I disembark a ferry in the port of Hydra in early spring 2005 and take the street to the right of the clock tower. The street bends to the left then to the right past a supermarket. I keep going till I come to an open area with a taverna on the right and tables across the street on the left. Right after the taverna I turn right and go up the steps, turn left onto a street which is mainly steps going up, keep going till I come to a street named A.KRIEZI (unusually there is a street name sign), turn right and walk till I come to the Four Corners yellow-painted supermarket. Turning down the narrow lane on my right at the side of the supermarket, I take the lane to the left and then quickly right and end up in front of Leonard Cohen’s house, with a double grey door and a large hand knocker.
2005 is the year when it becomes known that Cohen’s manager has stolen all his assets, which makes him tour the world again and sing his old songs some of which are written here, on this small island in the Saronic Gulf 2 ferry hours from Athens.
He comes to Hydra in from London in 1960 and buys this house half a year later, living here with Marianne Ihlsen who is typing at a table on Cohen’s battered Olivetti on the back cover of the album Songs from a Room (1967), smiling in half-embarrassment at the camera. Cohen writes his novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966), and the songs for his first albums which include the classic anthem So Long, Marianne, about their parting.
In a letter to his sister, Cohen describes how gangs of carousing locals stumble drunkenly up the steps of his street, “their arms about each other’s shoulders, singing magnificent close harmony”. This inspires the line “like a drunk in a midnight choir” in the Bird on the Wire song, written on Hydra and finished in a motel on Sunset Boulevard in 1969. It’s origin is disarmingly literal: when he first arrives on Hydra there are no wires on the island. In the mid-1960s, the arrival of telephone poles and electricity means that wires appeares for the first time on the landscape, slung loosely across alleyways, including outside his house. At first Cohen is despondent but then he notices birds come to the wires. And the song is born.
Having got much criticism from his friends for the musical setting of his first album which included strings and horns, his second album Songs from a Room is much more sparse. The songs are immensely beautiful in their minimalistic settings, they have a singular integrity and are prior to none. I never zap or skip any of the tracks, always listening to the album in the way it was conceived. They are songs from a man called Leonard, from an island called Hydra.
Leonard Cohen passed away on November 7, 2016, 82 years old.