Speculations On Leonard Cohen’s Bracelet

Leonard Cohen’s Bracelet

In making my online Leonard Cohen rounds this morning, I came across the above photo and the enlarged portion of it displayed below posted at LeonardCohenForum by bridger15, aka Arlene Dick, along with the following text:

This wonderful photo was included in a Google alert recently and the bracelet caught my eye immediately. Several members of my family, including sonLeonard, wear a Medic Alert bracelet that looks similar. Is this a Medic-Alert bracelet?

It turns out that the idea of identifying the purpose and significance of this bracelet triggered  a quest of the non-heroic but, one hopes, interesting sort.

Caveat: Readers who are exclusively  interested in why Leonard Cohen wore that bracelet can more efficiently reach that goal by directing their efforts to something other than reading this post.  One could, for example, simply ask Leonard Cohen, “Hey, what’s with the bracelet you’re wearing in this photo?” And, it’s possible or even likely that a Cohen family member, an old friend of the Canadian singer-songwriter, one of his musicians, one of the Cohen cognoscenti, or a footnote in one of the many publications about Cohen, could straightforwardly  provide this information.

But what fun would that be?

This post, on the other hand, offers the results of an internet search spawned by Arlene’s query, fueled by my curiosity, and directed by a sense of purpose that never met a tangent it didn’t like and that, I contend, proves no less entertaining and instructive for being inconclusive.

 The Photo Source And The Timeline

After a search for any mention of a bracelet worn by Leonard Cohen before 2000 yielded nothing, I took a closer look at the photo itself.  That photo, I discovered, was one of several taken 20 October 1978 by David Boswell. Some of the others in the series can be viewed at LeonardCohenFiles. While the bracelet can be seen in at least three of these other shots, none of these views reveal words or insignia on  the disk of  the bracelet.

I could not find the bracelet in photo taken before 1978 (of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence). I did find photos, for example, taken in 1976 showing a bare left wrist.

I also found the bracelet in at least two shots taken in 1979.

August 1979

The latest photo in which I found the bracelet was the above shot taken in August 1979.

Leonard Cohen without bracelet in 1979 - Song Of Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen sans bracelet - Edinburgh Odeon 11 Dec 1979

Again, absence of proof is not proof of absence, but it does appear that Cohen wore the bracelet often enough during much of 1978-1979 for it to show up in several photos but did not wear it consistently, if at all, prior to or after that period.

The Medical Alert Bracelet Hypothesis

There are certainly medical alert bracelets, including those for diabetes, that resemble the bracelet worn by Leonard Cohen.

The example on the right can be found for sale at many sites.

According to History of Medical ID Bracelets, the medical alert symbol was introduced by the American Medical Association in 1963, and bracelets of this sort soon followed, albeit not in large numbers. A handful of manufacturers produced such items but it wasn’t until the advent of computer engraving that they became inexpensive and widely available.

Medical alert bracelets have been commonly recommended for those with

  •  Heart conditions
  • Diabetes
  • Food allergies
  • Medication allergies
  • Asthma, Emphysema or COPD
  • Epilepsy
  • Autism
  • Implants

In other words, medical alert bracelets are typically recommended for those with serious conditions unlikely to dissipate after a year or two. In any case, no such disorders are known to have ever afflicted Leonard Cohen, and it seems unlikely that any of these diagnoses, with the possible exception of allergies, would have escaped the notice of biographers and those who wrote about Cohen in the late 1970s.

Of course, wearing a medical alert bracelet could be a precaution Leonard Cohen took seriously for a period but then ignored.  Given his unilateral discontinuation of his prescribed antidepressants,1 it is easy enough to imagine that he wore a bracelet for a year or two after discovering he was allergic to a category of medications but then simply quit wearing it.

Still, the medical alert bracelet theory seems a long shot.

The Jewelry Hypothesis

The bracelet could be a piece of jewelry, a men’s ID bracelet that happens to look like a medical alert bracelet. In my admittedly subjective opinion, however, this would be an unusual – and  singularly unattractive – piece of jewelry.

Most men’s ID bracelets, such as this example from the 1960s, feature a rectangular bar rather than an oval disk.

And, more importantly, that isn’t what I want the bracelet to be – which brings us to …

The Military ID Bracelet Hypothesis

To start  our slide down this slippery slope, let’s begin with a semi-related fact: Leonard Cohen has long been fascinated with war and especially his father’s role in the war.

As I discussed in The Guns Of Leonard Cohen, Leonard Cohen’s father, Nathan Cohen, served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during World War I and consequently possessed what Nadel (Various Positions) called “a military souvenir,” which Leonard Cohen describes in “The Favourite Game” as “a huge .38.”2

Now, what if that  pistol wasn’t the only World War I souvenir Leonard Cohen found among his father’s belongings?

While the Canadian armed forces did not officially issue metal ID bracelets when Nathan Cohen was an officer, many soldiers of the era obtained “private purchase” ID bands.3  Two examples of ID bracelets that had belonged to Canadian soldiers during World War that I found at auction sites are shown below.

So, what’s with that bracelet in the photo atop this post?  I dunno, but I found thinking about it and researching possibilities interesting – and I am attributing that phenomenon to Matthew Arnold’s explanation that “All knowledge is interesting to a wise man.”

Update: See Story Of Leonard Cohen’s Bracelet Revealed – By Leonard Cohen

  1. see Leonard Cohen’s List Of Pharmaceuticals Joke & His Not At All Funny Depression []
  2. The problem is that the only handguns Canadian forces were issued or allowed to purchase during World War I were .45 caliber pistols. (Wikipedia) Of course, “a military souvenir” could include any handgun Nathan Cohen came to own as a result of the war. The .38 pistol in the image is the Smith & Wesson Military & Police Model initially developed in 1899 and subsequently used by the military and police forces in many countries. []
  3. Identifying the Dead: a Short Study of the Identification Tags of 1914-1918 is not only the reference for the footnoted issue at hand but also a surprisingly fascinating discussion of the philosophy, moral principles, and technology of identifying those killed in war. []