John Rowlands — a Canadian rock photographer best known for his iconic shots of Bowie, Elvis, The Stones and The Beatles — is among the many mourning the loss of Leonard Cohen, a man he considered an inspiration and a friend. His encounters with Cohen crossed the continent and the decades.
He first captured Leonard Cohen back in 1974 at his West Montreal home on Rue Dominique. CBS Records New York sent the then 27-year old Rowlands to shoot promo photos for Cohen’s upcoming European tour. “I had already shot many of the great folk singers including Dylan, Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell, and I was really happy for the opportunity to shoot Cohen, whose music and poetry had touched me with its honesty, clarity and insight,” said Rowlands from Toronto.
Arriving at the door to Cohen’s house, he was dismissed by the babysitter who announced that there would be no pictures taken that day, as Cohen had just returned from the dentist, where four wisdom teeth were pulled.
“I told her that I would be at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, and that I would wait as long as needed to get the shots,” explains Rowlands. “Two hours later, Leonard called and asked me to please come back and do the pictures that day.” Returning to the house, Rowlands proceeded to take 400 photographs of Cohen around his humble home. “Following the session, Leonard asked if I liked corn on the cob. We headed out to his backyard garden, where I photographed him picking his own corn, and then we headed into the kitchen, where we dined on corn on the cob and milk. Not a bad dinner for a guy that had just had four wisdom teeth removed.”
By 1998, Rowlands was based in Palm Springs, after decades of touring with top rock, pop and country stars. He was dining in a Claremont, California Greek restaurant, when the owner told him that Leonard Cohen (who had done construction work at the owner’s home as a fundraising work team the Mount Baldy Zen Centre, where he lived for several years). Rowlands was delighted that Cohen recognized him and asked him to join him for a drink. “He shared his reasons for leaving the industry and committing to Buddhism. He gave no indication he would return to touring and recording.”
Fast forward 21 years to Cohen’s return to live performance and touring in 2009, when Rowlands was able to shoot Cohen again at Coachella in Indio, California. “I told fifty of my American friends not to miss this show, and not one of them knew who he was. But after the show, everyone of them thanked me effusively for introducing them to Cohen’s music. He still had it. His most recent album and his gracious press appearances showed he never lost the passion.”
“Working with Cohen was one of the highlights in my career. I’m really enjoying sharing his early work and his latest album, YOU WANT IT DARKER, with a young singer/songwriter in my family and had hoped to someday introduce the two. It’s a huge regret that I will never have another opportunity to capture his unique magic with my camera. Music has lost another great heart and talent.”
Last Christmas, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a long time fan of Leonard Cohen, received a print from the 1974 photo session, compliments of his wife’s uncle, Andre Blais, who purchased the print from Fabgear64, an Ottawa memorabilia shop. The PM was so delighted to receive the print that he sent a thank-you note and photo of himself holding the framed print, in front of the family Christmas tree in the Harrington Lake home.
Rowlands recently relocated to Toronto Ontario, where he stills works as a celebrity photographer, writes and tours extensively to speak about his colourful 56-year history of Rock and Roll memories.