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By Manini Sheker


The Montréal Review, February 2013


I'm your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen

"I'm your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen" by Sylvie Simmons (Ecco, 2012)


Leonard Cohen once remarked: "the kind of thing I like is that you write a song, and it slips into the world, and they forget who wrote it. And it moves and it changes, and you hear it again 300 years later, some women washing their clothes in a stream, and one of them is humming this tune." While none of his songs might have achieved quite such broad popularity, his work has indeed proved curiously malleable to varied interpretation. Hallelujah, a song about the power of the word, has become "a hymn of sorts for the new millennia, a set of possibilities rather than a fixed text" for the over 300 hundred artists of widely differing styles and sensibilities who have covered it, from Bono and Bob Dylan to Neil Diamond and Justin Timberlake. Macleans even went so far as to describe it as "the closest thing pop music has to a sacred text." For the diseased youth that Cohen believed constituted his audience, his work has come to embody the possibility of redemption: Kurt Cobain dreamt of a Leonard Cohen after-world, where one could sigh eternally. Brochures for patients in rehab clinics quote his words as a reminder of the wisdom in compassion:

Every heart to love will come, but like a refugee.

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in.

In I'm your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, Simmons, an acclaimed music journalist, draws on Cohen's work, details from his private archives, and an impressive range of interviews with close friends, colleagues, former loves, and fellow artists to provide an absorbing and insightful account of his life, intellect, and work.

Born into a prosperous Jewish family of suitmakers in Montreal, Cohen - like many others of his generation - revolted against his bourgeois background in order to attempt, in his various lives as poet, songwriter, lover, and monk, to recapture the purity that seemed lost to his age and explore the parameters of the soul. In this, he self-consciously tried to reach back to the priestly origins of his family; as a child he had always wanted to be the one to "lift up the Torah." (The suitmaking inheritance didn't quite leave him though: "Darling," as he said to his biographer at one of their meetings, "I was born in a suit"; and he remains one of the more exquisitely and expensively dressed popular musicians of his generation.) Though the Jewish community was a wealthy close-knit enclave in Westmount, they were doubly outsiders: Jews enclosed within the predominantly English Protestant neighbourhood, itself an alien pocket in a city and province dominated by French Catholics. Irving Layton, a renowned Canadian poet, teacher, and close friend of Cohen's remarked that his genius as a writer lay in his ability to uncover the sadness in the affluence of Westmount. In an address Cohen later gave on the future of Judaism in Canada, he castigated his community for forsaking their spiritual inheritance for material gain. The Jews of Montreal were "afraid to be lonely," and sought refuge in the corrupt world of finance. Their religious institutions had become businesses and they had forsaken the wisdom of their scholars and sages. It was the duty of the younger generation of Jewish writers and artists to bear witness as their prophets once had.

His own first attempt to do so, simultaneously the first stirrings of the writer within him, came when he was nine and his father passed away. In an episode later recounted in his semi-autobiographical novel The Favorite Game, Cohen described cutting open one of his father's bow ties to slip in a piece of paper with something written on it. Later, in a solitary ceremony, he buried the bow tie under the snow in their back garden. Looking back as an adult, he couldn't remember what he had written; he said that he had been "digging in the garden for years, looking for it. Maybe that's all I'm doing, looking for the note." It is telling that his first attempt to write was a sacrament as much as a gesture of self-expression.

In his teens, Cohen discovered Lorca, in whose dark and elegiac poems he saw an echo of his own cast of mind. In Lorca, he found that it was possible not only to shed his loneliness, but also to use it to embrace the cosmos. In part as a response to Lorca - but also as a mode of courtship - Cohen began to write poems in earnest. At around the same time he began to play the guitar, taking lessons from a dark-haired guitarist he discovered one day by some tennis courts, strumming a lonely Spanish melody to a band of women gathered around him. When the guitarist did not show up for his fourth lesson, Cohen called his boarding house to find out that he had committed suicide. He didn't know anything about the man, why he was in Montreal or why he decided to end his life; many years later he said that the six chords he had learnt from this man formed the basis of all his songs and music.

The progression from being a poet to a singer was a natural one, and Cohen saw song as merely an "extension of his voice." In an interview with the New York Times in 1969, he said that all his writing "had guitars behind it, even the novels." By then, he had published five volumes of poetry and two novels, The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers; he claimed that the latter was "The Bhagavad Gita of 1965" - "an odd collection of jazz-riffs, pop-art jokes, religious kitsch and muffled prayer." Despite being well received critically, his books sold poorly, and Cohen took up singing professionally because it was a more attractive economic alternative to working in a university or bank. The spiritual price he paid in becoming a commercial artist was evident even on his first night on stage; in a letter to one of his loves, Cohen said he died that night. Celebrity and performance had a corrupting influence on his art, and on a later tour he described himself as a "parrot chained to his stand." He had written his songs to himself and to the women he had loved and to repeat them every night made him feel "trapped in that original effort." Experiencing his professional life as an ordeal, he dealt with it by seeking oblivion in drugs, and relief from his loneliness in women. He was happiest when he played in the mental institutions, something he did without fanfare and at his own expense. He felt a sense of kinship with the damaged and medicated inhabitants in the wards and he believed that they would relate to the acknowledgment of defeat in his songs. Even when he was thirteen or fourteen he had felt more at home with the detritus of society, the junkies on the street and the old men whom the world deemed mad. Out of a sense of alienation and entrapment in a world he felt was not his own came the themes of many of his songs: Bird on the Wire told of his struggles to be free, like the "bird on the wire" and "the drunk in a midnight choir." But his songs arose also from his sense of connection to a larger, tragic history: Dance Me to the End of Love (which later became a standard at weddings), was inspired by something Cohen "had read about an orchestra of inmates in a concentration camp who were forced by the Nazis to play as their fellow prisoners were marched off to the gas chambers." Cohen understood that history by its nature was not "frozen in some other place and time," but was more fundamentally the "nature of humanity"; his songs reflect a view of humanity as fallen and tragic, and are as much dirges as they are prayers for reconciliation, reflecting his belief that words have the capacity to redeem as well as create. Many of his songs begin with a cry of anguish and end in a state of exaltation: If It Be Your Will, for example, which he began to compose after Hannukah celebrations with his children, is a call to surrender and a plea to end the exile of the soul from the source of things, that - perhaps especially in the arrangement so brilliantly performed by the Webb Sisters on Cohen's 2008 tour - reaches a level of transcendence rarely found in popular music.

There is also an element of mystery to many of Cohen's greatest tunes, perhaps especially the song most closely associated with him: Suzanne. Suzanne Vaillancourt was an avant-garde dancer in Montreal in the 1960s, and the wife of one of Cohen's friends. She was one of the many people interviewed for this book (which is as exemplary in its diligence as it is beautifully written), and according to Suzanne they were often on the same "wavelength." Suzanne would wear gypsy clothes made out of old drapes and silk from a nearby Salvation Army store, and they would go for long walks by the river, past the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, where the sailors would come to be "blessed before going to sea." Suzanne loved the ships that docked there; she felt she could relate to the sound of the "slow-moving freight trains." She lived in one of the rooming houses in old Montreal with stained glass windows, where she and Leonard would drink tea, along with lychees and oranges from Chinatown. There was no physical intimacy between the two; they shared a deep philosophical relationship, of which he said that he had touched her perfect body with his mind "because there was no other opportunity." Simmons suggests that Cohen had managed to transform the physical Suzanne into a metaphysical "Suzanne" by splicing her in half and then fusing the two parts - carnal and the spiritual - again into a single, more perfect being; in his song, "he made her an angel."

Another of Cohen's muses was also one of his great loves: Marianne, a Norwegian beauty he met on the sun-dappled Greek island of Hydra that had drawn artists and seekers from around the world including Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg. Life seemed simple there, vibrant in a culture of literary and sexual experimentation; it was a place where "everything you saw was beautiful, every corner, every lamp, everything you touched, everything." Cohen spent part of his time on the island exploring different religious paths, reading the I Ching and Tibetan books on Buddhism. When he visited the house where Marianne lived with her husband and child, he found copies of the I Ching and the Tibetan Book of the Dead were on the bookshelves; it is not surprising that just as he fell in love with Hydra as soon as he saw it, so he also fell in love with Marianne: "she is perfect," he wrote home to Irving Layton. He walked with Marianne along the shore, read her poetry, watched her sleep. He wrote for hours at his simple wooden desk; later Marianne was photographed by the desk in a white towel, her fingers touching his typewriter, a picture that appeared on Cohen's second album, Songs from a Room, capturing, for the young people who saw it on the album's release in 1969, "a moment and a need and longing that has gnawed at them ever since."

"There's a certain kind of writer that says hello to people in their songs and there's a certain kind of writer that says goodbye to people - and you know I'm more a writer of elegies," said Cohen in 1979. By this time he had written So Long, Marianne, not actually intended as a farewell: Cohen claimed there was a prophetic quality to his songs, and it was not long after he wrote the song that he did indeed move on. Within two years, in a Scientology Class in New York on his way from Montreal to Nashville, he had met Suzanne Elrod, just nineteen to his thirty-four. Not the Suzanne of his famous song, she would be the mother of his two children, in a sense the only woman to whom he really committed himself. Yet even this was a commitment of an odd sort: as he wrote in one of his later songs, "I live here with a woman and a child / The situation makes me kind of nervous." (Other writings were less tentative: "Fuck this marriage," he wrote in a prose poem published in 1978.) Marriage was "the hardest spiritual practice in the world"; Cohen felt he needed to be empty in order to create, and he tried to escape the stranglehold of attachment when he could. At the onset of the Yom Kippur War, he left his family behind for his "myth-home", intending to join the Israeli army, feeling that war - a circumstance that gave people opportunities to "act their best" - would enable him "to feel things that you simply cannot feel in modern city life." To his chagrin, he was recruited to entertain the troops instead and would go wherever the soldiers were, to military encampments and field hospitals. Sometimes in the dark, a cluster of soldiers would gather around him in torchlight as he played. He would talk to the soldiers and keep a diary with him, recording the beauty of the Sinai, the fellowship among the soldiers, the dead and wounded that moved him. Twenty years later, when he was awarded Canada's Governor General's Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, he likened his life to that of a soldier who appears to have performed a heroic act, but was probably just acting in the line of duty and had to continue the fight. Cohen had been drawn to the soldier's life in part for its austerity and the precision that went into every gesture: "war is wonderful," he said, "every effort is at its maximum. Nobody goofs off."

At the age of sixty, Cohen chose another form of retreat (or was it escape from the constraints and frustrations of family and profession?), a different kind of austerity, living for five years in a spare wooden cabin at a monastery in California that he had frequented for much of his adult life. (An earlier escape to the same monastery just after the birth of his son had been less successful: walking meditation in the snow for the younger Cohen had proved too austere, and he had left in just a week.) Mount Baldy was "a hospital for the broken hearted" 6,500 feet up in the San Gabriel mountains, and by the beginning of the tour for his album The Future Cohen was in many ways a "broken-down nightingale." The strain of the touring business had made him collapse, and his relationship with his latest love, Rebecca De Mornay had failed. Cohen went to Mount Baldy to serve his beloved teacher Roshi as a chauffeur and cook, and to sit in silence with him. This was not a celebrity monastery; Cohen was treated like everyone else and adopted the stern rigour and discipline of life there. He rose at three with the others, sat for hours in rigid meditation, chopped wood, fixed toilets, lived on a simple diet and "became an expert at rustling up soups", even earning a certificate that "qualified him to take work as a chef, waiter or busboy" in order to work in the monastery's kitchen. In the severity and order of Mount Baldy, Cohen found the emptiness and silence he had longed for, and a respite from the daily distractions and grind of the music industry. He could forget about himself, and this enabled his creativity to flourish in the odd hours he had away from meditation and his responsibilities. In 1996, three years after he had joined the monastery, Cohen was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk, receiving from his master the name Jikan: "the silence between two thoughts."

Though there were periods of contentment on Mount Baldy, at the end of five years Cohen left the mountain in a state of despair, seeking out fresh wisdom in India at the feet of an eighty-one year-old Hindu philosopher and former banker with an LSE degree, who "lived like a retired banker - he liked his occasional golf and whisky" - and held an open house for spiritual seekers for a few hours every day. In India, something, Cohen said, "just lifted." He said to himself

this must be what its like to be relatively sane. You get up in the morning and it's not like: Oh God, another day. How am I going to get through it? What am I going to do? Is there a drug? Is there a woman? Is there a religion? Is there something to get me out of this?

Perhaps it was - as he said he had read somewhere - "that the brain cells associated with anxiety can die as you get older"; finally, on the wrong side of sixty-five, Cohen's "depression had gone."

He continued to visit and meditate with his teachers in India and Mount Baldy, and read the Jewish scriptures as he always did; and he also returned to music, with a renewed purpose. In October 2001, he released Ten New Songs, his first new album in nine years. Many of the songs it contained were based on the poems composed in his years in the monastery, some inspired by his master's teachings on love or by the psalms; it went on to reach the top thirty in the UK charts, and number one in Poland and Norway. (Outside his native Canada, Cohen had always been more popular in Europe, and relatively dismissed in America: Rolling Stone had referred to his work as "depressed and depressing", and Cohen, on being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, wryly misquoted "the prophetic statement by Jon Landau" - then on the Hall of Fame's nominating committee - "in the early 70s: 'I have seen the future of rock 'n' roll, and it is not Leonard Cohen'.") His life, enriched by a new, and rather more calm relationship with the musician Anjani Thomas, nevertheless had another shock to offer, when he discovered that his manager had emptied all the money from his bank accounts and even made off with a lorry-load of notes, diaries, and other archival material. The loss of his fortune was one of the reasons why, after fifteen years and in his early seventies, Cohen went back on tour in 2008. Beginning in the small towns in eastern Canada before moving on to larger venues, the tour, with a six-piece band and three singers including his long-time collaborator Sharon Robinson and the British pair of Charley and Hattie Webb, was rather different from what touring had been for Cohen earlier, "fuelled on silence and deep rest", whereas on earlier tours, he had been "smoking two packs a day and drinking three bottles of Château Latour before every show." Cohen said he was like a postcard being sent place to place; but he was relishing it for the first time, and his audiences, everywhere, were enchanted. At the opening night in Toronto - the first metropolis they stopped in - "the room was so completely silent during the performances of the songs that you could hear the hairs stand up on people's arms"; and Cohen was received with universal love by the crowds which ranged from fans who had followed his work from the sixties, to those like myself, younger than his children - brought up on a diet of Cohen, I heard him live for the first time in Toronto in 2008. The three-hour long concerts would have been taxing even for performers half his age, but the shows seemed more like an act of service; it felt as though "there was some necessary rite that was being performed [...] some gift being exchanged."

As his one-time fiancée said of him, "he's on his own solo voyage, and he's lying on a bed of cactus perpetually, but somehow finding windows into infinity everywhere"; and from this crack that lets the light in stems Cohen's ability to create an atmosphere of prayer and ritual in music and song that is still - perhaps even increasingly - popular, a testament to our common longing to revisit the fundamental questions of life, without turning away from its suffering.


Manini Sheker is a Canadian graduate student reading for an MPhil in Development Studies at the University of Oxford. She has degrees in psychology, creative writing and social work from York University, Humber College and the University of Toronto. In 2011, her work was shortlisted in the Guardian's International Development Journalism competition.


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