2019 Update: Jarkko Arjatsalo’s recent announcement that he will “retire from the organizing tasks of the Hydra Meet-Ups” offers an auspicious opportunity to republish the Q&A with the webmaster of LeonardCohenFiles & LeonardCohenForum that was originally posted June 18, 2010 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric. It should be noted that Jarkko points out that he is “not going to disappear anywhere; the websites will continue as always and are to be used for announcements.”
Meet Jarkko Arjatsalo – Webmaster of LeonardCohenFiles & LeonardCohenForum and De Facto Chief Curator, Head Archivist, Documentary Photographer, Fan Club President, Social Chairman, High Priest, Ringmaster, and Grand Vizier of the Cohenite Empire
Introduction: The Leonard Cohen Files
For those readers unfamiliar with LeonardCohenFiles and its creator, Jarkko Arjatsalo, I’ve included the following introduction.
In 1995, Jarkko Arjatsalo, an accountant from Finland, began leonardcohenfiles.com, a web site devoted to (duh) Leonard Cohen.1 In 1997, Leonard Cohen, then residing at a Zen monastery, contacted Jarkko about his unauthorized site – to offer to contribute unpublished poems, notebooks used to compose his songs, a passport from his student days, personal anecdotes, that kind of stuff. That affiliation has persisted and appears stronger than ever. Leonard Cohen, for example, chose to officially announce his 2008 tour first at leonardcohenfiles.
While leonardcohenfiles is most often described as an “encyclopedia” of Cohen information, a more apt analogy would be to the Smithsonian Institute with a plethora of displays of widely varying but consistently fascinating content. Leonardcohenfiles now offers more than 800 indexed pages of material about Cohen and its 2.000.000th visitor landed on the site over a year ago .
Less heralded but of growing importance are Jarkko’s additional roles, such as propagating other Cohen-dedicated web sites, whether as primary originator (e.g., leonardcohenforum.com) or as a facilitator for other members of the Leonard Cohen Web Ring. He has also been a prime mover in organizing meetings, conferences, and events celebrating Cohen’s work and serves as a communications network for Cohen fans.
The Jarkko Arjatsalo Q&A
This Q&A is the product of a simple process: I emailed the questions you see below to Jarkko, who returned the answers you also see below. Editing has been limited to the correction of an obvious typo and formatting for reading convenience. My questions are displayed in black; Jarkko’s responses are displayed in red.
1. Most fans know the story about the origins of LeonardCohenFiles – that you opened the site as a hobby in 1995, that it grew rapidly, and that in 1997 Leonard Cohen himself, then living at the Mount Baldy Zen Center, contacted you, offering to contribute unpublished material to the website. I’m especially interested in (and, yes, incredibly envious of) that initial encounter between you and Leonard Cohen. Could you describe what happened in this first exchange – for example, was it a phone call, email, or letter, what did he say/what did you say, did you think it was a hoax, were you calm, cool, & collected or a bit nervous, … ?
Leonard’s first short email came out of the blue, asking me to phone him at Mt Baldy. Unfortunately, I was out of the office, and a bit later, I found he had sent another one, with more details about a technical issue. He also suggested that he could provide some items from his notebooks for the Files, in case I’d be interested. Needless to try describing how interested and surprised I was! Everything in his email was so convincing that I didn’t have any reason for disbelief.
Some of Leonard’s lines from our first contacts are still located in The Files: “I want to send, among other things, the first manuscript scratchings for Suzanne and other early songs. I’d like to make the process clear, or at least throw some light on the mysterious activity of writing.”
The next day, Leonard’s manager sent me a super long telefax (the machines of that time still used rolls) with drawings and early manuscripts of poems and song lyrics. A few days later, color copies of the same items materialized in Finland by courier. I started uploading those tidbits to the “Blackening Pages” section of The Files, one by one. Many of these drawings and poems were later published in Leonard’s “Book Of Longing.”
After that first contact, we started emailing each other on a regular basis. It became clear that Leonard had closely followed the growth of network communication, and found the Internet a useful tool for staying in touch with his fans. In December 1997, Leonard said in an interview: “Now I put up new poems or drawings – in fact I use the Internet as a tool for publication.” (“Planete Internet,” France)
The Zen Center at Mt. Baldy had a slow, dial-up modem for Internet connection, through the only telephone line they had in use; and Leonard was one of those who very early on understood the prospects for this new channel of communication. Today, we take the Internet and its services for granted, but in the mid-90’s all of us were barely on the threshold of the new international era we inhabit today.
2. In addition to being webmaster of LeonardCohenFiles and LeonardCohenForum, you have also become the primary liaison between Leonard Cohen (i.e., Leonard Cohen himself and Leonard Cohen’s organization) and the fans.
I used the term “liaison,” but that may not be quite accurate. Cohen once described you as the “the secretary general of the party.” And, I’ve heard that some guy with a less reverent Cohen website envisions you as the Pope of the Cohen Church and the LeonardCohenForum moderators as the College of Cardinals. How would you define this role? How did this position evolve? Was there a coronation ceremony?
First of all, I never had any plans to make any of this as big as it happens to be today. In fact, I didn’t have any far-reaching plans at all! I just wanted to make something with my son Rauli (a computer-oriented teenager at that time), to find out how the Internet operates, and to learn how a website is constructed and programmed. My love of Leonard’s music was crucial in the choice of theme for the new website. I collected the material from my archive and the Leonard Cohen fanzines, and Rauli made the html code. In September 1995, we were ready to open the site.
To my huge surprise, I began getting emails from all over the world. People were excited to find out that there are others who have found Leonard’s songs and poetry important in their lives. Many of them had believed that they were the only serious fans of this mysterious artist. At that time, we didn’t have either a chatroom or the Forum, but we did have an active Usenet group news:alt.music.leonard-cohen that was very helpful in keeping discussions going.
Many fans also began contributing to The Files with material from their own archives, and to share local Cohen- related news with us. Without these contributions, The Files would not be as comprehensive as they are today. Numerous times, we have been the first to inform Leonard and his management about interesting news received from members somewhere in the world.
Through the years, the community around the Leonard Cohen websites has been steadily growing. After years of online communication, the need for face-to-face meetings was inevitable. We have also had organized Leonard Cohen Events every two years since 1998 (Lincoln UK, Montreal, Hydra, New York, Berlin, Edmonton, and this year in Krakow, Poland); and a number of other meet-ups (many of them on the island of Hydra), where Leonard once lived for about 10 years.
Leonard’s World Tour has raised all activity to a new level, with our own ticket pre-sales and meet-ups for members before and after the concerts. This has only been possible thanks to the generosity of Leonard and his management.
To get things running, every organization, formal or informal, needs someone to pull the strings; and maybe I am one of those crazy guys who find it difficult to say “no.” However, there are many other key people; active members, who have been responsible for the necessary local and cyber-space arrangements. The webmasters of the Cohen sites are cooperating and participating very actively, and I think the existence of several comprehensive and ambitious websites gives all of us motivation to make our own sites better.
My wife, Eija, and I have made very good friends with many active members, moderators, and webmasters in this worldwide community and, aside from my relationship with Leonard, this has been one of the most enjoyable benefits of the whole enterprise. There are many of those friends with whom we meet face-to-face several times every year.
3. Yours is not a problem-free job. In addition to the hours of work involved, being the intermediary between Leonard Cohen and his fans has resulted, more than once, in your being implicitly accused, by some, of defending decisions or practices of those organizing the World Tour (e.g., management of pre-sales and release of information about changes in the concert schedule) over which you have no control. Marie of Speaking Cohen revealed she handled her website-based frustrations with “boxes of voodoo dolls.” How do you maintain your equilibrium in such situations?
First, I have to remind myself that my activity in this Internet community is not my job; my professional tasks are elsewhere (I’m a certified public auditor) and the websites are supposed to be “just” a hobby, but it’s a very dear one.
The World Tour has launched new kinds of projects, especially some that are related to concert, ticket sales. Leonard, his management, and the London and Los Angeles offices of the tour operator, AEG Live, have been wonderful in giving us so many special privileges: pre-sales with very generous allocations for the front rows, meet-and-greet happenings, and advance information – the whole tour was actually first announced by us, at Leonard’s special request.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that this kind of tour is a huge organizational and financial effort, and our Internet community is just a piece of the puzzle. The timing of concert announcements is based on the needs of local promoters, and this means that we sometimes cannot make the concert dates public before the local media does it. I have tried to give as many hints as we possibly can; but if we want to have privileges, it’s essential that we accept and abide by the rules.
It has been great to follow the tour arrangements. One could not imagine or even hardly believe how many people and organizations around the world participate in building the final tour itinerary. Some changes in the plans are unavoidable. I am surprised that there have been so few – risks are always involved when you take 70 band and crew members around the world on a very tight schedule.
I have also learned a lot about the music business. In some countries – especially in the USA and UK — there is a constant war between the official ticket sellers and the scalpers/touts. Some ticket sellers also seem to have strange computer systems; the tickets seem to be offered in random order, and the buyers never know if they got the “best seat still available.” Unfortunately, it is clear that there is nothing we can do to change it. Therefore, we have to be happy that for most concerts we have had such great pre-sale allocations – including the front rows or even the first row!
4. You have often been entrusted with information about Leonard Cohen in advance of its being made public. What information was the most difficult for you to keep secret? Did you ever accidentally divulge information before it was to be made public?
In years past, we discussed many times how wonderful it would have been to follow a Leonard Cohen tour online in real time. We were pretty sure it was never going to happen. In late 2007, Leonard told me about the planned tour (and had hinted something of the kind earlier), and that was a total knockout. I managed to keep it secret until he gave me permission to let members know about a forthcoming announcement. We have had record-high participation on the Forum at the moments of these announcements; for instance, we had 1,144 members simultaneously signed-in on February 25, 2009, when the North American tour was announced.
Only a few times have I had to walk a tightrope with information that would be essential, but still could not be made public, yet. I haven’t knowingly revealed any big secrets. If something’s confidential, there is a good reason for it.
Sometimes, however, after noticing that many members love this kind of little game (and I love the harmless, teasing element of it), I have posted obscure hints that something is going to happen. I guess many Forum members have also learned that “wait patiently” means more than those two words might suggest.
5. Most articles liken LeonardCohenFiles to an encyclopedia, but I’ve always thought of it as more like the Smithsonian, consisting of a huge number of exhibits, a large proportion of which are unexpected treasures.
How would you describe the organization of The LeonardCohenFiles? What distinguishes it from, say, Speaking Cohen or A Thousand Kisses Deep?
All of these main sites (and I’d like to add two excellent sites: Patrice’s French Cohen site, and this “1heckofaguy”, hosted by Allan Showalter!) have been built with love by individuals who have had full freedom to create them according to their own will and taste. All of the Cohen sites are different and concentrate on a specific area. We try not to copy each other’s contents. Marie’s wonderful site is a treasure trove of archival material from all the media sources; so, when she opened her site, I stopped posting newspaper articles. Likewise, we have a functioning division of labor concerning the tour information. The webmasters of all three of the websites you mentioned are also active moderators on the Forum.
Which sections of The LeonardCohenFiles are you proudest of? If you were giving a Best of LeonardCohenFiles Tour, which parts would you point out as must-see pages?
Without any doubt, at all, number one is the Blackening Pages – everything there has been sent to me by Leonard himself (in most cases, long before the material was published anywhere else). The section of tribute albums and cover versions is also something that is available only at The Files, and we have pretty comprehensive galleries of various topics, like editions of Leonard’s books in all languages, picture sleeve singles, magazine covers, and so on. Collectors have found these very useful. We also have pretty extensive reports from our LC Events, and I’m very sure those pictures and stories tempt more members into joining us at our gatherings.
6. Is there anything about LeonardCohenFiles that you would have done differently, knowing what you know now?
The basic structure of my Files remains about the same as it was in the beginning. It turned out to be pretty efficient. On the other hand, the site today is so large (with more than 1,000 pages) that it’s almost impossible to find the time for re-organizing it. The search function and links help people to find information, music, photos, or other stuff they’re looking for, or just to navigate from one page to another.
I guess the organization of the site would be quite similar if a time machine took me back to 1995! And, with my present knowledge: yes, I would definitely launch the site again!
7. Do you have any big changes or additions planned for LeonardCohenFiles or LeonardCohenForum?
All the recent activity on the Forum and with the World Tours has used most of the energy and resources I’m able to allocate to this hobby, but I have also tried to keep The Files updated with new items (and thanks to Leonard’s growing popularity a lot is happening around the world!). I have a lot of good stuff waiting for inclusion, and I’m trying to find the time to have it processed.
My long-term plan is to find time to modernize the Files. The design has not been changed in 10 years, and there are so many great features now available for website builders. On the other hand, I have intentionally kept the basic design quite simple. And you will never see flashing commercial banners on my websites. I have been offered good money for ads, but have always said no.
8. The LeonardCohenFiles page I personally use most must be “A Thousand Covers Deep,” the ever-growing list of Cohen covers (1846 as of this writing) that has settled at least a dozen arguments for me. Maintaining a list of Cohen covers is one of those ideas that seems obviously useful once one knows it exists, but how did it start and how do you manage to find new entries in such a timely fashion?
From the very beginning, I wanted to know how many cover versions there are, and started with a list that Jim Devlin had collected for his Leonard Cohen Newsletter. I recall there were some 100 titles. We estimated that there must be 200-300 cover songs, and this was also Leonard’s own impression. How little we knew! The list has been steadily growing, thanks to many active contributors. I want to mention Anne Riise in Norway, Ken Kurzweil in New York, and Dominique Boile in France, as long-time contributors to this section. I also get information about new covers from many other members, Google News; and, nowadays, often from the artists themselves.
By the way, “Hallelujah” recently passed “Suzanne,” which for 40 years was Leonard’s most covered song. It looks like every serious artist finds it important to release a new interpretation of the song (and there is not a single one who would do it better than Leonard!).
9. You have had contact with multitudes of Leonard Cohen fans around the world.
What kind of differences, if any, do you see among fans from different parts of the world (e.g., are Scandinavian fans different from American fans; are Eastern European fans different from British fans)?
It has been a surprise to me that the differences are not as prominent as one might expect. I’d say that the differences are more with the individuals than their nationalities. Maybe, Leonard’s songs speak especially to certain types of people, wherever they live. We have members from all generations, in all professions, and from almost every country with Internet access. I am often asked in which country Leonard is most popular, and to that I’d say Norway and Poland. Norway is fairly easy to explain – the Norwegians still remember Marianne, and Leonard was almost their “own son” (I hope Marianne’s excellent book about her life on Hydra will soon be translated into English!). There may be more than one explanation for Poland: politics (especially the concert in 1985 in the midst of the Solidarity movement); and Maciej Zembaty’s productivity, in performing and releasing Polish versions of all of Leonard’s songs. Canadians are finally paying very well-deserved attention to Leonard, while the US is slowly waking up. Ireland has also surprised us during the tour with its huge demand for concert tickets.
10. What are the most common questions fans ask you about Leonard Cohen?
Before we had the Forum, I received a lot of emails daily, from people asking various questions. Nowadays, people usually post on the Forum, and get their answers from other members. Fans often ask for Leonard’s address and other, more or less, private details. I am very careful in these matters and don’t comment on anything like that. I want to concentrate on Leonard’s public side and have utmost respect for his private life. That’s why there are no gossips at The Files. Sometimes, people find it difficult to understand this.
The address to Leonard’s office is available on the site, although I used to warn people that they cannot expect to get feedback on their requests. Leonard simply has no time to answer the letters. Numerous artists and authors are also sending him their CDs, novels, and poetry, asking for critiques. If he listened/read all the items that people send, he literally could do nothing else.
Throughout the tour, I have been swamped by requests to arrange a private meeting with Leonard, before the concert or backstage, or to have him dedicate a song or a greeting to someone in the audience. All those requests simply have to be turned down. We need to remember that there are approximately 10,000 people at every concert, and it is simply impossible to arrange any individual favors or services. The tour itinerary is very hectic, and Leonard and his crew need to use all of their free moments for rest. That’s why he is not giving any interviews and does not meet people backstage. His well-being must take priority. Leonard is lucky to have a very efficient manager, Robert Kory, who keeps things under control. Robert has also been the key person when we have made various, special arrangements for the fan community!
11. What are the most dramatic things fans have done to demonstrate their admiration of Leonard Cohen?
One memorable moment was perhaps not dramatic, but an inside joke; something we experienced at the very last concert of the World Tour 2008-2009, in San José, California. The Forum ladies had devised a hilarious plan. While Leonard was performing “Closing Time,” he took a few dance steps as he sang the verse “the women tear their blouses off, and the men they dance on the polka-dots,” and suddenly the stage was showered with polka-dot blouses of all colors, sizes, styles, and materials. It took Leonard totally by surprise; he took a step backwards and lost a few lines of the song before he realized what was happening; and after that realization, he got pretty amused.
On Leonard’s 75th birthday in Barcelona, our Spanish team gave everyone green candles that we lit while Leonard was singing “Suzanne.” I was not in Israel last year, but it happened there, too. It must have been wonderful to see the whole stadium with 50,000 green light sticks!
12. Occasionally, I read a post you’ve written about a Cohen song or cover or anecdote that obviously interests you and remember you are not just an administrator and spokesman, but first and foremost a Leonard Cohen fan. As a fan, which of the many concerts you’ve attended has been most memorable?
Of course, my very first concert in 1988 in Helsinki. I had been a fan long before that, but seeing him with his wonderful band, Live on stage, was something that was just so special. Another magnificent experience was Manchester in June 2008, my first concert of this World Tour. I don’t think many of us survived his reciting of “A Thousand Kisses Deep” without tears.
13. Which Leonard Cohen song is your favorite – today?
We have to underline the word “today.” Indeed, it keeps on changing. There are so many great songs to choose from. My all-time favorites are “Suzanne” and “Famous Blue Raincoat,” followed by so many songs that it’s better not to start listing…
14. What is your most treasured or most lusted-after Leonard Cohen memorabilia? What is the most moving Cohen-associated moment you’ve experienced?
I have quite a large collection of memorabilia (I have been a collector since the mid-80s). One that I value very much is the special large edition of “Stranger Music.” It’s in a black box and also contains a small art portfolio inside. Leonard signed it for me when I met him privately for the first time. That was in June 1999, in Los Angeles, soon after he had decided to move on and had left Mount Baldy. He invited my whole family to visit him, and I remember well that I was pretty nervous, when I knocked on his door; thinking how my Internet hobby had taken me pretty far from home!
15. What is the funniest Cohen-related story you know?
Allow me to answer this on a general level. My wife and I enjoy very much the get-togethers with our Cohenite friends. Whenever – and wherever – we meet, the days and nights are full of laughter and good jokes. The mix of different nationalities, generations, languages, and backgrounds of the participants, offer endless chances to have fun in a most positive way. To put it briefly, this hobby may take a lot of time and resources, but it gives a whole lot in return!
Credit Due Department: The photo atop this post was taken by Eija Arjatsalo (London, November 2008) and used with permission of the photographer and the subjects, Jarkko Arjatsalo and Leonard Cohen . The photo of Leonard Cohen and Jarkko Arjatsalo in Los Angeles is from – of course – leonardcohenfiles.com. Cohencentric joins Jarkko in extending a special thank-you to Elizabeth Bacon-Smith for proof-reading his answers in preparation for their submission to this post.
- OK, I suppose one could make the case that leonardcohenfiles.com could have been a site about a guy named “Leonard Cohenfiles,” but that would be wrong. I should also point out that leonardcohenfiles.com is one of those sites devoted to Cohen that – unlike Cohencentric – unimaginatively limit themselves to facts. [↩]