Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Diana on Hydra, August 1997

I also happened to be on Hydra when Princess Diana visited in her yacht, just two weeks before her death. It was early August, 1997, at the height of the tourist season, and from my rented apartment, I barely noticed the noise of a helicopter circling the island. Airborne paparazzi were keeping tabs on her from the sky, and later than day they caught her strolling along the road to Mandraki, the same road I had walked on the day John Lennon died. The photos of Diana on Hydra were sent out over the internet, and appeared in media around the world the following day. I met a store-owner who said she had come into his shop to browse, but he hadn’t recognized her until someone pointed her out. She and Dodi Fayed had sailed away soon afterward, and the excitement of her visit slid into the back pages of Hydra gossip.

Two weeks later, a few hours before she was killed in the Alma Tunnel, I went on one of my aimless walks along the sea wall. I was feeling decidedly strange that night. I’d just mistaken what day it was, thinking it the night I had agreed to gallery-sit for a friend who had a show of paintings at one of the hotels. But when I arrived, the gallery was closed, so I thought I would go have a beer somewhere and watch the sunset. Arriving at a seaside tavern, which was deserted, before I even sat down I felt a sense that things in the world were about to shift. I can’t quite explain what I experienced that evening. I didn’t see haloes or auras, but nature and the objects in it suddenly appeared flooded by some invisible substance. There was a one-ness about everything, as if I were viewing life through the lens of death. Not “death” in the sense of loss and sadness, but death as the dead experience it: a liberation into a world where boundaries dissolve and things – like the little fishing boat that was chugging into the harbour – merge with their surroundings as if we all partook of the same great Mother. I looked around for someone to share this feeling with, but I was completely alone. I drank half my beer – the feeling persisted. It had nothing to do with an alcoholic buzz, or a sense of well-being. It was rather as if the structure of reality had reorganized itself, or my own brain patterns were being altered by a sudden tidal wave of insight into how things really are. I really can’t put words on it, nor could I then, so I stood up and continued walking, thinking I would pass report this experience to the first acquaintance I laid eyes on. Which is what I did.

Seeing Roger Green at his usual table in the Pyrofani, I invited myself over and said “I just want to go on record this evening, as having had a very strange experience while I was looking at the sea.” He listened and said he’d take note of it. Before I left him to finish his dinner in peace, I added, “I just have the feeling, that some major event, or shift, is about to happen, and we need to prepare for it.”

I woke up the next morning at about 5:30, at the first light. Normally I would have turned over and gone back to sleep, but something didn’t feel right. I went to the front door and opened it onto a cloudless morning. Usually, the local cats were waiting nearby, but this morning they failed to show up screaming for scraps. I imagined the worst: that the neighbours had poisoned them, and now they were gone forever. Not just the cats, I suddenly thought, but everything in my life that had ever meant anything, had now come to a sudden, sad end. It was as if I were staring down the length of a long tunnel that led straight into nothingness. Compared with my sense of lightness the previous evening, this was dark and disturbing, like my dreams during the night which had woken me several times.

All day, I stayed indoors, and saw no one till evening when I was due to meet my friend at the gallery. At the hotel, the television was on and they were showing images of Diana. I soon caught on to what had just happened.

A few days before, I’d been at the magazine stand in the port of Hydra, looking at the headlines from all over Europe and the UK. The British papers, in those days, often carried photos of the princess, but that day there was a computer-generated image of her with her mouth zipped up. One headline screamed “Diana has gone too far!” Diana had been speaking about landmines in the House of Lords that week, and the press was up in arms, it seemed. Along with the rest of the British establishment.

It was the second time in two decades that an earth-shaking death had occurred while I was on Hydra – and each time, I had picked up the signal beforehand.

What was it about that island that seemed – to me, at least – to link it to the sudden, violent deaths of people who proposed to change the world? First Lennon, then Diana.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

First, we take Manhattan

On the day John Lennon died, I was living on the Greek island of Hydra. Hearing “Try to See it My Way” sung by a 20-something girl sitting next to me on the hydrofoil going back to Hydra just last week, I suddenly realized that song – whose lyrics I barely remembered until she started harmonizing with the Beatles on her IPod – had once been important to me.

“Try to see it my way – only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong. Why d’you see it your way? There's a risk that we may fall apart before too long. We can work it out. We can work it out...”

It dawned on me that those half-forgotten lines were woven into my way of looking at the world. And that until John Lennon was shot, it had never occurred to me that things would not get worked out, in ways that did not include putting on uniforms and marching off to destroy other people in distant countries in order to “defend our way of life.” Or the assassination of gentle, confused souls like Michael Jackson.

But all that seems to have changed – at least in the outside world.

On the day John Lennon died, December 8, 1980, I happened to be living on Hydra. I had been in my room for days, reading, writing or trying to write. It was cold and damp and all I had to heat my room was a small electric coil heater, which Leonard Cohen had lent me two weeks earlier. I was afraid to plug it in because electricity was so expensive on that island. So to stay warm, I began taking afternoon walks. A two-hour walk up a mountain would generate enough body heat to last until evening when I could either go out to the only taverna that had a stove, or bundle up in bed and read myself to sleep.

Since the end of September, I had been visiting a few Greek islands, and travelling around Egypt and Israel. In Tel Aviv, in late November, I had hooked up with Leonard and his band, who were performing their final concerts in Israel after a two-month tour of Europe. Now I was on Hydra, and so was Leonard. I was planning to spend the winter, writing a novel. What else does one do on a Greek island in winter, and what better place than Hydra? I knew the island from a 3-month visit the previous year. And this time I had a Canada Council grant, enough to cover rent and food for the next ten months, at least.

I had been living without a radio, let alone TV, since arriving on Hydra in the third week of November, at about the time the weather changed, making it necessary to find permanent shelter and a warm haven to work through the winter.

In the early afternoon of December 9, I had had enough of writing. I needed a break from my tiny cement room, which had nothing in it but the basic necessities: bed, table, frig and hotplate. I decided to take a long walk northeast along the sea coast to the village of Mandraki. At that moment, people in New York were waking up to the news of John Lennon's death, but I had heard nothing.

It was a cold, windy day and the sky was streaked with clouds. Here and there the sun would break out without really warming the earth or the rocks. After half an hour I reached Mandraki, with its beach and scattering of houses abandoned for the winter. At the limits of the village, the road ended abruptly, so I turned right and continued on up one of the hills where I found a goat path to follow. The rocky slopes around Mandraki are known for quartz deposits, and chunks of crystal lie scattered on the ground. It’s said the crystal layer on Hydra is closer to the surface than elsewhere on earth, which gives rise to the idea that the island acts as a kind of radio receiver/ transmitter. People who come to live there often say they notice changes in their patterns of dreaming, or increased sensitivity to psychic experiences.

On that day, I was too engrossed in my own thoughts to notice crystals or rocks, let alone a shift in energy. I was feeling lonely and anxious, wondering how I would make it through a whole winter on this increasingly gloomy island. Once I reached the top of the hill, I sat down on a boulder to ponder the view: sea the colour of iron, stretching all the way to the bleak shores of the Peloponnesus. I could have walked along the ridge all the way to the nearest monastery, but smoke rising from a distant fire told me shepherds were camped up there. I decided to stay put and just meditate for a while.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, I began thinking of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Where were they? What were they doing? I had not thought about them in years, really not since their “Bed-in for Peace” when they came to Montreal in 1969 and stayed at the Sheraton Mount Royal Hotel, talking to the media and entertaining guests. A friend of mine had gone downtown to meet them, and had spent a few hours in their room.

Since then, I had lost track of Lennon and his music, especially after the breakup of the Beatles. I much preferred Leonard’s style of music, and his songs. Still, for some reason that day, I could not get John and Yoko out of my mind. I heard the news of his shooting some hours later, either from the newspapers (which always arrived on Hydra from Europe and America the following day) or through a friend on Hydra who heard it on the radio. And then, like everyone else, I set about absorbing it.

My first thought was, it’s not true. And then: Lennon could not be dead, because I had just been talking to him on a mountaintop in Greece. Forever after, I would associate John Lennon’s death with climbing that hill at Mandraki, and sitting down on a boulder in a clearing on a remote island seeming to float between sea and sky. On the rare occasions on Hydra when I ran into someone of my generation, I told them that story. It made me feel better, to focus on that incident rather than the actual assassination.

Alone in my room, I told myself it didn’t matter that he was dead. His music would live on -- they were playing it everywhere in the cafes and bars that week and all through December. Besides, John had never been my hero, I thought, or even my favourite Beatle. I never had a favourite Beatle. The most I could say was thatI had liked him the way you might like an older boy several grades ahead of you in school, who was goodlooking and performed well on stage. I had listened to him sing, laughed at his quick, ironic wit – my friends and I had absorbed and tried to imitate his Liverpool accent and brand of humour. The Beatles had blown into our lives via the Ed Sullivan Show, and their music accompanied us through puberty and high school and later university, where it lost ground to the darker, more dangerous Rolling Stones. Ten years older than my graduating class, who in 1980 were just turning thirty, the Beatles were still too young to die. Their music defined our environment and values in ways we rarely stopped to think about.

I hadn't been following Lennon’s activities in New York, where he was becoming more political. Whatever I thought about his campaign for “Peace” – which struck me as a bit simple-minded – I never doubted Peace was worth fighting for, in non-violent ways, because it was better than the alternative. War in our time is for robots, not humans -- I still believe that, although ideologies have changed since 1980. What Mark David Chapman did that day was an act of war, and it was fuelled by a massive delusion. Whether or not he was a mind-controlled patsy – I believe he was -- Mark David Chapman failed miserably in his supposed mission. He ended a life that could have gone on to accomplish great things: we’ll never know. But he did not kill John Lennon – he shattered the vehicle in which the soul known as John Lennon was getting around at the time. It was a pointless act that accomplished nothing, unless the goal was to traumatize innocent fans and others, like myself, who were bystanders.

In death, Lennon grew larger than life. He symbolized lost hope, and the images generated by his murder worked their way into the structure of our thoughts and feelings. Thirty years later, I feel I am still processing the effects of that event which coloured the following decade in ways that were hard to fathom at the time.

Lennon’s assassination came a few weeks after the election of Ronald Reagan, about which I felt much cynicism and also foreboding. But at that time I was far from Washington, where schemes were being laid to alter the future. I was on Hydra, a paradise of isolation even in winter when it can be so cold and damp at night, you shiver till your bed rattles.

My bed had been rattling only the week before as I lay alone in my empty room, under a pile of damp woollen blankets, unable to sleep. That’s when I’d got the idea of going over to Leonard’s place for comfort and consolation. After all, we were friends. It wasn’t yet midnight. Maybe he’d still be up, reading. Maybe he would invite me in, make me a hot cup of Ovomaltine – the Greek version of Ovaltine -- as he had a few days before, with his characteristic friendly humour. His place was always warm. He could afford electricity.

I slipped out of bed, pulled on a couple of sweaters and headed up the stone road that led to Leonard’s L-shaped stone house, which stood at the top of Donkeyshit Lane, the main thoroughfare connecting the port to the labyrinth of narrow lanes that form a kind of amphitheatre on Hydra. In no time I was at his door. The upstairs windows looked dark, but I knocked anyway. Several times. I called out “Leonard! Are you there?” Finally, a muffled voice from the upstairs bed room answered, “Go away! I need my sleep!”

I hadn’t expected such blank rejection. I turned, devastated, and ran back home. The run warmed me up. Back in my clammy bed, I felt had blown things, badly. I resolved not to bother Leonard again, not to visit him, or cook him another vegetarian dinner. Instead I would wait until our next chance encounter in the port – which might be days or weeks away. In the meantime, I would keep on running and walking to stay warm. I would get down to business, write my book, survive on my own.

For the next few days I stuck to my resolution. I wrote in my room. I worked at making other friends among the tiny population of winter residents clinging to the rock called Hydra. And I made sure my walks took me away from the town and the embarrassment of another encounter with Leonard.

John Lennon was shot on a Monday. The following Sunday, I was out for another walk, this time through the port, just as a hydrofoil from Athens was pulling away from the dock. Some pieces of baggage were piled on the quayside, awaiting a donkey. And Leonard was just sitting down in one of the nearby cafes. He was dressed in black, and wore dark glasses and I saw he had been growing a beard since I last saw him, 10 days before. His children, Adam and Lorca, 8 and 6 years old, were with him.

His odd appearance, along with the presence of his two young children, made me shy so I paused some distance away. He saw me, and waved. It felt very awkward, but I went to greet him. I had thought he was still on the island, all that time, avoiding the weather by staying in his house. Were those his bags on the quay? Or were they his children’s? Had they just come from their mother’s place in Paris on their own, or had he gone to get them himself? I started to apologize for not coming to see him for over a week. I'd been in my room writing, I said.

He seemed to hesitate. “Oh, so you’ve been inside?” Then he repeated it a different way: "You've been on the inside?"

He seemed to be peering into me, as if trying to pick up on my thoughts. I found his behaviour off-putting. The last time I’d gone around to see him,he hadn't exactly been friendly. Now I wasn’t sure he even remembered shouting at me from the upstairs window to go away.

I thought he looked unwell. Thinner, almost exhausted. Was he recovering from the flu, I wondered? Maybe he'd been starving, all alone in his chilly mansion. He didn’t tell me he had been away, or where he had been. He walked me away from the cafe tables and over to the corner where a closed shop window displayed an old collection of Greek military medals. We stood there for a moment and to lighten the tension, I joked: “Leonard, you look like you deserve a medal!” He seemed startled, as if he read some other meaning into this offhand comment.

Just then the donkey driver arrived. He left me standing there as he strolled back to the cafe where his children were waiting to be taken up Donkeyshit Lane, to the house.

Leonard Cohen on Hydra with his children, Adam and Lorca, in December 1980. [source: the Sunday Telegraph]

A few days later, I ran into him again and we had coffee. It was two weeks since the tragedy in New York, and I had hardly spoken to anyone. I said, “Too bad about John Lennon.” I was expecting him to weigh in eloquently on the deeper meaning of that event. After all, he too was a singer. There but for fortune.

All he said was: “I never liked the Beatles."

He happened to be carrying a copy of TIME magazine, which had articles on Ronald Reagan’s recent victory, paired with news and commentary on Lennon`s death. He had me read the article that quoted a poem Reagan had written in high school. One line rang particularly sappy and ironic: “Life should be a song.” I handed it back. But Leonard appeared impressed, or at least he praised the new president for his support of Israel, his bold new vision, his approach to the economy. Seeing my opposition, he pointed out the cowboy theme in Reagan’s career – this was something they shared in common, because Leonard had been in a cowboy band at one time. He even sang a few lines from “Red River Valley” to make me laugh.

The unexpected news that he was a fan of Ronald Reagan suddenly made me want to cry. Tears streamed down my face and I wiped them away with my fingers. Maybe I was just overwhelmed by the cold and isolation, my general sense of being a castaway on an island in the middle of nowhere, or maybe I was still getting over my mother’s death the previous February.

Seeing my fragile state, Leonard tried another line of argument. According to the Kabala, he said, the Messiah would arrive either in a time of light, or of great darkness. This almost made sense. It sounded like the Leonard I knew, and calmed me down like a magical formula. I took it to mean that Reagan’s victory was a catastrophe that would end up generating a powerful reaction toward the light. Perhaps things would turn out well, in the end. Perhaps what we all needed was a jolt of Reaganomics, a return to fundamentals, a visit from the Headless Horseman to scare us into shape. Maybe my generation was spoiled and lazy. Maybe that was why John Lennon had to die...

The more I thought about it, though, the more I felt Leonard was panicked about his finances, grabbing at straws, supporting a charlatan like Reagan. He told me he was seriously embracing orthodox Judaism, and suddenly suggested I also convert – especially if I wanted our relationship to continue. A strange thing to say, I thought, and it made me uneasy.

I later heard he had started hanging out with a group of drinkers and gamblers on the island. One was a former mercenary who, when drunk, would boast of killing blacks in the Congo in 1962. It was easy to see why such people would seek out Leonard’s company, but what could possibly draw him to theirs? By then, I had made other friends to help me through the terrible Greek winter. I saw Leonard rarely, and feared our relationship was over. Part of me wanted it to be. He used to read me snippets from the libretto he was composing for Lewis Furey, who came for a visit later that spring.  He often reassured me that this peculiar situation on Hydra was only temporary, and that I should just be patient and wait. Wait for what? Meanwhile, other women sometimes stayed at his house, and kept coming and going all winter.

I survived the next several months,alternating between hope and misery. When I stayed away from Leonard, and just wrote, things went back to normal. But social life there was so sparse, I often withdrew into my own world, and in such places that can be dangerous. I was turning 30, having to face many unpleasant truths. I saw Leonard occasionally, and he would talk, or rather lecture, on various subjects: the Bible, the Kabala, Sufi poetry. Once he said the world was created 6,000 years ago, from a collision between black and white fire.

He never told me about being in New York on the day John Lennon was shot. If I brought up the assassination, he changed the subject to Ronald Reagan’s victory, how it signalled the start of a brand new era.

“I never liked the sixties," he said, although his career began in that decade. Or was he the anti-Beatle? Had he come along to lead a lost generation back to the straight and narrow path of religious and political orthodoxy? I found that thought embarrassing. I lay awake, sometimes, asking myself what sort of future awaited me with a man who adored Ronald Reagan.

It was 15 years later that I reviewed Ira Nadel’s biography where I found a line stating that on December 11, 1980, Leonard Cohen had been in Manhattan, “putting on phylacteries” and attending a religious ceremony. John Lennon’s assassination that same week is not mentioned. In 1995, when I reviewed the book, I thought the biographer had got his facts wrong. I was a witness to the fact Leonard could not have been in Manhattan, because he was staying on Hydra at that time and I saw him often.

I forgot about the second week in December, when I hid out in my room, writing, purposely avoiding Leonard, or the odd encounter in the port a few days after Lennon’s death, when I saw him arriving with his children from some unknown destination – possibly Athens airport, or Paris, as I imagined at the time.

And why would he leave Hydra and travel to New York that week, when his kids were living in France with their mother? Unless he had some special business in New York.

Sylvie Simmons, in her 2012 biography (I'm Your Man) puts Leonard in a room at the Algonquin Hotel on Central Park, 2 km. from the Dakota, on December 11 1980. She has him buying candles in preparation to celebrate the holiday with his children. The problem with that alibi is: in 1980 Hannukah began on December 3 and was over on December 11. 

Most of all, I wonder why he kept his New York trip a secret? Unless he did not want people to know he was there when Lennon was shot. On Hydra, where any item about Leonard was precious currency, such tantalizing news would have been the talk of the island. Leonard in Manhattan on the day Lennon died? What a coincidence. Like the time he was in Cuba just in time for the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Or in Israel two weeks ahead of the Yom Kippur War (said to have been a "surprise attack" but possibly orchestrated ahead of time by Henry Kissinger.)
Over Christmas, Alberto Manzano visited Hydra and interviewed Leonard. He also took photos. I have one he took of me at Kamini beach on a cold, windy day in December 1980, and also the one I took of him, using his camera.

I kept a notebook in those days, where I sometimes recorded encounters with Leonard and others on the island. It was mainly an exercise to get me working on my novel. I lived just down the lane from a man who used to be such amusing company, but seemed to have lost his sense of humour. Now he was pressuring me to change my thinking and climb on the neo-conservative bandwagon because “Money is the long hair of the eighties.” Sometimes he hinted he might soon be creating his own religious movement, and wouldn’t mind having me as a disciple. It seemed we no longer had a personal relationship, or perhaps I had imagined that -- although he implied we would again if I would quit being a child of the sixties, and grew up. I could help take care of his children, and gain readmittance to his household. But even that would not erase the 17-year age difference that separated me from his generation, and its way of thinking.

All these questions and differences played havoc with my mind. As winter dragged on, I began having nightmares, and what seemed an intense flashback to my death in a past life in Nazi Germany. It was as if time were shifting backwards. A huge gulf had opened between my old life in Montreal, and the one I was living on Hydra. The shift began with John Lennon’s death, which was a turning point. It was as if a crack had opened allowing much darkness to flood my world – although Leonard might have preferred to call it “light.”