Leonard's House

On September 27, 1960, six days after his twenty-sixth birthday, Cohen bought a house in Hydra for $1500, using a bequest from his recently deceased grandmother. This was a "big deal" in the words of one of his friends, a commitment to place and a world that was mysterious and unusual. Buying the house was a complicated act, needing the assistance of his friend Demetri Gassoumis as translator, adviser, and witness to the deed. Cohen later said that it was the smartest decision he ever made. The tree-story, ancient whitewashed building, with its five rooms on several levels, was run down and had no electricity, plumbing or running water. Yet it was a private space where he could work, either on the large riled terrace or in his music room on the third floor.

Cohen described his home to his mother:

It has a huge terrace with a view of dramatic mountain and shining white houses. The rooms are large and cool with deep windows set in thick walls. I suppose it's about 200 years old and many generations of sea-.men must have lived here. I will do a little work on it every year and in a few years it will be a mansion... I live on a hill and life has been going on here exactly the same for hundreds of years. All through the day you hear the calls of the street vendors and they are really rather musical... I get up around 7 generally and work till about noon. Early morning is coolest and therefore best, but I love the heat anyhow, especially when the Aegean Sea is 10 minutes from my door.
He knew he had been accepted by the community when he began receiving regular visits from the garbage man and his donkey. It is like receiving the Legion of Honour. Cohen's house gave him a foundation. To a friend he explained that Having this house makes cities less frightening. I can always come back and get by. But I don't want to lose contact with the metropolitan experience. Buying the house also gave him confidence: The years are flying past and we all waste so much time wondering if we dare to do this or that. The thing is to leap, to try, to take a chance. (2)

It was a place of solitude, of plodding donkeys (even today no cars are allowed on the island; nor would they get very far if they were), cold water and kerosene lamps. In such primitive surroundings, amid the stunning beauties of the island and the glories of the Aegean, where fishermen still wrested a living from the sea and ferries scrabbled one from the land, Leonard found his peace, his sitting-down time, as he called it, where he could -as all pots must - recollect in tranquillity. Here he could live in virtually complete seclusion, at a fraction of the cost it would take in Northern Europe or Canada, where the people were unconcerned as to who you were or what you diod; And where breathtaking vistas opened up for the seeing - both external and internal.

Here Leonard discovered the Greek way of life - its alternating rhythms of work and leisure, both on the seasonal and daily basis, which are so conductive to creative thought and achievement. Here he was able to stand back from the onrush of western man and ask himself the real questions of life and meaning, get his young life, full and successful as it had been, into perspective. Here he began to crystallize the wisdom of some of his best poetry, writing and songs, (or it was here that he was reborn, where he truly began to find himself, where not least, the music of Greece entered his soul, evoking earlier memories and melodies, combining with them to suggest a new style, a new mystique.

And it was here, that he met Marianne, a young woman of great beauty, high intelligence, deep sympathy and fun. The gods had drawn them together, and together for 10 years or so they would make music, exploring the world and themselves, unharried by outside pressures, responding only to the more meaningful pressures of life and love.(1)

Back to the Sixties

Days of Kindness

Greece is a good place
To look at the moon, isnīt it
You can read by moonlight
You can read on the terrace
You can see a face
As you saw it when you were young
There was good light then
Oil lamps and candles
And those little flames
That floated on a cork in olive oil
What I loved in my old life
I havenīt forgotten
It lives in my spine
Marianne and the child
The days of kindness
It rises in my spine
And it manifests as tears
I pray that a loving memory
Exists for them too
The precious ones I overthrew
For an education in the world

Hydra, 1985

Bird on THE Wire

Bird on the Wire began in Greece, when Cohen first arrived in Hydra, there were no wires on the island, no telephones and no regular electricity. But soon telephone poles appeared, and then the wires. I would stare out the window at these telephone wires and think, how civilization had caught up with me and I wasn't going to be able to escape after all. I wasn't going to be able to live this eleventh-century life that I had thought I had found for myself. So that was the beginning. Then he noticed that the birds came to the wires. The next line referred to the many evenings Cohen and friends climbed the endless stairs up from the port of Hydra, drunk and singing. Often you see: three guys with the arms around each other , stumbling up the stairs and singing these impeccable thirds. He finished the song in a Hollywood motel on Sunset Boulevard in 1969.(2)

Like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
Like a worm on a hook,
like a knight from some old fashioned book
I have saved all my ribbons for thee.
If I, if I have been unkind,
I hope that you can just let it go by.
If I, if I have been untrue
I hope you know it was never to you.

More old Hydra pages on this site:

How to get there?
Photos from the Room (and House)

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Don't miss our new Hydra 2002 Event pages
60 pages packed with photos and information!

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Visit the website dedicated
to Axel Jensen

Text credits:
(1) from the book Prophet of the Heart by Loranne S. Dorman & Clive L. Rawlins.
(2) from the book Various Positions by Ira B. Nadel.
The poem has been reprinted from Stranger Music,
© 1985 and 1993 by Leonard Cohen. Reprinted by permission.
Photo credits:
Photos of Leonard Cohen's house © 1998 by Henry Denander, Sweden. Used by permission.
Black and white photos from Leonard Cohen's archive, reprinted here from the songbook
Songs of Leonard Cohen, except the harbour photo taken from Nadel's book.