by Oliver B. Pollak
Leonard Cohen was born in Montreal in 1934 into an Orthodox home. His father’s family arrived in Canada in 1860, his mother in the early 1920s. Leonard’s father died when he was nine years old. Leonard’s writing and music career affirms his Jewish heritage. Years of meditation with Zen and Advaita masters did not diminish his existence as a Jew.
His first poetry book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, appeared in 1956. Spice Box of Earth followed in 1961. Judy Collins introduced him to the musical stage in 1967. It was a rocky start before a New York audience of 3,000 with elements of stage fright. Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton were also on the program. Music, despite its anxieties, certainly paid better than writing poetry. In 2013, at the age of 79, he will tour North America and Europe, including London, Paris, Hamburg, Berlin, Rome and Denmark.
In 1996, my law partner, David Hicks, gave me a holiday present, Various Positions, A Life of Leonard Cohen (1996) by Ira B. Nadel. I was 53 years old and Cohen had not entered my consciousness. It changed my musical life. My 1997 notes declare, “Drugs, depression, women, women, women, mark Cohen’s life from a young student at McGill to elder statesman.”
For the past 17 years I have listened to, read about, watched him age youthfully, and in 2008 attended a Cohen concert in Toronto. As a music missionary, not a groupie, I have converted some friends to Cohen’s music. I have wanted to prepare a High Holy Day presentation for Council Bluff’s B’nai Israel on his musical spirituality for at least half a dozen years, but I always backed off. It’s complicated. How do you bring recording equipment into schul? Intellectually I could not get my arms around it. Sometimes projects are too big. The enormity of the subject was brought home during 2012 when three books about Cohen, totaling over 900 pages, hit the market. It’s not just about the music.
Alan Light’s exploration of Hallelujah, in The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the unlikely ascent of Hallelujah consumes 254 interesting pages. Cohen’s composition took about five years, some argue it’s still evolving. When first sung by Cohen in 1984, it received little acclaim. In 1994, Jeff Buckley’s charged version made it an emerging standard.
By the end of 2012, it had been covered by dozens if not hundreds of artists including k. d. lang, Bob Dylan, Justin Timberlake, Susan Boyle, and the father of Cohen’s granddaughter, Rufus Wainwright. Fortunately, despite being infamously ripped off by his manager, Cohen gets royalties. Hallelujah has been heard on the soundtrack of Shrek, House, West Wing, and American Idol.
Hallelujah has been incorporated into weddings, Bat Mitzvahs and some Kol Nidre services. If it be Your Will and other lyrics have clear Hebrew Bible roots, While Dance me to the End of Love has Holocaust overtones.
Maurice Ratliff’s Leonard Cohen: The Music and the Mystique provides a 96-page discography of studio, live, and compilation albums.
Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (2012) provides a 540 page revealing and sympathetic biography. Poets, novelists, songwriters, and musicians are different from ordinary people. Their minds, energy, needs, creativity and lifestyle frequently deviate from the norm.
Celebrity, depression and mood swings feed the public persona, but make for disorderly lives. Recreational drugs, self medication, cigarettes, alcohol, Buddhist and Hindu meditation, produces a rollercoaster of highs and lows from which emerge words, lyrics, and harmony that captures a personal and world geist. Cohen’s life reveals connections between genius, creativity and depression.
He has performed around the world, including Israel and Australia, and three centers of residential gravity recur: Montreal, the Greek island Hydra, and Los Angeles. Forty years ago, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he entertained the troops in Israel. Not a beat nor a hippie, he maintains the outsider’s stance. He made the transition from poet and songwriter to performer and had several intimate relationships. Titles are suggestive including I’m Your Man and Death of a Ladies’ Man. He had liaisons with Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Rebecca De Mornay and performed songs of longing with frank and erotic lyrics recalling Suzanne, Marianne, Heather, and Alexandra.
A lifelong search for self-realization and countering a veil of depression, cigarettes, alcohol and drugs led him to flirt with Scientology. He spent much of the 1990s at the Mount Baldy Zen Center with master Roshi Kyozan Joshu Sasaki who is now 105 years old. Cohen spent several months in Mumbai, India, with Ramesh S. Balsekar, a guru of Advaita wisdom, who died in 2009 at the age of 92.
Readers wishing to pursue Leonard Cohen should check out YouTube and leonardcohenfiles.com. I look forward to the biography by Liel Leibovitz, a senior Tablet Magazine writer. Bob Goldberg is offering a four-session class on Cohen’s poetry starting March 1. The following day, I will attend a Leonard Cohen concert at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre. The more adventurous can hear Cohen in Berlin in July where his “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin” will bring down the walls; and then visit the new Berlin Jewish Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind.