Remembering Leonard Cohen, and Edmonton's Sisters of Mercy

Edmonton was once a muse for Leonard Cohen. As Canadians learned about the passing of the iconic singer-songwriter, local fans were reflecting on the musician's adventures in Alberta's capital city.

'Before the Edmonton trip, he was a really ordinary person'

A photograph of Leonard Cohen from the 1966 University of Alberta yearbook. ( Kim Solez)

Edmonton was once a muse for Leonard Cohen.

As Canadians learned about the passing of the iconic singer-songwriter, local fans were reflecting on the musician's long-ago adventures in Alberta's capital city.

Cohen stayed in Edmonton for a few months in 1966, invited as a guest of the University of Alberta, a brief chapter in his life that left an indelible mark on his career.

"So many important things happened," said Kim Solez, president of the Cohennights Arts Society and lead organizer of the Leonard Cohen International Festival.

"Before the Edmonton trip, he was a really ordinary person. He was not anybody that anyone would recognize on the street."

'Forgetting is so useful'

During his time in Edmonton, Cohen met five women who inspired a series of poems and songs, Solez said.

Among them was Sisters of Mercy, a ballad penned for two U of A undergrads who gave Cohen shelter during his western Canada experience.

Oh, the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone

They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can't go on

And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song

Oh, I hope you run into them, you who've been travelling so long

"I have spoken with the other three women, and they are convinced that everything that occurred between them and Leonard was emblazoned in his mind forever, but actually that's not the case," said Solez, a dedicated fan who over the years spent hours talking with the artist about his time in Edmonton.

"He told me, 'Kim, forgetting is so useful … If I could remember everything, my life would be a complete mess.'

"But [the sisters of mercy] were a significant, indelible thing in his mind."

The song was penned after a rowdy night at the Hotel Macdonald. Cohen's room had been flooded with guests, he'd been kicked out, and had nowhere to stay.

The women took him back to their dingy basement apartment and spent many nights with him at the Alberta Hotel, which was on Jasper Avenue where Canada Place now stands.

"The night that the song was written, Leonard got basically evicted from the Mac, because of so much commotion from so many people coming to see him, and all the noise.

"And so he and these two young ladies went down the street to the Alberta Hotel, so that's where the song was actually written."

'They don't want their identities known'

Edmonton is where Leonard got his first real taste of fame, Solez said. His concerts at the university were packed, and Solez said fans became obsessed with tracking down the gloomy, mysterious singer.

"[Before he came to Edmonton] he didn't have a large fan following. So the experience of being a real celebrity, having fans and groupies, started in Edmonton.

"And even when he came here, he was still planning on making a career as a poet. But when he was here, he decided that it wouldn't work."

So Cohen wrote to his lover, Marianne — a beautiful woman who inspired the songs Bird on the Wire, Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye, and, most of all, So Long, Marianne — and told her about his plans to become a singer-songwriter.

The career that followed spanned six decades. As for the sisters of mercy, they still live in Edmonton. Solez said he knows them, and treasures a rare memento of their time with Cohen so many years ago.

"Cohen was very into candles, so he and the ladies at the Mac earlier that day had situated candles around the room and sought out a local photographer to take their picture," said Solez.

"And I have those pictures, but I can't share those with you."

Solez has kept the pictures hidden from public view for years, so the sisters of mercy can remain nameless.

"I'm just protecting these ladies. They don't look exactly like they did in 1966, but it would be possible to identify them.

"They don't want their identities known."