Green Gatorade, Answering Machines and Gratitude: My Memories of Leonard Cohen

Film director Craig Zobel pays tribute to Leonard Cohen by sharing stories of his encounters with the era-defining singer-songwriter.

L COHEN MEMORY 1: At the end of 2013, I was in a hotel in Christchurch, New Zealand, when I heard that Leonard Cohen was in town. Christchurch isn’t that big a town, and I learned that, randomly, he was staying in our hotel. Our new friend Muzza Francis scored me a ticket.

The day of the show, I was told by the front desk guy (who really should not have been telling me stuff like this, in retrospect) that Leonard Cohen was staying in the room next to me. That night we saw him in concert. The next morning, my producer Sophia Lin abd I got in the elevator, and looked upon the man himself.

As we went down in the elevator, I screwed up all my courage and said: “Mr. Cohen, we are from America and by chance are in this country right now. But we heard you were here, too, and just had to go see you last night. You were a welcome sight, your show was truly so great. Thank you for the wonderful night.” To which he said something simple and gravely, to the effect of, “Well, thank you so much… Hope you have a good time down here.”

But the best thing about staying in the room next to Leonard Cohen isn’t talking to him in the elevator…

After the front desk dude told me he was next door, I went back up to my room. Looking at the room next to me, I found that some assistant or roadie had hung a plastic bag with some supplies on his doorknob. I could see through the thin white plastic: it was a liter of Gatorade (green), and a jar of Nutella.

Which, you know, is just a good thing to know, if you ask me. L Cohen picks the green in his Gatorade game, and isn’t gonna say no to some Nutella.


L COHEN MEMORY 2: In high school, my friend Robyn Waserman had Leonard Cohen’s phone number. Well, specifically, the phone number for his answering machine.

I don’t remember what crazy machinations she’d done to get it; I vaguely think it had something to do with a friend of someone’s dad or something. But this was before cell phones or email, or famous people having Facebook pages or Twitter accounts. You could love a famous artist, but you couldn’t reach out to them. So Leonard Cohen’s answering machine was a fucking score, dude.

Of course, the first thing I did was not believe it was actually Leonard Cohen’s number. I mean, right? But me and Robyn and our friend Rachel went ahead and called it, and for-real-I’m-not-kidding-for-really-real Leonard Cohen’s voice said: “Thank you for calling. Please leave a message.”

There’s a mixtape somewhere with a snippet of the three of us calling it, I think…

Robyn lost the number for some years, and then found it in an old address book. She dialed it and it didn’t work, then she tried a different L.A. area code and it was still there. She’d call it about once a year, and the message was always the same, just the pauses in inflection would change occasionally.

When I heard the news that he had died, Robyn was the first person I checked in with. She wrote me, “ugh. i still kinda hoped I’d marry him someday. & we never left a msg on his answering machine.”

We never had the guts. She just dialed it a little bit ago, and said it isn’t his voice anymore, just a standard recording.

But our friend Joshua Fauver (who’s an immensely talented musician himself, and went on to play in bands such as Deerhunter), he’d actually call it and leave messages. Just get drunk and say, “Hey Leo, — this is Josh…” and then start in on whatever it was he needed to catch Leo up about this time.

I talked to Josh over Facebook last night. He wrote, “I still have it, and I called and left a message. I said, ‘I love you and I’m sorry.’”


L COHEN MEMORY 3: That last show in Christchurch… So Leonard Cohen basically got Willie-Nelson-ed in 2012, when his son realized his business manager had absconded with $5m of his money. He was wiped out, and he had to go back out on tour to make some scratch.

I was just excited to get to say I saw him in another country (I even tried to get my old friend Robyn to fly down to NZ to see him with me). But he was 79 when he did this tour. Not young. Him just managing to stand up the entire set woulda had me satisfied and impressed.

But that’s not what the show was at all. He was energetic. Electric. He was a showman. At least 10 times during songs, he dropped to his knees and sprang back up to a standing position (something he was doing gracefully at 79, that I couldn’t do now). I remember him reciting a poem at some point, and looking around to see every woman in the venue — from teenage to his age — just looking at him like they’d clearly wanted to go home with him that night. Magnetic.

But to me, the coolest thing was how grateful he seemed to be about the show. It seemed like he gave a heartfelt thanks to the audience after every second song. After that show, he played two nights in Wellington, and then one night in Auckland before finishing that very last tour. Yeah, he was out there because some crook stole all his money. But by the time he got to New Zealand he was there because he’d needed that tour. He was getting as much as he was giving. And it looked like he could do it forever.

The Rolling Stone obit mentioned two quotes of his that really stood out to me. The first was about people still being excited about his music in his older age: “You depend on a certain resilience that is not yours to command, but which is present. And if you can sense this resilience or sense this capacity to continue, it means a lot more at this age than it did when I was 30, when I took it for granted.”

That was clear both in the reaction of the audience, and his reaction to the audience: gratefulness all around.

Another quote that resonated, having seen that show: “I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.” Which, really, is a pretty damned good mantra for any artist. It wasn’t a job, but he just kept working at it anyway.

Craig Zobel’s debut feature, Great World of Sound (2007), won Breakthrough Director at the Gotham Awards, and was nominated for Best First Film and Best Supporting Actor at the Independent Spirit Awards. His second film, Compliance, premiered at Sundance 2012, and won a Special Jury Prize at the Locarno International Film Festival. Actress Ann Dowd was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Independent Spirit Awards and Critic’s Choice awards, and was named Best Supporting Actress of 2012 by The National Board of Review. Craig’s most recent film, Z for Zachariah, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine and Margot Robbie, premiered at Sundance 2015 and was released in the U.S. by Roadside Attractions to strong reviews.