When gifted singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen died in 2016, he took with him to the grave a myriad of mysteries surrounding his works, including one with a distinct Edmonton connection.
“Sisters of Mercy,” a song he wrote while in the city back in 1966, apparently originated when Cohen’s partying was too much for the staff at the Hotel Macdonald, who kicked him out one night. Two female partiers took him to their basement and eventually the Alberta Hotel, where they apparently engaged in a number of acts together that are still a matter of speculation. Cohen was so inspired by the series of hookups with the women, he wrote “Sisters of Mercy” in that hotel.
There’s only one problem. There were no Sisters of Mercy. The whole song is based on a fabrication of a mind strung out on alcohol and drugs, according to two retired police officers who were beat cops downtown during that time.
“I remember that night we got a call from a frantic night manager at the Alberta Hotel and we went there to check it out,” recalls Floyd Rosencrantz.
“There were no women, just a guy who looked like some messed-up beatnik, rolling around in his bed and vomiting,” adds Earl Guildenstern.
Both officers immediately took to reviving him with Rosencrantz providing mouth-to-mouth respiration and Guildenstern straddling Cohen’s chest and punching his rib cage to get his heart pumping. It took roughly five minutes to bring Cohen back to consciousness.
“Ordinarily, we would have taken him into the alley and beaten the crap out of him, which was standard procedure for Edmonton cops at the time,” says Rosencrantz.
“We couldn’t do that, though,” interjects Guildenstern. “There was something in his eyes that said to us that he was precious, almost like he was a human cultural treasure or something.”
“I think it was the gracious way he thanked us,” continues Rosencrantz.
“Yeah, he muttered something that I never forgot because it was so poetic,” says Guildenstern. “He said in some monotone voice, ‘They were waiting for me when I thought I just can’t go on, they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.’ Then he rolled over and went to sleep. I really thought that was how he was expressing his gratitude.”
Neither officers had no way of knowing those utterances would make their way into the first verse of “Sisters of Mercy,” which wound up being a blockbuster hit for Cohen. But both are convinced that their lifesaving measures were mistaken by Cohen as explicit acts of sexuality that sparked his creative juices.
Neither officer feels they bear any responsibility for changing the trajectory of pop culture with the busting of the urban myth surrounding “Sisters of Mercy,” which will have music historians worldwide in a tizzy.
“I don’t really care,” says Rosencrantz. “I’d never heard his stuff.”
“Me neither,” adds Guildenstern. “Besides, I’m a Sinatra fan.”