Near Greatness

A Brief Encounter With Leonard Cohen

I recognized him right away, but he would have drawn my attention even if I hadn’t

Photograph by WireImage

Thirty years ago Café Un Deux Trois was a trendy after-theater hangout, a brasserie near Times Square with decent food (scarce in that neighborhood) and a cup of Crayola crayons on each table (for doodling on the placemat). But on the winter night that stands out in my memory, the restaurant was practically empty. Snow fell silently outside the windows; inside, the place felt cozy and serene. The maître d' seated my wife and me two or three tables away from the only other customer I remember noticing.

I recognized him right away — it was Leonard Cohen — but he would have drawn my attention even if I hadn't. It's unusual to see someone take such quiet pleasure in dining alone. In front of him stood a glass of red wine and, next to that, a pen and paper. Every so often, he picked up the pen to write something. A line from his song "Famous Blue Raincoat" would have suited the mood of the evening ("New York is cold, but I like where I'm living…"). He seemed relaxed and self-contained.

Before long, a new group of customers arrived — a large Japanese family, no doubt tourists staying at one of the many hotels in the area. Waiters pushed tables together, forming a long one, and after the family settled around it, the younger members took turns photographing the rest of their party. Of course, the photographer was always left out of the picture. Finally, one of them turned to Leonard Cohen and tentatively held out the camera. Despite a language barrier, it was clear what the Japanese stranger was asking for: a shot of his entire family.

Cohen didn't hesitate. He hopped lightly to his feet, accepted the camera and positioned himself carefully to make sure everyone was in the frame. What he gave them was more than a perfunctory click of the shutter; he made an effort to get it right. Then he returned the camera with a slight bow and went back to his table, his glass of wine and his writing.

This was during a slump in his career, around the time he recorded "Various Positions," an album that Columbia Records hesitated to release (though it includes "Hallelujah," which would become a signature song and inspire hundreds of covers by artists ranging from Jeff Buckley to a winning contestant on "The X Factor"). Cohen must have been about 50. But life went on. In 1987 the singer-songwriter guest-starred on "Miami Vice"; in 1996 he was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk. In 2005 he sued his longtime manager after finding evidence that she'd swindled him. Financial troubles prompted him to go back on the road.

RELATED: My Roller Coaster Ride With Monica Lewinsky

In a 2014 concert review during his acclaimed "Old Ideas" world tour, Rolling Stone described him literally sprinting onto the stage to begin a three-hour, 28-song set with "Dance Me to the End of Love." "I don't know, friends, when we'll ever meet again — no one can know that," he told the audience. "But tonight we'll give you everything we've got."

Two days after his 80th birthday, Leonard Cohen released "Popular Problems," his 13th studio album. His last one, "You Want It Darker," came out just three weeks before his death at the age of 82.

Amazing how many unexpected turns his life took along the way. I think it's safe to say, however, that one thing hasn't changed. The Japanese clan he encountered briefly three decades ago, on that peaceful night at Café Un Deux Trois, still has no idea who took their family portrait.

Tags: music