Loving Leonard Cohen
I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen
On 18th September 2009, I received the following poem from a friend, who had replaced Frank O’Hara’s original “Lana Turner” with “Leonard Cohen”:
Leonard Cohen has collapsed!
I was trotting along
and suddenly I see a headline …
LEONARD COHEN HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Leonard Cohen we love you get up
It reached me before the news reports had. The incident, highly publicised at the time, occurred during a concert in Valencia, Spain (the country of his beloved Frederico Garcia Lorca) while Leonard was singing ‘Bird On The Wire’. At the time, it was common knowledge that Leonard had been defrauded of $10 million of his earnings by his manager, Kelley Lunch. He was forced to return to touring to make up for the lost funds instead of “sitting in a sunbeam at the kitchen table with Anjani, smiling and eating bagels” in his old age.
Even at the start of his career, writes Sylvie Simmons in her new biography, “Leonard had never really toured but he knew he did not like touring”. For a man on and off the road since the sixties, this is an unexpected characteristic. He had a problem with stage fright, but “mostly he was afraid for his songs. They had come to him in private, from somewhere pure and honest, and he had worked long and hard to make them sincere representations of the moment. He wanted to protect them, not parade and pimp them to paying strangers in an artificial intimacy.” Later in the biography, Simmons returns to his complicated relationship with touring, which he viewed “at best as a necessary evil, foisted upon him by his record contract […] his insecurities as a singer and a musician made his fear of failure more acute.”
Turning seventy-nine in September this year, small and always sharply dressed in a suit, Leonard is still out touring, though no longer tied in by contracts and financial woes. His work ethic, as described by Simmons, was hardly that of a rock star, even in the heat of his amphetamine-fuelled tours. She attributes Cohen’s militaristic discipline in his writing to his Buddhist spiritual training. She also alludes to his perfectionism, suggesting the addictive appeal that the “heightened existence” of touring—reworking the same material until it is immaculate—might have on someone whose vices of amphetamine, cigarettes and alcohol had been left lingering in the past.
Simmons’ narrative is cut as elegantly as one of Leonard’s suits: lovers, poetic and musical careers, recording history, and personal and spiritual journeys are all included, with an impressive equality of attention devoted to each period. The biography, masterfully written and fastidiously researched, moves at a pace that beats with a regularity unaffected by content. No section of Leonard’s life is monotonously slow, not even the five years he spent in Mount Baldy monastery serving and later being ordained as a Buddhist monk. Simmons’ book offers a pleasing and complete depiction of a celebrity who, for the most part, removed himself from the limelight when he was able. It is a book that, as she claims in her afterword, Leonard “did not ask me to write and did not ask to read”, but that “neither of which appeared to inhibit his support”.
And indeed, the ‘Leonard’ that Simmons depicts is supportive but also humble, self-deprecating, extraordinarily generous with his time and money and, unsurprisingly, mysteriously seductive. Yet the work is not shrouded in a veil of mystery, nor judgement for that matter. From his bohemian, non-committal sex-life to details of his finances and the complexity of his relationship with G-d (as he reverently writes in ‘Poems of Longing’) and himself, we feel we are being presented with an accurate and honest portrait of Leonard as he is. And like the countless men and women in his life, we find ourselves ready to fall at his feet. Simmons does leave some things to the reader’s speculation and certain things are mentioned in passing, but there is never a sense of distance from her subject. We find ourselves standing in the kitchen with Leonard in his underwear:
Leonard was in his underwear – boxers, nothing too risqué, and a T-shirt, kind of a Billy Wilder morning outfit – and he was chewing a boiled hot dog into tiny little bits and spitting it out and putting it on a toothpick and feeding this little bird that he’d rescued from the front yard that had fallen from a nest.
In between these endearing anecdotes, Simmons has managed to capture the man as he presents himself: above all a lover but also a partner; a boxer (or a fighter at least); a doctor (there’s the famous episode when he cures Hank the cat); a driver (he was a chauffeur to his Japanese Rinzai Zen master, Roshi, well into his sixties) and of course a caring father to Adam and Lorca Cohen (named after the poet), reading them Bible passages in times of trouble.
About a third of the 500-page book is devoted to L. Cohen, the poet. There is no attempt to ‘foreshadow’ his great musical career, the beginnings of which were somewhat rocky though not unromantic. The most famous of Cohen’s songs—’Suzanne’, ‘So Long Marianne’, ‘Lover, Lover, Lover’, ‘Sisters of Mercy’—are contextualised with anecdotes of real places and real people. The original Suzanne was not his partner (there were two), but a “demure seventeen-year-old, ‘just out of an Ontario boarding school, with a future dream of bohemian heaven.'” ‘Our Lady of the Harbour’ was also real—a church in Montreal. At the time, Leonard was with Marianne (the Marianne; there was only one). They didn’t sleep together, though he spent the night. Suzanne, like most of the subject Simmons interviewed, was honest and eager to share her account of her time with Leonard. Often Simmons takes it upon herself to summarise interviews into short anecdotal asides. In her discussion of ‘Sisters of Mercy’, Simmons reminds us that the girls are not lovers, but nuns. In reality, the story was different:
Leonard wrote the song during a blizzard in Edmonton, Canada, after encountering two young girl backpackers in a doorway. He offered them his hotel bed and, when they fell straight to sleep, watched them from an armchair, writing, and played them the song the next morning when they woke.
The flowing narrative is interspersed with transcriptions of interviews with Leonard, denoted in italics. There is little, if any, disjunction between them and the content. Discussing his 1969 album ‘Songs from a Room’, Simmons writes:
It was right that ‘the Bard of the Bedsit’ came to us naked, with very little baggage besides these strangely comforting songs that seemed to be written from a life led in the long dark hours before dawn, by someone whose word you could trust.
‘I think that element of trust is critical. Certainly I think what draws anyone to a book or a poem or a song is that you trust the guy, the woman.’
– You too? Is that what draws you to others’ work?
‘I never put it that way but yes, I think that’s so [...] you trust the voice.’
You also have to trust the biographer to convey that voice. With her background as a music journalist and her acclaimed biographies of Serge Gainsbourg and Neil Young, Simmons is well positioned to offer not just the back story but also a critique of Cohen’s albums and their reception, as well as an analysis of the countless tribute albums and covers. Leonard, she documents, was perfectly content with the rest of the world singing his songs. Cohen was as generous with his song-rights as he was with his sexuality, perhaps to his own financial detriment. Both intensely isolated and spiritual, he was also a man of the flesh. You trusted him because he gave himself—mind and body—away.
An example of his unconventional sexual practices can be found during his early touring days in an episode fuelled by atmosphere, substance and, oddly, embarrassment. Ron Cornelius, Leonard’s then-lead guitarist, recalls a concert in Frankfurt in 1972 where Leonard lay beneath bodies of fans on stage as the band played on: “There were people all over him, writhing like a pile of worms. He just lost it, he just got so sexually involved with the crowd that he took it to a new level.” In addition to these bodies, there were countless women.
Cohen’s album, ‘I’m Your Man’, details, with care and tact, the “procession of women” who offered themselves to Leonard and to whom he offered himself. Suzanne Verdal (his muse); his long-time partner Marianne; Suzanne Elrod (mother to his children); Joni Mitchell; his very publicised affair with Rebecca de Mornay, as well as countless other girlfriends, one-night stands, and muses, including his most recent partner, Anjani Thomas, are all treated with equal respect and significance in Leonard’s life, despite the fact that many of these encounters took place in cheap hotels. “Women had always played a part in Leonard’s songs”, writes Simmons, and he was always delighted to hear his works sung by a female voice. Women, in some ways, governed his life. Even when leaving his revered master at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre in Los Angeles, he blames a woman, signing off with “Jikan, the useless monk bows his head”:
I’m sorry that I cannot help you now, because
I met this woman.
Please forgive my selfishness
Simmons portrays Leonard’s spirituality as stemming from his rootlessness, both in his relationships and his geographical movements: his early days in Hydra, followed by incessant flights between LA, New York, Greece, Montreal and later, India, even when he wasn’t touring, were at once calming and restless. His privileged upper-middle class background, love of Lorca, and a deep devotion to the Jewish tradition placed him at a cultural intersection that enabled a number of possible directions. He engaged with many of these and Simmons explores them with a non-judgmental eye. This background fuelled Cohen’s rejection of materialism and facilitated an acute self-awareness, manifested in an inclination for fasting and deep depression that kept his face thin and his spirit gaunt over the years. He could have been a great Rabbi of the twenty-first century, but he chose to be a poet. Or, as he says in one of his poems, “this thing that has to sing”.
Like those she interviewed, Simmons graciously offers personal emails and exchanges she had with Leonard that offer a compelling depiction of his non-celebrity life. When asked who his hero was, he replied in an interview that it is a designation he has difficulty with. However, he followed the interview with an email:
my hero is muhammad ali
as they say about the Timex in their ads
takes a lickin’
keeps on tickin’
He could have very well been speaking about himself, but his humility would have held him back. And so Leonard’s own story goes: takes a lickin’, keeps on tickin’.
Judyta Frodyma is reading for a DPhil at St Edmund Hall. She is a senior editor at The Oxonian Review.