra. Only five months before he had arrived by chance at a place where he was immediately comfortable and embraced by both the place and the people. In a sequence of events that could hardly have been anticipated during the lonely and cold London months with which his year commenced, he now found himself in a place of great beauty; he was in the throes of buying his house in the sun that would provide a secure island foothold for the years to come; and Marianne Ihlen, the woman with whom he would share that house, sits before him, looking on with loving attention as her new man delights his audience. Within days of these photographs being taken, Cohen would turn 26, and although he wasn’t wealthy, his finances were made buoyant by the life-jacket of a government grant, providing the freedom to come and go as he pleased.

In a 1988 filmed BBC interview conducted in the studio room of his Hydra house where he had done his living, loving and work a quarter of a century before, Cohen reminisced about his new life at the dawn of a new decade.

I just got off here, and somebody spoke English and I rented a house for fourteen dollars a month. I met a girl, and I stayed for eight or ten years.
Yeah, that’s the way it was in those days.

What reading those words can’t convey is the manner of their delivery. Cohen’s occasional claim that he is the least sentimental of men (“I have no interest in the past, and I have very little interest in the man I was then”) is supported by the matter-of-fact delivery of the first two sentences, but then immediately contradicted by a profound reverie in which his eyes and mind wander transparently to the past. The concluding sentence is a shrug of the shoulders wise-crack which goes straight to the heart of his longing—whether for Hydra, for Ihlen, or for the ’60s, or perhaps all three, it is difficult to know. Although as Cohen also told the BBC, “We didn’t know it was the ’60s then. We just thought it was ordinary time.”

Ten years after Burke photographed Cohen playing to less than 20 on Hydra, the 1960s were over, and the singer bookended his decade by performing one of the most storied gigs of his career, on another island and to some 600,000 people. The occasion was the third Isle of Wight Festival in late August 1970, and it remains the largest and perhaps most unruly music crowd to gather in the UK. That Cohen followed The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull and Jimi Hendrix on a program that also featured The Who and Sly and the Family Stone, is a good measure of how far the world and youth-cultures travelled over that decade. Many things had also changed for Cohen during the intervening years. His career had been launched with two acclaimed albums that catapulted him onto the world’s stages and established his reputation as one of the decade’s essential singer-songwriters; his romantic relationship with Ihlen had withered; and his ties with Hydra were loosening. It was also a decade that neither of Cohen’s Hydra mentors would survive, with Clift having died the previous year, and Johnston passing away just a month before.

  • Published by Monash University Publishing. Available from 1 October 2018.