The passing of Leonard Cohen in November 2016 left a void that nobody expects to be filled; not only in the hearts of his millions of adorning fans, but in our global cultural establishment as a whole. For the former, a healing process has taken the form of a pilgrimage to a place deeply associated with the poet and songwriter: Hydra. As the first Greek summer since the troubadour’s demise sets in, the small island has become a meeting point for the Order of the Unified Heart. No, this is not an official name of an entity.
“There is no organisation,” Cohen famously said in an interview, describing this “kind of a dream of an order” that he had established, mostly through his work.”There’s no hierarchy. There’s just a pin for people of a very broadly designated similar intent . . . to just make things better on a very personal level. . . . You’re just not scattered all over the place. There is a tiny moment when you might gather around some decent intention.”
And ‘gather around’, they have this summer, sporting the symbol Leonard Cohen designed for the cover of an early Cohen book of poetry Book of Mercy, wearing it as a pin, or pendant, or other type of jewellery, or tattooed on their skin: two hearts, intertwined. A flag bearing the symbol was raised in front of one of the island’s perennial landmarks, the famous Rolo cafe (clocktower), an action applauded by the dozens of ‘Cohen Pilgrims’, gathered around at the time.
The Guardian reports that more than 200 fans came from all over the world – Australia, Japan, France, Lithuania, Ireland, Finland, Canada, the UK, and the US – to Hydra, during these first days of the Greek summer as the biennial gathering organised by Cohen’s biggest fan club, the Leonard Cohen Forum, based in Helsinki. This was the first meeting to take place after the songwriters’ passing. More fans, not ‘organised’ are expecting to visit the island this season, with Cohenites from all over the world travelling to pay their respects to the memory and legacy of the poet, and the place where he was transformed to one of the greatest voices of his generation.
A two-day tribute to the singer’s memory took place last weekend, with a number of Cohen’s friends attending events with multitudes of fans. The unveiling of a crowd-funded beachside bench, (intended as an 80th birthday present to Cohen) added to the atmosphere, with spontaneous singalongs at the Rolo that lasted until dawn.
The municipality of Hydra named a street after him – the one in which his house (still owned by his family) is situated. Cohen had bought that old stone house (without running water, plumbing or electricity) in 1960 with a US$1,500 bequest from his grandmother. He said once, “this was the smartest decision of my life.”
He was 26 years old when he arrived in Hydra that year, joining a small group of expatriate artists who had moved there when the port consisted of four coffee houses and a taverna. It was there that Cohen worked on his poetry and novels in the garden, swam in the afternoons, and met up with the Australian writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift at the Rolo – which at the time was a grocery shop, kafenion O Katsikas, with a handful of tables out the front. It was there that he met and fell in love with his muse Marianne Ihlen, immortalised in his ballad So Long, Marianne. It was there that the obscure Canadian poet became a trobadour, a songwriter. It is where his first concert took place – just Cohen with his guitar and a few friends round the back of the shop. It was from Hydra that he colonised the world.
The pilgrims flocking the island to visit the places of ‘Cohen-related significance’: his house, the taverna at Kamini, where he used to meet with friends, the tree outside Douskos’s taverna, where a famous photo shows Cohen playing guitar with his friends. Veterans of that era, locals and artists are eager to share stories and memories.
In July, Canada’s Ryerson Theatre will perform Our Leonardo, a theatre, dance and music tribute to Cohen’s early years on Hydra.