Introduction By DrHGuy
After leaving the Mount Baldy Zen Center, Leonard Cohen came to Bombay late in 1998 to study with Ramesh Balsekar. During that stay, Ratnesh Mathur met the Canadian singer-songwriter and came to know him during his spiritually significant visits to India. This is Ratnesh’s account of that journey. I have edited the text, primarily to put it in colloquial English and reorganized the content for easier reading.
Update: Part 2 of this account is now online at Leonard Cohen’s Spiritual Sojourn In India By Ratnesh Mathur
Meeting Leonard Cohen – Bombay 1998
My first recollection of listening to Leonard Cohen’s music is somewhere around 1979/80, when I was 12 or 13, and definitely by my early teens. My cousins in Calcutta first introduced me to his music. I recall borrowing several cassette tapes, one of which was “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” That was around the time I started listening to Bob Dylan. Prior to this (i.e. between 1975 and1980), most of what my siblings and I heard at home was disco (Boney M, Abba, Luisa Fernandez, etc.) and pop (Bee Gees, Carpenters, Cliff Richards, etc) on LPs, cassettes, and radio (“In the Groove” and “Date with You”).
I had a vast collection of music of many genres through my childhood. My appreciation for the singer-songwriter genre with its meaningful lyrics (Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen) came only in my late teens and early college years (between 1989 and 1993). I began writing music reviews on new rock and pop releases for newspapers and magazines (e.g., Hitavada, Connect Magazine, Economic Times). The deeper I went in understanding lyrics, the more I came to appreciate Leonard Cohen’s work. Before I met Leonard, I had heard four of his albums and read some of his books and a dozen articles about him on the internet.
In 1998, I came across a newspaper article that reported Leonard Cohen was in Bombay. It didn’t give the name of the hotel but did indicate the area. I wrote to the Blackening Pages, the Leonard Cohen Fan club on the internet, hosted by Jarkko Arjatsalo in Finland, to gather details but to no avail. So, I began calling hotels in the area, and an operator actually connected me to Leonard in his room.
While Leonard declined to meet, he did agree to sign my CDs and books if I left them at reception. The next day when I arrived to leave the books, the reception desk informed Leonard, and he came down. After we met, he invited me for tea. The ensuing conversation went on for five hours.
As one might expect, it began with me donning my journalist hat to ask about details of his poems which had triggered my curiosity and the “inside story” of the 1960s rock movement (I had many questions about Woodstock, 60s sex, rock and roll, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, singer songwriters like Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, new bands like REM, Suzanne Vega etc.). Because Leonard was a kind man, he humored me, answering my queries.
It soon became evident, however, that he wasn’t keen on discussing his own views on other musicians or his own poetry. Instead, he shifted the conversation into the personal and after two hours of taking notes (I still have them), I stopped the documentation and let it flow as he began asking about me. At first, my answers focused on clarifying the cultural context, based on the assumption that he was new to India. I soon realized that he already knew a lot about the country & certainly a lot more than me about Indian religion. He was the first Jew I’d ever met so I asked him some basic questions about Judaism. He even suggested a book on the history of the Jews by Herman Wouk as a starter for me.