The Cohen enigma

Singer, songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen is a man of constant personal contradictions.

Cohen 311 (photo credit: Sivan Farag)
Cohen 311
(photo credit: Sivan Farag)
The thing about enigmatic personalities – especially those exhibited by creative artists – is that it’s probably best if they remain enigmatic. That’s my chief take-away from pop music critic Sylvie Simmons’s “I’m Your Man.” Or to put it another way, reading this well-researched and somewhat exhausting biography, I learned more about Leonard Cohen than I really wanted to know. And certainly some things I didn’t want to know.
The singer, songwriter, poet and novelist has been an object of media scrutiny and speculation for well over 50 years. This began in the early 1960s when he fled his native Montreal and the media attention surrounding his first book for the Greek island of Hydra, where he maintained a home for many years.
But this is not to suggest that Cohen has always been publicity-shy. Over the years, and even when he was meditating as a monk in a mountaintop Zen Buddhist monastery, he has usually made himself available for interviews.
And according to Simmons, virtually every interviewer and fan, documentary filmmaker and lover, fellow musician and poet, friend and acquaintance affirms that Cohen is invariably courteous, polite, self-deprecating, humorous, gentle, solicitous, humble. Toss in welleducated and well-read. How many celebrities merit all those adjectives? Yet for all his apparent openness, Cohen, who turned 78 this past September, remains something of a mystery. This arises in large part, of course, from his self-consciously cryptic poems and song lyrics, which often as not conflate spirituality, carnality, anguish, ecstasy, love, and loss, expressed with an avalanche of magery that in the end situate him somewhere between Federico Garcia Lorca and Khalil Gibran.
Then there’s the man of constant personal contradictions: someone who fiercely clings to his Jewishness (lights candles every Friday night, never considered changing his name), but who nevertheless has serially immersed himself in Hinduism, including numerous visits to a guru in India, in Scientology, in the Roman Catholic culture of his native city (“I love Jesus, always did, even as a kid.”) and most notably, in his 30-year adherence to a Zen teacher in California, which resulted in Cohen’s five years in an austere monastery overlooking Los Angeles and his ordination as a Buddhist monk.) Other contradictions and conundrums abound: the periodic devotion to fasting and the breaks from the monastery for visits to McDonald’s; the years of dependence on alcohol, tobacco and drugs, including amphetamines and LSD, and the equally long periods of abstinence; the lengthy and intense relationships with numerous women that never ended in marriage yet always somehow ended in friendship (and in two children); Cohen’s conscientious permanent withdrawal of his third novel from publication after it had been set in galleys; his one-time partnership with lunatic record producer Phil Spector; the carelessness that allowed his business manager to empty Cohen’s bank accounts of some $8 million (in recompense, his recent comeback world tours over three years would generate some $50 million); his often bizarre political moments, which included his admiring visit to Castro’s Cuba, his Nazi salute on stage in Hamburg, Germany, his dash to Israel at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in an effort to enlist in the IDF. (He ended up entertaining troops with the likes of Oshik Levi, Matti Caspi and Ilana Rovina.) Cohen has long had an adoring following in Israel, as he has had in Europe, the UK, Australia and Canada. Only the US was very slow to appreciate him; one New York recording executive, rejecting a Cohen album, told him: “Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.” Another observed that his albums were so depressing they should be packaged with razor blades for slitting wrists.
Cohen’s reaction to Israel has been mixed. On his initial trip to Hydra, he stopped off first in Israel, but for only one day. Subsequent concerts in Israel were sometimes less than satisfactory. In one concert Cohen had an emotional meltdown and announced he would never perform there again. But when he finally did return a few years ago as part of his triumphant world tours, his audiences were rapturous.
After years of start-and stop success, of deep depression and withdrawal from the world, of self-doubt and broken relationships and religious confusion and more, it’s cheering to see Cohen bounce back with renewed vigor, worldwide acclaim, financial success and tributes from his fellow artists.
(His recent hit song “Hallelujah” has been covered by some 300 other singers.) He has also garnered heaps of honors and awards.
(On being named Canada’s Male Vocalist of the Year in 1992, the gravel-voiced Cohen remarked: “It’s only in a country like this that I could win a best vocalist award.”) And it’s uplifting to learn that Cohen is still working very hard at his writing, as he apparently has done all his life.
Simmons, who was born in London but currently lives in San Francisco, does a comprehensive job of documenting just about every step in her subject’s life. She interviewed over 100 sources, not least Cohen himself, with whom she evidently had considerable access and of whom she asked tough questions. Cohen alternates between earnest candor and coyness in his replies.
Her biography is long on details about every tour and every recording session – numbingly so – and it is short on literary analysis. One can almost hear the publisher urging her to keep the latter to a minimum.
But she writes brightly, as evidenced by this description of the septuagenarian Cohen at the start of his punishing world tour: “But here he stood in the spotlight in his sharp suit, fedora and shiny shoes, looking like a Rat Pack rabbi, God’s chosen mobster. He was flanked by three women singers and a six-piece band, many of whom also wore suits and hats, like they were playing in a casino in Las Vegas. The band started up.
Leonard pulled his fedora down low on his forehead, and cradling the microphone like it was an offering, he began to sing…" “He told the audience, as he would go on to tell hundreds more, that the last time he had done this, he was ‘sixty years old, just a kid with a crazy dream.’” Meanwhile, readers more interested in the literary side of Cohen would do well to go directly to the source. His 1963 novel, “The Favorite Game,” evokes Cohen’s wealthy Jewish Montreal milieu, and his more ambitious 1966 novel, “Beautiful Losers,” is a memorable rumination by a young and profane Montreal Jew obsessed with the life of the 18th century Native American Christian convert Kateri Tekakwitha, who has just been made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
Those interested in Cohen’s poetry, meanwhile, might consult the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets edition of “Leonard Cohen: Poems and Songs,” published just last year. This inexpensive little volume offers 243 pages of verse harvested by editor Robert Faggen from the entirety of Cohen’s career.
The collection contains the lyrics of many of Cohen’s best-known songs, many estimable poems… and numerous enigmas.