Ian Cook’s best photograph: Leonard Cohen goes to the doctor

He said he had to see a throat specialist then added: “Do you want to come along?” Later, we drove to a party with me sitting on his lap in a limo’

First we take our nebuliser … Leonard Cohen in Clinic. Photograph: Ian Cook

29 September 2021 | Ian Cook | My Best Shot: The Guardian

In 1979 Leonard Cohen was in London for a few days on a European tour and I had been assigned to photograph him by the US magazine People. I arrived at the Dorchester Hotel and was shown up to his room.

He announced that he had picked up some sort of larynx infection on the plane and that he might not be able to perform. He said that he had an imminent appointment with a Harley Street specialist. My heart sank and I thought: “There goes the assignment.” Then he said brightly, “Do you want to come along with me?”

We hopped in a taxi and I followed him into the surgery. The doctor examined him, sat him in a chair and gave him a nebuliser. With his dark glasses on, a scarf wrapped around his neck and a large silver-coloured mask covering his nose and mouth, he looked quite bizarre but it made an unusual photograph, not like any others I’d seen of him. Forty minutes later, much to his relief – and mine – he said he felt much better.

I spent the next couple of days accompanying Cohen around London to various appointments. This included an interview with Radio London, where he talked without any problem, and a visit to Hampstead, where he once had digs, to have tea with his former landlady.

He told me she had been very kind to him when he lived there in 1960, on a writing grant from the Canada Council, and they had stayed in touch. She had baked him a cake, and after tea she washed up and Leonard dried. He was there for an hour or so chatting with her and subsequently got back late to the hotel. Then he went up to his room for a quick rest before his concert at the Hammersmith Odeon.

Downstairs, his staff were getting anxious that he wasn’t going to make it on time and rang his room several times to say he was late. When he did come down they tried to rush him out to a waiting car but in the foyer was a young lad clutching half a dozen of his albums that he wanted Cohen to sign.

First we take our nebuliser … Leonard Cohen in Clinic. Photograph: Ian Cook
First we take our nebuliser … Leonard Cohen in Clinic. Photograph: Ian Cook

The entourage insisted there was no time for that but Leonard took the records, sat on the floor by the revolving door, spread them out around him and signed each one. The fan was so grateful. Cohen did indeed arrive 30 minutes late for the concert. He apologised to the audience and they didn’t seem to mind in the least.

After the concert there was a party in Chelsea. I was standing on the pavement looking for a taxi when a limo with dark windows drew up, the back window wound down and Cohen said, “Hi Ian, are you coming to the party?” When I said yes, he opened the door and told me to jump in. Seeing it was jam-packed I said, “I don’t think there’s any room”, but he replied, “Oh, just sit on my lap”, which is how I arrived at the party.

I’ve photographed thousands of personalities in my career but I never met anyone so laid-back or generous with their time as Leonard Cohen. Before the assignment I liked various songs, such as Bird on the Wire, and Suzanne, but I didn’t own any of his records. When I told a neighbour I was going to photograph him he commented, “Oh, you mean old droopy drawers?” Today I still love all his records, and when I’m asked which celebrity I enjoyed meeting most I only have one answer – Leonard Cohen.

I knew when I took the picture that it was an original shot, but it was just the beginning of the assignment. I didn’t actually see it printed until it was published in People magazine – I used to airfreight the undeveloped film to their offices in New York. At that time the magazine only used black and white photographs, which is my favourite medium.

Despite storing all my negatives and prints in my spare bedroom I had never got around to sorting them out. Covid-19 cajoled me into scanning and filing them away in order. I always knew I had this picture in my files – it was just a question of finding it. I have no idea if Leonard liked it, but I hope he did. We never met again.


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