Leonard Cohen’s final years — triumph over adversity | Book review

Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: That’s How the Light Gets In, Volume 3, by Michael Posner, Simon & Schuster, 496 pages.

To those who have followed Leonard Cohen since his emergence in Montreal as a promising poet, novelist, and eventually world renowned and admired singer-songwriter, there was always something magical about his life, where the sacred and the profane co-exist.

Cohen died in November 2016, and unraveling his life has been the abiding mission of Toronto writer Michael Posner. With publication of the third volume of this monumental study of Cohen’s life we have the most complete and intimate examination of his extraordinary voyage.

It is not a typical biography with a central thesis, rather an oral biography – a compilation of interviews with those who knew Cohen best, with the author providing background and context. More than 560 of his friends, lovers, family members, fellow musicians, and fellow travellers recall – in all three volumes – various episodes in what was a tumultuous life, in which he battled depression as he developed his craft and grew artistically.

Cohen died at home in Los Angeles after falling, but he had been diagnosed with leukemia. Though Posner never got to interview Cohen, there has been no other book that so extensively and so directly quotes many of those who shared moments of triumph and exasperation. Many of them articulate so well what they saw and heard and remembered from their time with him at home, on the bandstand, and in love.

In his brilliant introduction, Posner encapsulates “the roller-coaster ride of his last thirty years,” which begins when Jennifer Warnes in Famous Blue Raincoat, her lovely cover album of Cohen songs, awakens much of the music-loving world to the essential greatness of Cohen’s music. It provides a springboard for the re-launch of his performing career, and yet, Cohen remains profoundly broken. “Sex, alcohol, psychotherapy, hard drugs, pills over every conceivable kind – he tries everything to shake the black dogs gnawing at his psyche.”

Shortly before the release of his CD, I’m Your Man, in early 1988, Cohen breaks up with his French lover, photographer Dominique Issermann, and several years later walks away from his engagement to Hollywood actress Rebecca de Mornay.  Cohen then enters the Zen Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy, east of Los Angeles, “surrendering to the ministry of his longtime Zen master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, arguably the single most important relationship of his life.” And yet, the rigorous life there – he did have his own cabin, with computer, synthesizer, liquor and a coffee machine – and long hours of meditation “cannot fill the hole inside of him.”

Then, after six trips to India in the late 1990s to explore Advaita Vedenta Hinduism, the depression that scars his existence begins to lift – but the relief from that burden coincides with the discovery that some $5 million dollars – much of his life savings – had disappeared, allegedly spent by his once trusted friend, one-time lover, and personal manager, Kelley Lynch. This ushers in what Posner calls “the final, more delicious irony” – the need to support himself and his family becomes the catalyst for his hugely successful return to the concert stage, with more than 300 sold-out performances over six years, and more money than he ever had.

He also comes out with three albums – Old Ideas (2012), Personal Problems (2014), and the You Want it Darker (2016), released just before his death, and a book of poetry, The Flame, released posthumously. As Posner observes, “If there’s another artist that has crafted such a productive and illustrious last chapter of his life, I’m not aware of it.”

Yet the mysteries in his life are not resolved. For example, though his liaison with Issermann seemed to end, at least on the level of an active love relationship, she is quoted as saying, “It is only death that separated us. The more years have passed, the stronger the friendship became.”

The book is rich with delicious anecdotes, such at a gathering in Montreal’s Centaur Theatre to celebrate poet Irving Layton’s 80th birthday – to raise funds to help him get extra care. Cohen recalls he had once been in the clothing business, having worked briefly for the family manufacturing firm Freedman Company. In his speech, Cohen remembers Layton had once famously told him: “You teach me how to dress, and I’ll teach you how to live forever.”

Several important people in Cohen’s life executed U turns when it came to their disappointment at how the poet they knew in Montreal had drifted into the songwriting business. Poet Louis Dudek, who taught Cohen literature at McGill University, and published Cohen’s first book of poetry, had predicted that Cohen – “a fine poet before he gave all that up to take the guitar, would soon be forgotten.” When in 1992 McGill awarded Cohen an honorary doctorate of letters degree (he had dropped out of law school), Dudek said that in reading his lyrics he understood that Cohen was not seeking fame, but something far more difficult and finer than personal glory, “something beyond price and beyond measure – the things of the mind.”

There is much in the book about Cohen’s attitudes toward religion, among the most poignant memories by Simon Jacobson, who also spent time at Mount Baldy. “He asked me to sing for him – Hasidic melodies, chants, nigunim. Sombre introspective songs…He talked about how his Jewish thinking affects him so much. I said, “So why are you here?” He says, “I’m not here because I’m a Buddhist. I’m a Jew.” He was proud to be a Kohen (the traditional Jewish priestly clan), saying “I’m one of them.” Cohen noted he was at Mount Baldy “because the Roshi saved my life.”

When it was revealed that Roshi had used his position to allegedly molest many women devotees, Cohen’s lifelong friend Barrie Wexler recalled Cohen saying: “Being a flawed leader is in line with our own Jewish tradition. The really engaging saints aren’t without pimples.” Wexler added that, “Leonard wasn’t bothered by Roshi trying to get laid – that’s how he knew he had the right teacher. Being the poster boy for Roshi’s Zen centre when the scandal broke – that he resented.”

As for as Israel, writer Leon Wieseltier stressed that Cohen “loved the idea of Israel and most of its reality. He hated the anti-Zionist piling on of the left – not so much a political matter as an expression of his steadfastness as a Jew.  He detested Netanyahu and the settlers, and ardently wanted a just settlement between Israel and Palestinians, which implied territorial compromise. But he didn’t believe the occupation is all you need to know about Israel.”

For the small funeral in Montreal, Wieseltier sent these words: “Leonard … has been portrayed as a sage, a rebbe, a Kabbalist, an exegete, a kind of troubadour theologian. … But my brother was also, and more primarily, a poet, a lover, a voluptuary, a worshipper of beauty, a man who lived as much for women as for God, a man who lived for women because he lived for God, a man who lived for God because he lived for women, a servant of the senses, a student of pleasure and pain, an explorer whose only avenue of access to the invisible was the visible, a sinner and a singer about sin, a body and a soul preternaturally aware of the explosive implication of the duality.”


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