From the Vault: Remembering Canada’s noble laureate

Leonard Cohen’s transformative encounter with the “Sisters of Mercy” at the U of A marked his rise to stardom.

Leonard Cohen, who died Nov. 7 at age 82, visited the U of A in 1966. As the editors of the 1967 yearbook noted, he left a lasting impression: “A possibly great poet has come to us in his youth — we are fortunate to have seen him in the bud.”

Something shifted in a big way for Leonard Cohen when he arrived at the University of Alberta in 1966.

At the age of 32, he had already acquired modest distinction as a poet and novelist, especially after publishing the controversial Beautiful Losers earlier that year, but all of a sudden he was drawing crowds. Some 500 came to see him perform in the Tory Building at a time when a typical poetry reading on campus would attract two dozen at most.

It was the ’60s, after all, and students were irresistibly drawn to the dark mystique of this Byronic enfant terrible, says Ken Chapman, a commerce student at the U of A in 1966.

“I first came across him in the Tory building by happenstance and heard him play,” said Chapman. “I kind of followed him around as part of the crowd, and that’s when I realized I didn’t want to be in commerce; I wanted to be in English.” Under the spell of Cohen’s aura, Chapman did indeed switch his major to English and economics.

“It was his persona, his attitude, his sense of humour,” said Chapman. “It was an angst-ridden time for young people at university in the ’60s, and his words were very resonant. But it wasn’t the politics, it was the romance — he was unbearably romantic.”

Cohen’s unexpected popularity gave rise to high-spirited parties at Edmonton’s Hotel Macdonald where he was staying. It also brought a crush of curious fans to the front desk, overwhelming hotel staff. Amidst the chaos, Cohen soon found himself thrown out with no place to stay.

That’s when he met two U of A undergraduates — Barbara and Elaine — who offered up their basement to Cohen (on the site of what is now the Tamarack House residence on campus). Their hospitality and love, “graceful and green as a stem,” inspired one of his best-known songs, “Sisters of Mercy.”

The success of Cohen’s residency meant that one week was extended to five, with more appearances, including one at the Yardbird Suite, and long nights partying with the Sisters of Mercy at the Alberta Hotel on Jasper Avenue.

From ordinary person to celebrity

“He basically went from an ordinary person to a celebrity while he was here, with all the attributes of that — fans and groupies and everything,” says Kim Solez, a U of A professor of transplant pathology who since 2002 has spearheaded Canada’s first annual Leonard Cohen festival.

Solez says he was struck by Cohen’s intelligence and profound understanding of life after he immigrated to Canada from the U.S. in 1987. He “knew nothing about the country” then, he confesses, but after hearing Cohen on the radio, “it seemed like everything I’d been missing.”

Later, when he was at a medical conference in Scotland, he was struck by the devotion and passion around Robbie Burns day. He thought, “Why couldn’t we do that for Leonard Cohen?” And so he did, becoming something of a Cohen historian along the way.

But it was during those five weeks in 1966, Solez recalls, that Cohen discovered the power and reach of the tower of song. On Dec. 4 of that year he wrote a letter to his lover and muse, Marianne Ihlen (of “So Long, Marianne” fame), about his intentions to become a songwriter.

In future years, Cohen would visit Edmonton to look for the sites of that time that stood out so prominently in his memory. But for the most part “they were gone,” says Solez.

“The part of the Mac he was evicted from was a 300-room, wood-frame building that sat on the front lawn of what is now the Mac.” The irony doesn’t escape Solez that now standing on that hallowed site is a statue of none other than Robbie Burns.

This Dec. 4 marks the 50th anniversary of Cohen’s letter to Marianne, and Solez is planning an event to mark the occasion in collaboration with the Faculty of Arts. It will include performances by local musician Ann Vriend and others, and a reading of the letter by CKUA host Lionel Rault.

Meanwhile, Chapman is working toward having two statues built to commemorate Cohen — one by the Tory Building and one downtown by the site of the old Alberta Hotel (which has since been reconstructed down the street). “I imagine him looking longingly up into one of the hotel-room windows,” says Chapman.

For almost as long as there’s been a Canada, there’s been a University of Alberta. Over the next year, in honour of Canada’s 150th anniversary, we’re proudly celebrating the people, achievements and ideas that contributed to the making of a confederation.

Originally published at on November 14, 2016.