A Happy 85th Birthday To Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen would have turned 85 today. Here’s how Ezra Glinter, a Forward editor and fellow Montreal native, profiled the master composer on the occasion of the artist’s 80th birthday in 2014.
When I moved to Montreal in the summer of 2004 the city was about to experience two end-of-an-era events, though I knew nothing about either of them at the time. The first was the closing of Bens De Luxe Delicatessen & Restaurant, an all-night diner that had been around ever since Benjamin Kravitz began serving his mother’s smoked meat recipe to hungry immigrants in 1908. The second was the death of Irving Layton, one of Montreal’s great poets and rabble-rousers and an icon of Canadian modernism. I learned about Bens from its red-lettered art deco façade on De Maisonneuve Boulevard, which I often passed on my way to class. And I learned about Layton from an English professor who told us how the poet once hosted Dylan Thomas in Montreal and took him to Bens, where Thomas drank an entire bottle of scotch.
Later, when I read Layton’s poetry, I regretted that I never tried to visit him in the hospital, though he had long been suffering from Alzheimer’s. And although the reputation of Bens was in decline, I was sorry that I had never gone in for a sandwich. Bens was the place Layton went with Thomas to drink, and it was the place where Leonard Cohen, a close friend of Layton’s, used to go during his midnight ramblings through the city. “Montreal is still small enough to have… one or two late-night centers, and into this funnel are drawn everyone who happens to be up…” Cohen said in 1965, in the Canadian Film Board documentary “Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen.” “Into these places, these special places in the city… is drawn this very urgent cross section of people who have somehow committed the first rebellious act that a man can perform: refusing to sleep… And so they come to Bens.”
After going to Bens, the late night crowd sometimes went to Layton’s house in Cote-Saint-Luc, a residential area that was then almost rural. Cohen’s childhood friend Mort Rosengarten recalls how they would leave the bars at 3 a.m. and head to Layton’s, where the party would be in full swing. It was a place where the lights of Montreal’s poetry scene would gather to drink and talk, and to criticize each other’s work. “We’d read poems to each other and you were attacked! With a kind of savagery that defangs rock criticism completely,” Cohen recalled in a 1992 interview. “There ain’t anybody that I’ve ever read who can come up with anything like the savagery, and I might say the accuracy, that we laid on each other.”
The poets also caroused and played music, and Cohen would sometimes perform early version of his songs on the guitar. At one such party he was surprised to find that nobody had heard of Bob Dylan, so F.R. Scott, a poet and dean of the McGill law school, ran out and bought the albums “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” After forcing them to listen to both records (“It’s an awful bore. I can’t listen to any more of this,” Al Purdy protested) Cohen announced that he was going to become the Canadian Bob Dylan.
By the time Cohen met Dylan the admiration had become mutual. In 1975, during the Montreal stop of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan wanted Cohen to come onstage and sing. Cohen came to the concert, playing French folk songs on harmonica in the car on the way, but he declined to perform. Dylan instead dedicated the song “Isis” to him, saying, “This is for Leonard, if he is still here.” A couple of years later, when Cohen was recording his album “Death of a Ladies’ Man” with Phil Spector in Los Angeles, Dylan and Allen Ginsberg showed up at the studio late at night and sang back-up vocals on the song “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On.” Spector prowled the studio brandishing a gun and drinking Manischewitz wine through a straw.
At that point, Cohen had become a celebrity and had moved from Montreal to New York, Nashville, Los Angeles, and a house he owned on the Greek island of Hydra. But he didn’t forget his old friends. In 2006, when Layton died at the age of 93 — the same year that Bens closed its doors for good, after a protracted labor dispute with its employees — Cohen, then 71, spoke at the funeral. “There was Irving Layton and then there was the rest of us. He is our greatest poet, our greatest champion of poetry,” Cohen said in his eulogy. Or, as he put it on an earlier occasion: “I taught him how to dress. He taught me how to live forever.”
Leonard Cohen turns 80 this month, which means that 10 years ago, while I was in my first weeks at McGill University — Cohen’s own alma mater — he was turning 70. That was about a month before he found out that he had been ripped off by his manager, Kelley Lynch, to the tune of some $9 million; before he published his most recent poetry collection, “Book of Longing”; before he went back out on the road for successive triumphant world tours, and before he released his last album, “Old Ideas,” and his new one “Popular Problems,” which comes out September 23, two days after his birthday.
At that time, if you were a Cohen fan there was one book to read aside from Cohen’s own works — “Various Positions” by University of British Columbia English professor Ira Nadel, which concentrated on the earlier, literary part of Cohen’s career. Now there are many: “I’m Your Man” by music journalist Sylvie Simmons, the most comprehensive Cohen biography to date; “The Holy or the Broken” by Alan Light, focusing on “Hallelujah,” Cohen’s most famous song; “A Broken Hallelujah” by Liel Leibovitz, an idiosyncratic rumination on Cohen’s life and work; “Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen,” a collection of interviews and articles edited by Jeff Burger, and an “illustrated biography” titled “Leonard Cohen: Almost Young” with previously unseen photographs and text by Jens Sparschuh. In the past decade Leonard Cohen has experienced a surge of popularity rarely seen this late in any musician’s career.
It’s a funny thing about artists, though; no matter what age they might be, they are also many ages at once. For us fans they are always the age they were when they created the art we have absorbed into our own lives. For me Cohen is still the cocky young star of the Montreal poetry scene; the expat novelist taking speed on Hydra; the hangdog bohemian trailing after Nico in the Chelsea Hotel; the musician messed up on Quaaludes and hypnotizing rowdy festival-goers on the Isle of Wight, and the old guy in a fedora who still lives part of the year across from the Parc du Portugal in the Plateau neighborhood of Montreal. Leonard Cohen isn’t just 80 now — he is 80 also.
In 2004, while I was recovering from the drunken haze of my first few weeks at McGill, Cohen released his 11th studio album, “Dear Heather,” to generally dismal reviews. The most vicious was John Jeremiah Sullivan in New York magazine, who called it “exceptionally bad,” and “creepier than any Canadian record I know.” “‘Dear Heather’ is rambling,” he wrote, “not like a young boy in a field but like a street person trying to explain his philosophy to you.” In reference to the song “Because Of,” featuring female backup singers crooning the line “Look at me, Leonard,” Sullivan observed: “One has the sense that there’s nobody around him these days who feels comfortable saying, ‘Look at me, Leonard: that one sucks.’”
Though I was starting to listen to Leonard Cohen at the time, none of this bothered me, likely because I didn’t start with “Dear Heather.” The Leonard Cohen I first got to know was the Cohen of the late 1960s, an acclaimed but obscure Canadian writer at the beginning of a new career as a singer-songwriter. He was in his early 30s and had recently moved to New York from Hydra, where he had lived in a whitewashed three-story house and wrote “Beautiful Losers,” a riotous postmodern novel whose grotesqueries are still shocking 48 years after it was published. In one scene a character visits Argentina with the narrator’s wife, where the adulterous lovers pleasure themselves with a sentient vibrator before taking a bath with an escaped Nazi who sells them a bar of human soap. For the Chinese edition, which was published in 2000, Cohen warned that he wrote it bareheaded under the Mediterranean sun, “So what you have in your hands is more of a sunstroke than a book.”
The novel got mixed reviews — the Boston Globe announced that “James Joyce is not dead; he is living in Montreal,” while the Globe and Mail called it “verbal masturbation” and the Toronto Star pronounced it “the most revolting book ever written in Canada.” It also sold only a few thousand copies, forcing Cohen to reexamine his financial prospects. He later acknowledged that “to become a songwriter or a singer, to address an economic problem, is the height of folly, especially in your early thirties.” But he had been writing music for several years and the folk boom was well underway. So it might have seemed like a reasonable move, even for someone with a voice like his.
Cohen wanted to pursue his musical career in Nashville, and he made it there eventually. But he first stopped in New York, where he found himself at the periphery of several different scenes. Upon arriving in the city he stayed at a series of seedy hotels before moving into the Chelsea, which was gaining its reputation as a bohemian artists’ residence. Today the hotel bears a plaque in honor of Cohen and his 1974 song “Chelsea Hotel #2,” which served the purpose, after he clarified the details in concert, of letting the world know that he once got a blowjob from Janis Joplin. A photo from the period, taken by Roz Kelly and published in “Leonard Cohen: Almost Young,” shows Cohen at a New York diner, dressed in a winter coat and newsboy cap, smoking a cigarillo and grinning from ear to ear.
He also fell in with Andy Warhol’s “Factory” crowd and developed an infatuation with the singer Nico, who performed with The Velvet Underground. That interest went unrequited, but Cohen found an unexpected fan in Lou Reed, who had read both “Beautiful Losers” and Cohen’s 1964 poetry collection, “Flowers for Hitler.” Eventually he got the chance to play his songs for Columbia Records producer John H. Hammond, who told him simply, “You’ve got it.” Although his first couple of albums were full of starts and stops, with different producers coming and going, he managed to put out “Songs of Leonard Cohen” in 1967 and “Songs From a Room” in 1969. They made him a moderate success in the United States, a bigger one in Canada and a phenomenon in Europe. For years some of his strongest record sales were in Scandinavia.
Cohen may have launched his music career in New York, but his first few albums had their origins in earlier periods of his life. When I first heard them I was living in a converted chocolate factory in Saint-Henri, a working-class neighborhood of Montreal near the Lachine Canal. Though the waterway had once been a major thoroughfare for Canadian shipping, it had since been turned into a recreational area with boating and bicycle paths, picnic benches and ice cream vendors. It was while strolling by the water on those late summer nights, past the shuttered stalls of the Atwater Market and the rent-a-bike place for tourists, that I listened to Cohen’s early songs — gossamer guitar tunes like “The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “So Long, Marianne” and “Suzanne.” Especially “Suzanne.”
The song was Cohen’s first hit, mostly because of a version done by Judy Collins on her 1966 album “In My Life.” Although Cohen would later be in a relationship with a woman named Suzanne Elrod, with whom he had two children, Adam and Lorca, the Suzanne of “Suzanne” was Suzanne Verdal, a dancer who lived in a rundown building in Old Montreal. Now the area is the most touristy part of the city, full of high-priced restaurants and maple syrup kiosks, but then it was still a major industrial center. “I loved the huge ships and that docked there and the taste of faraway travel,” Verdal told Sylvie Simmons for her 2012 Cohen biography, “I’m Your Man.” “I related to the sounds of the slow-moving freight trains — hauntingly poetic and somehow soothing. I admired the centuries-old architecture and the grain elevators.”
Verdal lived with her daughter in a half-empty rooming house from the 1850s that had crooked wooden floors and stained-glass windows, and Cohen would visit along with other writers and artists. Verdal served Constant Comment tea and mandarin oranges, and she and Cohen would walk down to the river past the old sailor’s church, Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, with its statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the water. On at least one occasion Cohen spent the night, although the two never slept together.
While he was working on the song Cohen described it to a Montreal producer: “I’m really in the middle of writing a wonderful song and I never said that before or since to anybody. I just knew. It sounded like Montreal. It sounded like the waterfront. It sounded like the harbor.” Decades later, in an interview with Maclean’s magazine, he said, “It was about the beginning of a different life for me, my life wandering alone in Montreal.” It seems right, then, that my love of Leonard Cohen started with that song. It wasn’t just the first track on his first album, the hit that made music a viable option in his life; it was a song about Montreal and the allure of the city’s waterways, a song about women and wandering, and taking in the river on a warm August night. The canal may not have been the river exactly, and my chocolate factory might not have been Suzanne Verdal’s rickety apartment. But for me it was close enough.
The next summer I left Saint-Henri, and for the next few years bounced between the city’s worst neighborhood and its ritziest. The first came in the form of a dingy apartment with exposed wiring and hastily painted drywall, just around the corner from the seediest intersection in the city. It was a neighborhood of strip clubs and hourly motels, and a block-long bar that simply went by the name “Bar.” If drinking Bud Light and playing slots in the middle of the afternoon was your thing, it was a good place to be. Some nights when I was up late studying or writing papers, I would venture down to the nearby Burger King — an unpleasant trip at 3 a.m. in December — and breathe a sigh of relief when I got home.
The apartment did have the benefit of being near Saint-Laurent Boulevard, otherwise known as the Main. Like the Lower East Side of New York, the street is both a nightlife destination and a grungy strip full of artists and weirdos and bums. It’s also where the old Jewish neighborhood used to be, and vestiges of the Jewish past remain. There’s Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen and its down-market competitor, the Main, where Cohen still goes to eat sometimes with his pal, Rosengarten; there’s Beth Shloime, better known as The Bagg Street Shul, and L. Berson & Fils, a tombstone business whose ancient sign and granite stockyard is wonderfully situated in the middle of the nightclubs and bars.
Both Cohen and I eventually wound up in the heart of Saint-Laurent — he in a three-story row-house on Rue Vallieres, just off the Main, and myself in an apartment on top of a pornographic movie theater called Cinema L’Amour (free for couples on Tuesdays!). But I first moved to Westmount, a wealthy Anglophone neighborhood west of downtown. For my last two years at McGill I rented half a house with a group of friends across from the Westmount Library and on the same block as the YMCA, where I would sometimes run into professors trying to lose a few pounds on the Stairmaster. It was also down the hill from 599 Belmont, the two-story brick house with bay windows and a white wooden porch where Cohen spent his childhood. From the back, where Cohen once had his bedroom, the house looks out over the Parc King George, known to locals as Murray Hill.
By that time I was too old to wander the neighborhood pretending to be a young Leonard Cohen; at my age he had already migrated to a cheap apartment downtown, and would soon leave the city to spend a year studying English at Columbia University. But had I been a little younger I might have imitated Lawrence Breavman, the autobiographical protagonist of his 1963 novel, “The Favorite Game.” Together with his friend Krantz (a fictional version of Rosengarten), Breavman spends his nights haunting the park, looking out from its heights over the city.
There were lights on the St. Lawrence the size of stars, and an impatient stillness in the air. Trees as fragile as the legs of listening deer. At any minute the sun would come crashing out of the roofs like a clenched fist, driving out determined workers and one-way cars to jam the streets. He hoped he wouldn’t have to see the herds of traffic on Westmount Avenue.
My house was also just around the corner from Shaar Hashomayim, the synagogue where Cohen had his bar mitzvah and where he attended services with his uncles and cousins. In a 1986 interview he recalled “My Uncle Horace and my cousin David and then me, and then Uncle Lawrence and the cousins and then Uncle Sidney and the other cousins. There was a whole string of Cohens standing up there in the front line and singing our hearts out.”
Cohen’s paternal great-grandfather, Lazarus Cohen, had been president of the synagogue at the turn of the century and his grandfather, Lyon Cohen, laid the cornerstone when it moved to Westmount in 1921. Lyon Cohen also founded the first English-language Jewish newspaper in Canada, the Canadian Jewish Times, and was the first chairman of the Canadian Jewish Congress, in 1919. Although Cohen has said that his Russian-born mother, Masha Cohen, was considered déclassé by his father’s family, his maternal grandfather, Solomon Klonitzky-Kline, was a talmudic scholar known as “Sar HaDikdook,” or “The Prince of Grammarians,” who wrote several scholarly works. The Cohens owned a brass foundry and a clothing factory, and Lyon had been the president of the Clothing Manufacturers Association of Montreal. Cohen’s father Nathan was also in the clothing business, but he died when Cohen was just 9 years old, leaving his mother, his older sister Esther, and him.
As a teenager Cohen was a popular kid. At Westmount High School he played clarinet in the band and was elected president of the student council. He served on the board of the yearbook, which published his first short story, “Kill or Be Killed,” and which declared his ambition to be a “World famous orator” and his pastime “Leading sing-songs at intermissions.” When he went to McGill he became the president of the Jewish fraternity but was impeached for encouraging drinking on the lawn, and he played in a country-western band called the Buckskin Boys.
At the age of 21, before he had graduated, he published his first book of poetry, “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” the first volume in a series started by poet and McGill professor Louis Dudek. According to a famous story, Dudek, upon reading Cohen’s poem “The Sparrows,” stopped his student in the hallway of the Arts Building to knight him with the manuscript, declaring him officially a poet. The book was funded by the sale of 200 prepublication copies by Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse, who was then the features editor of The McGill Daily.
In a 1995 essay titled [“My Life Without Leonard Cohen”] Wisse described Cohen as “the undisputed star of the artistic Westmount crowd,” a young man who “cultivated the lean and hungry look of someone who feeds on himself, but… let you know that he did not take himself all that seriously.” Alan Light, in his book on “Hallelujah,” writes that his father was a classmate of Cohen’s, and describes Cohen as a “burgeoning campus celebrity” who was “straddling two worlds, receiving honors at school and performing at the local coffeehouses.” Whatever honors Cohen was getting they weren’t for his academic achievements, however. When he graduated in 1955, he had an average of 56.4%.
My own time at McGill was more successful than Cohen’s academically, if not nearly as brilliant creatively. In the 50 years since he had gone to the school, not only had Cohen become a legendary alumnus, but his works were now taught in its classes as well. While living in Westmount I read his two novels in a course on Canadian literature, and studied his poetry alongside that of Layton and A.M. Klein.
I also learned that I was hardly the only person relishing a local connection to the man. Plenty of fans had a story of meeting him, or of seeing him on the street, and if you walked into a coffee shop in certain neighborhoods there was a good chance one of his albums would be on the stereo. On my first day of “Introduction to American Literature,” our professor, whom I used to see on the bus back to Westmount, welcomed the class by blasting Cohen’s 1992 song “Democracy” throughout the lecture room. (The same song was covered by Don Henley in 1993 at Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball.) Cohen has the reputation of being a ladies man, but for a certain kind of sensitive male literary type, he was the local hero to beat.
I find this aspect of Cohen’s appeal hard to explain, though I clearly indulge in it myself. It seems to go beyond a simple appreciation of Cohen’s work, and beyond the cliché of a hometown hero. For most of us, Montreal wasn’t our hometown, and besides, not any hero would do. I don’t feel the same way about Neil Young, though he grew up in Winnipeg, as I did, or any member of that city’s small pantheon of famous people. I think it has to do to with an image of Montreal mirrored in Cohen’s persona — his suit-and-tie bohemianism, his mix of wit and spiritual feeling, a kind of elegant scrappiness at which both Cohen and the city excel. It has to do with the mythos of Montreal’s literary history, and it has to do, for me at least, with certain periods of Cohen’s life: his youth in Westmount, his young adulthood as a local celebrity, and his old age as another pigeon-feeder at the park. The middle years, on the other hand, are a different story.
Just about every biography is quick to point out there are many Leonard Cohens. There is the poet, the novelist, the folk singer, the pop star, the Canadian, the Buddhist, the Jew. Each of these deserves his own volume and, thanks to the recent profusion of books, some of them have gotten it. But the Cohen that affected me most is the Cohen of what you might call his late early period — the Cohen of his third album, “Songs of Love and Hate,” and of the tours that preceded and followed it. He was at a peak of popularity then, but was also struggling uphill against depression and fatigue. It was, to be honest, a Cohen who was a little bit cracked.
Like all of Cohen’s work, “Songs of Love and Hate” came at an auspicious time for me — a moment when there seemed to be, in my own head at least, a correspondence between Cohen’s situation and my own. I was working that summer as the stock boy in the kitchen of a large Jewish summer camp north of Montreal. The camp not only had its regular sessions but also a retreat center for retirees, and at the end of the summer hosted KlezKanada, a week-long Yiddish arts festival. Cohen had also worked at summer camp, including a place called Pripstein’s Camp Mishmar. But he had been a counselor, an insider in the camp community. I was neither of those things.
The kitchen staff was an underclass in the camp’s miniature socioeconomic system — the manual labor, the help. We were not even employees of the camp itself, but of the caterer who subcontracted the work. I spent my days unloading trucks of vegetables and dripping 50-pound boxes of frozen chickens, moving cases of orange juice from one building to the next. We served some 1200 people three meals a day, and it was my job to receive shipments and shift boxes between two kitchens, the bakery, a couple of external warehouses, three freezers and five walk-in fridges, making sure that the cooks had what they needed when they needed it. The days were 10 and 12 hours long, and I felt alienated from the camp staff that surrounded me. By day I did my work and at night, exhausted and dreading the arrival of the following morning’s vegetable delivery, I listened to “Songs of Love and Hate.”
The album is Cohen’s most depressing, with songs like “Famous Blue Raincoat” (“It’s four in the morning, the end of December”) and “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” a bitter meditation on suicide. Recorded in Nashville in 1970, it followed Cohen’s first major tour, which included stops at London’s Royal Albert Hall and chaotic festivals at Aix-en-Provence, France and Britain’s Isle of Wight. The band had adopted the moniker “The Army,” with Cohen as Captain Mandrax, after the British brand name for Quaaludes. He had taken to wearing a safari suit and carrying a whip, and at the French festival he rode a horse onstage. At the last stop, which now exists as a concert documentary by Murray Lerner, Cohen went on around 4 a.m. in pajamas, after audience members had set fire to the stage during Jimi Hendrix’s set. Though stoned out of his head, Cohen managed to calm the unruly crowd, something no other performer had done. “They were booing everybody,” Kris Kristofferson recalled. “Except Leonard Cohen.”
In between the festivals in France and Britain, Cohen played a string of volunteer concerts in mental hospitals, including the Henderson Hospital in London, and the Napa State mental hospital in California. As Cohen explained a few years later, he felt that “a lot of people in mental hospitals would especially qualify them to be a receptive audience for my work.” He continued:
In a sense when someone consents to go into a mental hospital or is committed he has already acknowledged a tremendous defeat. To put it another way he has already made a choice. And it was my feeling that the elements of this choice, and the elements of this defeat, corresponded with certain elements that produced my songs, and that there would be an empathy between the people who had this experience and the experience as documented in my songs.
There are no publicly available recordings of these shows, but according to Simmons, “a tape of the [Henderson Hospital] concert exists, and it’s good.”
The stereotype that great art comes from madness is dubious; it’s usually a matter of creating art despite suffering, not because of it. Yet it seemed that the songs I responded to were also Cohen’s most tortured. I was no mental patient; though I may have been in a depressing situation, I wouldn’t have called myself depressed. But the songs from that time appealed to me precisely because of their desperation, and their sense of being on the edge. When Cohen’s voice cracks madly at the end of “Sing Another Song Boys,” it seems like he just might be out of control.
These days Cohen seems to be a changed man. After the 1993 tour for his album “The Future,” during which he got in the habit of drinking three bottles of wine before each show, he entered a Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy, California, and stayed for more than five years. After leaving the monastery, in 1999, he went to India, where he studied with Ramesh S. Balsekar, a teacher of Hindu philosophy. It was then that he felt his depression go away. “By imperceptible degrees this background of anguish that had been with me my whole life began to dissolve,” he remarked. “I said to myself, ‘This must be what it’s like to be relatively sane.’” It might have been the meditation or it might have been, as Cohen has suggested, some side effect of old age. But however it happened, Cohen now seems like a very cheerful guy.
I like to think of myself as an even-handed critic. When I like someone’s work I’ll praise it, and when I don’t, I won’t. I avoid cultivating personal relationships with people I write about, and I feel little in the way of boosterism for a particular artist or scene. But with Cohen things are different. I romanticize his life, and I identify with him against my better judgment. Although the main thing is his work, I’m equally drawn to his biography, his personality, his way of being in the world. If I’ve read pretty much every book that’s been written about him over the past few years it’s not just so that I can produce a big essay — it’s because I’m fascinated by all his doings. Everything I learn increases my respect for him.
And yet, Cohen’s latest work, including his two new albums and recent tours, leaves me a little cold. It’s not bad, exactly, but it doesn’t draw me like his earlier material did. Although Cohen’s music is still distinctively his own, his stage appearances have become a refined product, carried off by rote. I would much rather see one of his early, difficult performances than another identical Leonard Cohen-brand show. There’s something to be said for standing in a big room with thousands of people all digging Leonard Cohen, but at this point I’d rather keep my money and listen to him at home.
When it comes to his albums there’s also a same-old, same-old quality that I find difficult to get past. Cohen himself has stated he doesn’t have a wide range, but has instead tried to cultivate the small area he does occupy. In a 1993 [New Yorker profile,] Leon Wieseltier observed that Cohen is “one of a tiny visionary company, the handful of rock or blues or folk singer who are still sorting out the sense of the world with which they started.” This is reflected in Cohen’s laborious process, and his habit of working on a song for years, if not decades. In contrast to the Beat poets, his motto has been “Last thought, best thought.” But I wonder now, is he getting any deeper?
Such questions don’t seem to bother any of the writers who have produced books on Cohen. Indeed, if there’s a consistent flaw in what are otherwise engaging, detailed works, it’s that they all drift towards hagiography. Cohen has been unfairly dismissed, especially in the 1980s, during the low point of his career. When Columbia refused to release his 1984 album “Various Positions” (the album with “Hallelujah,” now a done-to-death song), label executive Walter Yetnikoff famously said, “Leonard, we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good.” But these writers treat all criticism of Cohen as shortsighted folly. One early reviewer wrote, “He works hard to achieve that bloodless vocal, that dull, humorless quality of a voice speaking after death. And the voice does not offer comfort or wisdom; it expresses total defeat. His art is oppressive.” Although the quote is usually offered as an example of a critic’s failure to appreciate Cohen’s genius, I’m not sure that the reviewer, Nancy Erlich, was altogether wrong. Not everything a great artist does is always going to be great.
Still, I don’t know if the fault lies with Cohen or with me. Is his new work not as good? Maybe. But the expectations I bring to it don’t help, either. If I had approached his earlier songs with the same thoughts I might never have been so impressed. Indeed, revisiting his first few albums reminds me that it wasn’t just one masterpiece after another. (Arthur Schmidt, reviewing Cohen’s first record for Rolling Stone, wrote, “There are three brilliant songs, one good one, three qualified bummers, and three are the flaming shits.”) And when one of his newer songs comes on unexpectedly and I’m not listening in dogged anticipation, I can’t help but think that it’s pretty good. His new album, “Popular Problems,” has some catchy tunes (thanks in part to Cohen’s co-songwriter, Patrick Leonard), and some genuinely moving lines. “Born in Chains,” a song he has reportedly been working on for decades, seems to reflect his late-life liberation from depression. Maybe the real problem is that I don’t yet associate Cohen’s new work with a part of my own life?
I met Leonard Cohen just once. It was in the fall of 2007, at a klezmer show by the Montreal band Shtreiml, in the back of a coffee shop called Le Cagibi. I think I was the first person in the room to recognize him, or at least the first person who didn’t already know he was there. He does look like any other old Jewish man, and he blends in with the crowd. After the concert I went up to say hello. By that point everyone had figured out who he was, and a cluster of people had gathered around him. When it came my turn I stammered something about being a big fan of his work, and he responded graciously, “Thanks man, I appreciate it.” I was the arts and culture editor of The McGill Tribune at the time and I gave him my card, imagining that he might choose to call me up and, in my fantasy, we would become best friends. But I didn’t have the guts to ask for an interview, and then that was it.
I can’t say I was disappointed — in fact, I was thrilled — but there’s always some disappointment in meeting an idol. What can they say that will equal the work they spent years creating? How can they embody every experience a fan associates with their art? The Leonard Cohens I know don’t exist in real life. They’re in the pages of books or the melodies of songs, trapped in the ether of photographs and taped performances. These Leonard Cohens aren’t even Leonard Cohen, really — they’re elements of myself, and of certain times in my life. And isn’t that how it always is with art?
And then there’ll be a moment when I’m sitting in a coffee shop, reading a book on some sunny September afternoon, and one of Cohen’s songs will come on the stereo. I usually tune out the music, but this will pull me out of any concentration. It’ll bring me back to a thousand small moments, to scenes from the past decade that I only know through the song. I turned 30 this year, which means I’m a good half-century younger than Cohen. When I first listened to his music some of the songs were half a century old even then. Yet I’m certain I’ll still be listening to his music when I’m his age, another half-century from now. It’ll remind me of my 20s, and of my life in Montreal, and maybe of some experiences that I have yet to have. Everyone has something like this, some artist, some song. For me it’s Leonard Cohen.