The life and music of Leonard Cohen

Canadian author Michael Posner delves into the early years of the musical icon.

'Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years.' (photo credit: ETYE SARNER)
'Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years.'
(photo credit: ETYE SARNER)
 If the purpose of putting out biographical material is to leave the reader with a better idea of the subject, Michael Posner may have missed the mark. Or has he?
The Canadian journalist-author recently published Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years, a weighty tome about the celebrated Montreal-born-and-bred poet and singer-songwriter who passed away in 2016 at the age of 82.
Cohen is a highly documented figure who, particularly in his latter post-litigation years – after his manager pilfered almost all his earnings, which prompted a return to the gig circuit when he was in his mid-70s – became a darling of folk, pop and rock fans of all ages across the world. The Internet is awash with interviews with the troubadour, going back to the mid-1960s when he was on the verge of gaining wide recognition as a songwriter, as well as a performer. That was around the time when stellar compatriot singer Judy Collins recorded Cohen’s “Suzanne,” one of his best-known numbers, which propelled him to the attention of an international audience. At the time, acclaim in his home country notwithstanding, he was basically still an emerging figure on the world poetry scene.
 That and more – much more – is conveyed in Posner’s release, which incorporates learned observations about Cohen and recollections of a gamut of shared experiences, by a cast of hundreds, covering the titular period up to 1970. Two more Posner books on the artist are in the works, and are due out later this year and in 2022, which should round off the insightful and highly personalized coverage of Cohen’s long, rich and colorful life.
SO, CAN one possibly read through the 400+ pages of Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years and still not have a firm handle on what made the man and beloved artist tick? If that is the case, it is certainly not from any lack of effort on Posner’s part. I counted the roster of collaborators listed at the end of the first volume under Dramatis Personae, at past the 300 mark. 
“That’s not the full list,” the biographer notes. “I’m at 530 now.” 
That’s quite a shift. 
“It was a lot of work but I enjoyed it,” Posner says. 
That’s good to hear. One would shudder at the thought of anyone plowing their way through such expansive and multilayered sources of data and relating to all of that as sheer drudgery.
The abundance of information available out there on Cohen does not necessarily mean the artist is an open book just waiting to be devoured, or even merely perused. In his interviews Cohen always comes across as suave and attractive, but generally as a complex character who is divulging but a glimpse of his inner emotional machinations.
That may go some way to explaining the conflicting firsthand evidence that pops up in the Posner book. The numerous close friends, family members and acquaintances of Cohen that the journalist tracked down in the process of his painstaking project offer all kinds of insight on the man they knew as a friend, associate, lover or relative.   
Jos Nuss, a fraternity brother at McGill University in the 1950s, for example, recalls Cohen as “the quintessence of a courteous, considerate person” and praises his command of English. Nuss cites a particular occasion when he felt that skill came to the fore. 
“I remember when he ran for office in our final year, he was saying why he should be president and said ‘I will not wrap myself in a shower curtain of modesty.’ I’ve never forgotten that phrase.” 
That may have made a lasting impression on the young student at the time, but as Posner points out, “The actual line, as reported by the McGill Daily, was ‘I regret that I can’t clothe myself in the political shower curtain of modesty.’” 
Similar intent but the textual inaccuracy raises question marks.
ACTUALLY, PERHAPS that isn’t such a bad thing, and might leave the reader with food for thought. That doesn’t just go for factual discrepancies, but for differences of opinion about Cohen’s character too. While university debating union partner Morris Fish remembers him “being cute, in an amusing way” and never exploiting his gift of the gab to the detriment of others, another McGill debater Robert Landori-Hoffman muses that “when you control the language and when you are erudite, you can be scathingly sharp, and he was.”
That divide sits comfortably with Posner. 
“Look, this is an oral biography,” he states, noting that while driven to take the work on, he did not sense it was to become a mammoth undertaking, even though he had some previous ultimately rewarding experience. 
“I had no idea of the scale of the project. I did a book on [Canadian writer] Mordecai Richler. I liked the format of the oral biography. You get different voices in the text. It is more nuanced.”
That, Posner muses, affords the public a chance to make its own mind up about the subject in hand. 
“The reader can decide which version of the truth to believe.”
As the writer points out, there are mitigating conditions for the varied take on what did, or did not, actually happen back in the day. 
“Oral biography has certain virtues and it also has certain liabilities. I think one of the liabilities is that you may come away from a book like this just saying, ‘Well this guy was complex,’ but asking who was he really, and not being able to answer the question.”
In the case of someone of the Cohen personality ilk, the fuzziness factor escalates appreciably. As entertaining and insightful as Untold Stories: The Early Years is, there does not appear to be anything nailed down there at all. 
“I would say that what is definitive about it is his irreducibility. That is to say, he wasn’t a saint and he wasn’t a sinner; he was both,” Posner observes. “There is a wonderful story about when he goes to Israel in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, and he ends up going to the Sinai and entertaining [the IDF troops]. He meets this guy, a convert [to Judaism] called Asher and his wife was called Margalit. I don’t know if they are still alive. Leonard Cohen meets this guy on the plane from Athens to Tel Aviv in 1973 and he strikes up a bit of a friendship with him. At some point Asher says to him – this is quoted in another biography – he says to him, ‘You have to decide whether you are a lecher or a priest.’ That’s an interesting comment, but the reality is that he was both. He didn’t have to decide because, for him, the carnal and the spiritual were deeply connected.”
That comes through in Cohen’s corporeal timeline and, clearly, in his poetry and songwriting. Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years may not leave one with a nip-and-tuck end product, but I’ll bet that after working your way through the biography you’ll listen to his songs with different ears.