It was 1984, or early ’85. I was with Leonard Cohen in his Montreal walk-up duplex – not the current Place Portugal apartment, but a similar one in the same area. We were assiduously working on a bottle of cognac and a carton of Marlboros, and somewhat laconically working on ideas for a video. The telephone rang – something it did not often do. Leonard’s side of the conversation was much like this: “Yeah? Oh, okay. Why not? Uh-huh. Listen, I’m with a friend – can he come too? Okay. Uh-huh. Yes. Around seven-thirtythen? Right. Uh-huh. Fine. Okay.” When he’d replaced the receiver, I asked Leonard who was calling. “Some lady for Bob Dylan,” he said. “Evidently he’s playing in town and wants to meet me. I asked if you could come and she said it was okay. I suppose we’d better leave now…’
I thought how cool is this? I remember it was raining hard – a hard rain – and we had trouble flagging down a cab. Sodden, smoking damp cigarettes in the back seat, I asked Leonard when he’d last seen Dylan. Both of their careers had taken a bit of a nose-dive during recent years. Not that I then knew it then, but both were also about to rocket back up to a new zenith. “Oh,” Leonard replied, “I’ve never met him before…” I’d always imagined they were comrades-in-arms, poetic Jews bound by shared culture and acclaim. It seemed obvious that they’d be close friends. Yet Leonard and Bob had never met? This, I thought, will be an historic meeting – like Goethe meeting Napoleon. Voila, un homme. In retrospect, it was more like Yeats meeting Eliot.
On Leonard’s instructions, our cab slushed through melting snow around to a grim rear door of the stadium. We stood in pouring rain waiting for a knock on the iron door to be answered. A massively muscled black man peered out suspiciously. We were ushered through corridors smelling of old sweat and sneakers to what must have been a dressing room. Bare lightbulbs circled a cracked mirror. We were alone. The most noticeable thing about this room was the rack of identical outfits. A black leather jacket and faded blue jeans. There must have been twenty of them draped over hangers. This was Dylan’s costume du jour – perhaps harking back to his sixties’ glory-days? Leonard and I sat smoking in a resonant silence.
Then the door burst open and in walked Bob Dylan, in a black leather jacket and jeans, his hair like a bed-spring-factory explosion. Courteous as always, Leonard introduced me. I had in fact met Dylan in London years before, but the event was so unmemorable – presumably for us both – that I didn’t mention it. Dylan said, “Hey, man,” and gave a limp handshake. He had a way of looking at you sideways, as if hiding some hideous deformation on the other side of his face. Many years later, when we played chess, he would look at the board in a similar manner. The historic conversation went something like this:
Dylan: Good to see you, man – how’re you doin’?
Cohen: Pretty good, man – how’re you doing?
Dylan: I’m good, man. Where’re you livin’ now?
Cohen: Oh, here and in LA. Where’re you living?
Dylan: Well, I’m on the road now. But usually in LA…
Cohen: LA, eh?
Dylan: Lot of the time… You’re there too?
Cohen: Yeah, I’m there a lot…
Dylan: In LA?
Cohen: Yeah, in LA…
Dylan: Me too. How’re you doin’, man?
Cohen: Not at all bad. And you?
Dylan: Me? I’m still on the road…
Cohen: Yeah, heading to another joint, eh?
Dylan: Headin’ to Buffalo next, man…
Cohen: Oh, I see… But you’re doing okay?
Dylan: I s’pose… Hey, man, I really dug that song of yours, Hallelujah…
Cohen: Thanks, man. I love that one of yours, I and I…
Dylan: Oh yeah… How long it take you to write that song, man?
Cohen: Er…Oh, I think about three years… How long did you spend on I and I?
Dylan: ‘bout ten minutes…
Cohen: Oh, really? So, you’re doing okay, are you?
Dylan: Yeah, man, pretty fine… How’re you doin’?
Cohen: I’m good. Kind of quiet, you know?
Dylan: Quiet? Nah, too much noise. But you’re in LA, are you?
Cohen: Part of the year – winters. What about you?
Dylan: I’m there… Good to see you, man…
Cohen: You too, man…
Dylan: So, how’re you doin’?
It did not take me long to work out that these cultural Titans had nothing to say to one another. When it was firmly established that each was doing okay, and that both of them lived at times in LA – although neither suggested they might visit one another there – the toe-curlingly awkward exchange was terminated by a lady telling Dylan he was on stage in ten minutes. He told Leonard it was nice to see him, ignored me totally, and vanished back through the door.
“Shall we see the concert?” I asked Leonard, assuming we would.
“I think not,” he replied. “We should get back to work…”
In the cab going back to work, I remarked that the two of them had little to talk about.
“It’s true,” said Leonard Cohen.
After meeting TS Eliot for the first and only time, William Butler Yeats had one comment: “That man will not let me look into his soul.”