The story of a young Cohen in Cuba. Read this story in Somersault’s free pdf issue!
By Evan Fleischer (Evan Fleischer lives in Boston, Massachusetts. When he isn’t editing Somersault Magazine, he is a writer-at-large.)
On one side, 1,400 American paratroopers tried to invade Cuba in April of 1961. On another side, Cuba repelled the invasion. And on the third side — the underappreciated side — a 27 year old Canadian by the name of Leonard Cohen was certainly doing something, though the nailed down quality of what it actually was seems to be up in the air.
In one telling, Cohen went to Cuba because he was “fighting on both sides.” In another, he went because of “a deep interest in violence. I was very interested in what it really meant for a man to to carry arms and to kill other men — and how attracted I was exactly to that process.” And in the the third, he went, he got drunk (on rum, Cuba libre, or mojitos, quien sabe; déjame en paz y me deja escribir), spent his time with late night movie operators and hookers, was woken up by an official from the Canadian embassy, taken to said embassy, and politely and firmly informed that his mother was worried about him.
Of the latter — Cuban militants tried to bomb the airport, the press of which overplayed the danger of the reality, thereby attracting his mother’s attention — Cohen said that he felt feisty when he’d been woken by the embassy official, like Upton Sinclair. “I was on an important mission!”
Cohen’s first album is four years off at this time. Let us cheat with the Oujia Board you and I both share and re-introduce the names of AM Klein, FR Scott, Irving Layton, and Lorca, Lorca, Federico Garcia Lorca (a marble-like polaris Cohen enjoyed to roll with others in his hand like worry beads, like prayer beads, like an oddly shaped coin he keeps in his pocket because it makes him smile) to the equation — and when he’s there, he’s in khaki shorts, lets his beard to stubble length, and returns to his old habits of staying up ‘til three in the morning.
Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
Come the Havana evening, Leonard — in the words of one biographer — joined “the pimps, hookers, gamblers, small-time criminals, and black marketers … roamed the urban slums of Jesus del Monte to the swank waterfront suburbs of Miramar.
There’s also this.
Ira Nadel — the biographer quoted above — explains: “Wearing his khakis and carrying a hunting knife, he was suddenly surrounded by twelve soldiers with Czech submachine guns. It was late at night and they thought he was the first of an American landing team. They marched him to the local police station while he repeated the only Spanish he knew, a slogan of Castro’s: Amistad del pueblo, ‘Friendship of the People.’ This made no impression on his captors, but after an hour and a half of interrogation, Cohen convinced them he was not a spy buy a fan of the regime who wanted to be there.”
Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control.
He convinced them he was an innocent man. They brought out rum and bequeathed him a necklace of shells and bullets. The next morning, he was driven back to Havana. It’s there this picture was taken. It’s there he runs into American communists. It’s there he’s called a bourgeois individualist.
Anti-aircraft fire fills the night. A platoon runs down the street and crouches behind the statue of an iron lion. “Hopelessly Hollywood,” Cohen later wrote.
The next morning he shaved and put on a seersucker suit and wrote a letter to Jack McClelland, a Canadian publisher. “Just think how well the book would sell if I’m hit in an air-raid. What great publicity! Don’t tell me you haven’t been considering it.”
Cohen was temporarily detained, and — given that — tried to leave the country. When he did, he discovered a red line drawn through his name on a clipboard at the airport and was directed to a security room, at which point the picture of him with the militants was discovered. They put him under a guard, a fourteen year old with a rifle, a fourteen year old with whom he then tried to have an argument, which went nowhere. A scuffle broke out somewhere in the airport. The teenage guard ran off to assist. Cohen was left alone.
Cohen looked around, repacked his bag, got back in line, and boarded. No one asked for his ticket.
A poem to mark the occasion comes quickly, blithely and fearsomely announcing in “the only tourist in Havana turns his thoughts homewards” —
Come, my brothers,
let us govern Canada,
let us find our serious heads,
let us dump asbestos on the White House,
let us make the French talk English,
not only here but everywhere,
let us torture the Senate individually
until they confess,
let us purge the New Party,
let us encourage the dark races
so they’ll be lenient
when they take over,
let us make the C.B.C. talk English,
let us all lean in one direction
and float down
to the coast of Florida,
let us have tourism,
let us flirt with the enemy,
let us smelt pig-iron in our backyards,
let us sell snow
to under-developed nations,
(Is it true one of our national leaders
was a Roman Catholic?)
let us terrorize Alaska,
let us unite
Church and State,
let us not take it lying down,
let us have two Governor Generals
at the same time,
let us have another official language,
let us determine what it will be,
let us give a Canada Council Fellowship
to the most original suggestion,
let us teach sex in the home
let us threaten to join the U.S.A.
and pull out at the last moment,
my brothers, come,
our serious heads are waiting for us somewhere
like Gladstone bags abandoned
after a coup d’etat,
let us put them on very quickly,
let us maintain a stony silence
on the St Lawrence Seaway.
Cuba drifted forward under the thumb of the embargo. LBJ did his best to carry forward Kennedy’s legacy. Cohen pivoted outward, and was only ever truly drawn in again by the politics of the moment by the events that made 1989 such a momentous year, a year in which something — some faint drum rattle — came in through a hole in the air in Berlin, Tiananmen Square, and elsewhere.102 notes
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