Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
George Johnston & Leonard Cohen
On a wet March afternoon in 1960 an unknown 25-year-old Canadian poet was wandering the streets of London. Since his arrival three months earlier he’d bought himself a blue Burberry raincoat, an Olivetti typewriter and completed an autobiographical novel. Now it was time to find somewhere warm to relax, drink and meet women. Somewhere cheap. Noticing a Bank of Greece sign, he stepped inside and saw a teller with a deep tan and sunglasses. Within a few days Leonard Cohen was boarding a steamer in Piraeus for the five-hour trip to Hydra.
What he found was a cluster of whitewashed houses arrayed around a small horseshoe-shaped harbour. Many of the houses were uninhabited and there were no cars or trucks, few telephones, limited electricity and, despite the name, little fresh water. At the end of the cobbled waterfront stood the Katsikas brothers’ grocery store. In its backroom bar, amid tins of olive oil and sacks of flour, he met an Australian expatriate named George Johnston.
It was five years since Johnston and his writer wife Charmian Clift had settled on Hydra, trading the security of a newspaper career for the vagaries of a literary life. Things were not going well. At 48, Johnston’s glory days as a war correspondent and foreign editor were behind him and My Brother Jack was in difficult gestation. He was ill, impoverished, impotent and battling to eke a living from his work. But as presiding spirit of the island’s shifting cast of foreign artists and writers, he was nothing if not hospitable.
George and Charmian put young Len up in their spare room and George arranged for him to perform some of his songs for the cosmopolitan assortment of authors, painters and musicians who frequented the Katsikas grocery, a group that included Marianne Jensen, wife of a Norwegian novelist. To Cohen, raised in an affluent Jewish family in suburban Montreal, his Australian hosts had a larger-than-life, mythical quality. “They drank more than other people, they wrote more, they got sick more, they got well more, they cursed more and they blessed more, and they helped a great deal more. They were an inspiration.”
When Cohen decided to stay on Hydra and set up house for himself, they contributed a bed and a work table. And in a way, perhaps, they had also introduced him to his muse. That’s her, Marianne, sitting at the table with the typewriter on the back cover of his 1969 album Songs from a Room. By then Cohen was the high priest of pathos, the bird on the wire, the dirge-master general. Charmian had taken her own life. And tuberculosis, cigarettes and booze would soon do the deed for George.