November 10, 2022
Wherever you choose to fly these days, the plane will most likely be full. Even the red-eye to New York City that I sometimes take, which arrives at an ungodly early hour, almost never has an empty seat.
But not that long ago, planes sometimes flew with relatively few passengers. I remember once taking an early morning flight from Toronto to Buffalo in which I was the sole passenger. The flight attendants doted on me, and the pilot came back to say hello.
So it wasn’t all that surprising when in the late 1960’s I boarded a plane from Athens to New York City that was only half full. I immediately headed toward the back, where I had my choice of just about any seat. Our Guarneri String Quartet had played a concert in Athens the night before, and I had gotten to bed late. Perhaps I might be able to snooze a bit.
I awoke to the sound of a guitar, and at first assumed it was coming from the plane’s speakers. But when I opened my eyes, a youngish man about my age across the aisle from me was gently strumming on his guitar. I had to smile. After all, how often do you get to hear a passenger playing for himself and anybody else who cares to listen at 30,000 feet? But gradually I began to focus on his music itself. The man was singing quietly, accompanied by soft and slow guitar chords, and when he paused for a moment, I called out across the aisle to say how much I was enjoying his high-altitude concert.
The few words we exchanged led quickly to a lively enough conversation for this utter stranger to propose sitting next to me. I soon learned that he was a poet and writer, as well as a singer, and I told him I was a musician. For the next several hours, we talked on and off about all kinds of things—books, music, life, death, and romantic relationships. At one point, hearing about my own romantic interest, he said, “Ah, I think she’s definitely the one.” But as we continued to talk, he changed his mind. “No, no,” he said, shaking his head. “She’s the one before the one.” My conversation partner could be witty, but he also had a certain wisdom and thoughtfulness about him. And even a fearlessness in delving into darkness—but always with a deft and light touch.
The stranger had turned a routine flight into something exhilarating. When the plane landed, we introduced ourselves. “I’m Arnold Steinhardt,” I said. “I’m Leonard Cohen,” he replied.
The next evening I had dinner with a friend on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Over drinks, I couldn’t resist telling him about the man I’d met on the plane.
“We had the most interesting conversation that lasted quite literally for hours,” I enthused. ”The guy told me he was a poet, writer, and musician. His name is Leonard Cohen. Have you heard of him?”
“You spent several hours with Leonard Cohen and didn’t know who he was?”
“Arnold, I’m worried about you. I think you’ve been spending too much time practicing the fiddle.”
My friend might have been right. At that moment in time, I was probably one of the few music and literature lovers in all of North America who didn’t know about Leonard Cohen. But that changed quickly.
I began reading his poetry. I listened to him sing his songs in that intimate yet gravely voice- really not a voice at all- but one that had such character and impact. And through his probing exploration, with words and notes, of our inner world, I again felt the connection with him that I had.experienced on the plane. The singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega encapsulated what Cohen was all about when she said, “Leonard’s songs were a combination of very real details and a sense of mystery- like prayer or spells”.
Here is Suzanne, an early Cohen song. The first stanza:
Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind
I’m glad I didn’t know who Leonard Cohen was when we had our marathon conversation, and perhaps he felt the same. Celebrity has its drawbacks. But even if I had never become aware of Cohen as an artist, I will always treasure that chance encounter with a stranger who spoke to me about life, death, love, and laughter.
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