By Jeff Burger
How many of the 701 people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by 2013 hit their peaks in their mid and late seventies? Maybe just one: Leonard Cohen, who, at age seventy-three, began his first tour in fifteen years in 2008, the same year he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Since then, he has performed all over the world to some of his largest audiences ever; released two hit DVDs, Live in London and Songs from the Road; and issued the most successful album of his nearly half-century recording career, the emotive Old Ideas. That 2012 recording—only his twelfth studio collection—climbed higher on the charts than any of its predecessors, reaching number one in more than half a dozen countries and the two or three position in many others, including the US.
Besides peaking late, Cohen started late, at least as a recording artist. Born in Montreal on September 21, 1934, he didn’t release his first album until he was thirty-three. We won’t dwell in these pages on what he did before that age, as his early years are well covered in several biographies, most notably Sylvie Simmons’s I’m Your Man. Suffice it to say that his youth provided strong hints of the direction his life would take. He was a poetry fan by high school and showed particular interest in the work of Federico Garcia Lorca. He also learned guitar and formed a country-folk group, the Buckskin Boys. Then, in the early 1950s, while an undergraduate at McGill University, he published his first poems and won a literary competition.
After graduating from McGill, Cohen flirted with the idea of becoming an attorney (can you imagine?) and attended one term at the university’s law school. Then he spent a year at Columbia University in New York. But he became increasingly focused on fiction and poetry. He published his first book of poems, Let Us Now Compare Mythologies, in 1956. The following year, he returned from New York to Montreal and began taking odd jobs so he could concentrate on his writing. Four years later, in 1961, he published a second book of poetry, The Spice-Box of Earth, which ultimately found its way into many college students’ backpacks and did much to enhance his prospects. The Favorite Game, his first novel, followed in 1963 and Beautiful Losers, another novel, arrived in 1966.
But Cohen didn’t release his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, until December 27, 1967. And it took him a long time to develop into the performer he is today. You could certainly hear songwriting brilliance—and the influence of a literary background—in “Suzanne,” “So Long, Marianne,” and many of his other early creations; but Cohen onstage in the early years was by all accounts a tentative and limited performer. Today, critics call his strikingly deep voice “a force of nature” and he appears with a magnificent group of backing musicians and singers who beautifully complement his singing. Watching the video of his performance at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, though, you’d have to conclude that he was getting by at the time largely on the considerable strength of his lyrics.
In the decades since then, he has sold more than twenty-one million albums and built a large and devoted fan base. He has been the subject of many documentary films and tribute albums and has seen his songs featured in more than fifty films and covered more than thirteen hundred times by such admirers as Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker, Sting, R.E.M., Concrete Blonde, and Jeff Buckley.
But Cohen’s story is far from all happy. Though the cloud appears to have lifted in recent years, he suffered for decades from clinical depression. And while relationships clearly matter a lot to him, he has had a long series of failed ones and has never married. Moreover, he found his retirement savings reduced to about $150,000 in 2004, after Kelley Lynch—his manager of seventeen years and one-time lover—misappropriated a reported five million dollars. (In February 2006, Cohen won a $9.5 million civil suit against Lynch, though it’s not clear whether he will ever actually recover the money. Six years later, Lynch was convicted of harassing him and sentenced to an 18-month jail term.)
There have been musical stumbling blocks as well. In 1977, he collaborated with legendary producer Phil Spector on Death of a Ladies’ Man, an album that many critics—and the singer himself—consider a serious blunder. And then there was 1984’s Various Positions, which was anything but a mistake—it was, in fact, frequently brilliant—but which Columbia Records deemed not good enough for US release. (The label distributed it only in Canada and Europe, though an independent company subsequently issued it in the U.S.; it finally entered the Columbia catalog in 1990.)
Who else would discuss the “Talmudic sense of human possibility” in one interview and oral sex with Janis Joplin in another?
Cohen talks thoughtfully and in detail about all these up and downs in the interviews that follow, many of which have not previously appeared in print or in English. And the man who emerges from these conversations is as complicated and surprising as his career has been. He once said he “dislikes talking” but he is more than slightly loquacious at times. Indeed, there are years when he seemed to give no-time-limit interviews—often in his own home—to almost anyone who asked; then there are the years when he retreated to a Zen monastery; was ordained as a monk with the Dharma name “Jikan,” meaning “The Silent One”; and for long stretches gave no interviews at all. (During one 13-year period, which ended in 2006, he made absolutely no public appearances.) In the many new reminiscences provided for this book, quite a few journalists recall him as the most charming and gentlemanly man they’ve ever met; a couple of others remember questionable behavior toward women or ostensibly drunken rants. As for the content of the conversations themselves, who else would discuss the “Talmudic sense of human possibility” in one interview and oral sex with Janis Joplin in another?
Cohen’s emotional state varies as much in these conversations as his subject matter, but his moods can be hard to read, particularly in his early and middle years. Half a century ago, he was already developing a reputation for being depressed—and for protesting that he didn’t deserve that reputation. “If we assume the role of melancholy too enthusiastically, we lose a great deal of life,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Jed Adams in a brief radio conversation that aired on June 16, 1961. “Yes, there are things to protest against and things to hate but there are a vast range of things to enjoy, beginning with our bodies and ending with ideas . . . If we refuse those or if we disdain them, then we are just as guilty as those who live complacently.”
When Adams expressed surprise that Cohen didn’t seem angry about anything, he replied, “There are lots of things that anger me [but] let us not destroy ourselves with hostility, let us not become paranoiac. If there are things to fight against, let’s do it in health and in sanity. I don’t want to become a mad poet, I want to become a healthy man that can face the things that are around me.”
Cohen seemed earnest throughout this interview, but when he talked with the CBC’s Bill McNeill for a December 19, 1963 radio broadcast, he sounded somewhat like the early Bob Dylan, who was known for putting on reporters with silly answers to serious if sometimes inane questions. Cohen said he’d been living on the Greek island of Hydra for four or five years “but I keep coming back to Canada to get sick. But it’s a very special divine kind of sickness that’s absolutely necessary for my life.” Asked whether he was preoccupied with sex, he said, “A man’s a fool if he isn’t. But I didn’t write this thing [The Favorite Game] to titillate, although if it does titillate, it’s an extra bonus.”
When journalist Beryl Fox talked with Cohen for CBC-TV on May 8, 1966, you couldn’t miss the twinkle in his eye. He told Fox he’d pondered getting a tattoo and when she asked “Where?” he deadpanned, “There’s this place on St. Lawrence Boulevard.” He also mentioned that “sometimes I go down the street and when I’m not in a particularly liturgical mood blessing everything, I divorce everybody . . . in all the houses and I see people bursting out of the front doors and running in different directions and I feel that I’ve really cleaned up the streets . . . just divorcing people. A lot of people want a divorce.”
As comments like these suggest, Cohen in his early and midperiod interviews could be alternately sarcastic, cynical, or playful. He could also be less than fully candid, perhaps even with himself; he sometimes seems more focused on projecting a persona than on speaking from the heart. But hang in there. He is never less than interesting, even—or sometimes particularly—when he’s repeating or contradicting himself. And there comes a time, starting around the late 1990s, when he begins to refer to his longtime public image as a “cover story.” At that point, he increasingly discards the cover and talks much more openly about his depressions, his relationships, and his career.
I’ve never met him, but after reading the interviews and interview-based features collected here, I feel as if I’ve spent many revealing hours in his company over many years. I suspect you will, too.
Copyright © 2014 by Jeff Burger. All rights reserved.