In the heady days of the early 1960s, then teenaged student Erica Pomerance was a shining light at McGill when she encountered Leonard Cohen.
Cohen had graduated in 1956, but was struck by the emerging youth culture, bathed happily in its creative impulses, and frequently visited the campus.
Erica, then a folk singer, later an actor and today a veteran documentary filmmaker, remembers meeting Cohen in the early 1960s at the Fifth Dimension folk club on Bleury St.
“He was sitting there with his pal, Robert Hershorn, and said to Hershorn, ‘she looks like Freda, doesn’t she’ — referring to one of Cohen’s ex-girlfriends. “This was his come-on — he was very big on coming on to young and beautiful women!” Erica remembers.
“We ended up having a few dates over the years. He became a sort of mentor of mine, because I was writing poetry, a novel, (which was never completed) writing songs, and performing. I was then president of the McGill Folk Society.
“I can remember sitting around that statue with a fountain at McGill — the Three Bares. He would grace us with his presence: he would come back to haunt the old hallowed grounds.”
Then there were Cohen’s favourite downtown hangs, especially The Bistro on Mountain Street.
“People used to go Leonard Cohen sighting and hang out at The Bistro. Tanya Ballentyne was my best friend at the time and one of the people we shared in common was Leonard.”
“Nick auf der Maur and Graham McKeen — two quintessential Montreal boulevardiers — were friends as well, and I was part of the hallowed group, privileged to spend time in small intimate friendship gatherings with Leonard.
“Leonard brought me home a few times to meet Marianne (Ihlen). I’d hang around while he played the guitar, and I played the guitar.
“Marianne was absolutely beautiful and charming — very soft-spoken — a very magical type of person. She had a nice aura, not a strong
dominant character. She played a subtle role, but you could tell she was a special person, very intelligent, beautiful in many ways.”
At the time Cohen and Marianne were living at an apartment in a converted coach house, on what is now Wilder Penfield Ave. His friend Robert Hershorn had purchased a mansion nearby. “Robert was Leonard’s cousin and close friend from Westmount. Cohen’s other close friend was National Film Board director Derek May.
Cohen’s circle then included the illustrator Vittorio Fiorucci and the sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, who had been married to Suzanne Verdal, and with whom he had a daughter, Julie. Suzanne is immortalized in the song.
“She was a beautiful creature. She became a very close friend of mine.”
Sadly, Suzanne became frustrated and bitter that Leonard had become famous while she remained relatively obscure, despite being a dance pioneer in Montreal and the inspiration for his breakthrough song.
Leonard’s charm was totally seductive, Erica recalled. “He was the coolest of cool, the hippest of the hip. Every time he opened his mouth it was like a flower came out of it. I was totally mesmerized by his persona.
“The fact he spent so much time giving me some of his persona was very flattering. It gave me a tremendous boost as far as who I was.”
Her father wanted young Erica to join his advertising firm, but Erica wanted to be an artist and a writer.
“Leonard, who had also come from this very conservative Jewish background — my parents were left-wing, but not very bohemian by the time I was at McGill — was like a Jewish older brother figure, but also a very romantic lover figure. He was encouraging me to sing and go and find my own road.”
He listened to her LP, You Used to Think, and correctly predicted it would gather a cult following.
“Then Leonard met (photographer) Suzanne Elrod, and she moved into his place on St. Dominique. The few times I dropped in I was struck by the fact she looked just like Suzanne of the song.
“They were both beautiful and striking — they looked like sisters. I remember she was pregnant with Adam and about to give birth and very upset that Leonard was on tour, and not with her.”
As for his work, his moving from poet to singer/songwriter, Erica loves the way the music acts as a frame for the lyrics.
“The lyrics emerge from the music, and you’re caught listening to the words, like you’re listening to someone reading poetry. It’s like a continuum. He was a very artful composer as well, writing simple melodies that were quite subtle and had very interesting melodic and harmonic variations.
“Ultimately, he remains a poet who sings his poetry.
“He was a very subtle guy, his regular speech, with the way he lived life, with this slight, crooked inward smile — something very artistic and philosophical about him.
As for his reputation of being a ladies’ man, which Cohen liked to slyly deny in interviews, Erica had this to say: “He was very charismatic. He was always on the make, but that was his whole thing — he was always so charming to women, it was just a second reflex to him that you always thought he was trying to pick you up.”
But Erica adds: “He was not just after sex, he had a much subtler way of being romantic.”Erica concurs that Leonard was not overtly reactive to political events, but saw them as a continuum of history, part of his concern for people trying to live meaningful lives.
“Leonard was more focused on the politics of love, interpersonal relationships, one person battling his own battles.”
He was into religious philosophy rather than religious dogma and also saw the links between his own Jewishness and “the principles of Buddhism rather than the practice.”
“He saw Jesus as a symbol of fighting corruption and rejecting the dogma of organized religion, which is something which we still live with in the 21st century, including the backlash,” she observed.
“Religion is a powerful force that can be unleashed for good and evil. A lot of evil has been constructed in the name of Jesus and even in the name of Abraham,” she added.
When it comes to the search for the deeper meaning of religion, “Leonard’s voice is like a constant fountain,” she says.
“My 10-year-old grandson has decided he is going to learn to play Hallelujah on the guitar: What other popular artist has been able to appeal to so many generations?”