Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: From This Broken Hill, Volume 2, by Michael Posner, Simon & Schuster, 475 pages.
The magic of Leonard Cohen – his words, his music, and that unrelenting quest for what he called a state of grace – continues to fascinate, which is why Toronto writer Michael Posner’s examination of his life in the 1970s and 1980s is essential reading for Cohen’s fans.
Cohen died in 2016 in Los Angeles at 82, but interest in his life remains strong. His rendition of Hallelujah from his 2008 Live in London concert posted in 2009 – arguably his most beloved song – has generated 196 million views on YouTube! Cohen anecdotes, interviews, and recollections, and privately generated videos are all over the Internet. And Sony is about to release Thanks for the Dance, performed by various artists, and based on music sketched out while Cohen and his son Adam were working on his last CD, You Want it Darker.
In this second volume of this three-part biography, Posner covers the time from Cohen’s fist international tour in 1971 to the late 1980s, based on the observations and memories of Cohen’s friends, relatives, fellow musicians and writers, including contradictory accounts of various episodes, leaving it to the reader to decide.
Posner first used this oral biography technique in his best-selling work on Mordecai Richler, called The Last Honest Man. The Cohen trilogy – the first book was published last year – is the result of over 500 interviews over three years, including testimony from some, though not all, of his closest friends.
This is a great read of unparalleled intimacy as Cohen’s fellow travelers recall encounters, conversations, projects, concerts, trips, and affairs – the quotes interspersed with Posner’s contextual bridges, which strengthen the book’s narrative. He includes quotes from Cohen, culled from his many interviews, related to a particular event.
The first volume recalled his emergence from a privileged childhood in Montreal’s Westmount enclave to his picking up the guitar, acclaimed a talented poet while a McGill University student, then a novelist. He turned aside work in the family clothing business, dropped out of law school, met Marianne Ihlen on the Greek island of Hydra, then made waves with his first recording for Columbia records, which included Suzanne and So Long Marianne.
The second volume has an even more intimate feel with its rich detail. The book brings Cohen of the era back to life while revealing his polarities – “saint and sinner, darkness and light, and his long struggle to reconcile these conflicting impulses.”
Fellow musicians, such as Fred Thaler, who trained at Juilliard and was Cohen’s keyboardist in 1976, paid tribute to the simplicity of such songs as Suzanne and Bird on a Wire.
“With Leonard I needed to learn how not to play because his lyrics were so poignant. It was an exercise in smallness, and space … The tunes were basically just chord changes – melodies that don’t move much, very contained. But they also connect to this idea of simplicity in life, getting to the essence.”
Drummer Luther Rix, a 1964 band member, said: “I am constantly amazed at how the songs just flow like natural conversations, despite being filled with such great images.”
This volume is filled with stories of life with Leonard, on the road and at his homes, and replete with reflections from his many lovers, most of whom retain glorious if tarnished memories.
American singer Jennifer Warnes: “I fell in love with him and realized the line of women was longer than I could deal with.” Her Famous Blue Raincoat recording of Cohen’s songs is credited with igniting broader interest in his music.
Rachel Terry, an Israeli model, actress, El Al flight attendant, and Olympic basketball player, got a note from Cohen’s producer Bob Johnston saying the singer, then on tour in Israel, wanted to meet her.
“I was a little in shock,” she recalled, but after hesitating couldn’t say no. “He had such profound depths in him. When I looked in his eyes, I dived in. I drowned in them.”
Of course, Cohen neglected to tell her that at the time he was deep into a torrid relationship with Suzanne Elrod, pregnant with their first child. But looking back, Terry says Cohen was irresistible. “He had such charm and he was so funny and so loving, and so caring, even though everybody wanted a piece of him.” And later she reflected, “I didn’t have and will never have a love like him.”
Francine Hershorn, wife of Cohen’s buddy, the late Robert Hershorn observed: “That was an era of narcissistic men … Leonard made jokes about it, but still did it. Most women accepted him (on his terms). Those were the days.”
Yes, it is a gossipy book, revealing the good, the great, the bad, and the ugly in Cohen’s relationships. As writer Ann Diamond, his longtime friend and ex-lover, said of Cohen: “You’d have no idea what came after you left. One day he’d say we would always be together, and the next, he’s with (another) woman.”
His passion, relentless pursuit of seduction and conquest, and inability to commit, is most strikingly displayed in the story of his relationship with Costa Rican Gabriella Valenzuela, identified by name and discussed in detail publicly for the first time.
It began in October 1980 in Brussels when Cohen was on tour. He was 46. She was 20. She had studied Spanish poet Garcia Lorca, whom Cohen so admired, and she knew and admired Cohen’s books and music. It seems he reached out to “the most beautiful woman” when she was awaiting the start of his concert. He invited her to dinner and she was hired on to the tour as “mail coordinator.” They later consummated the relationship at his house on Hydra.
Posner spent five days with her, saw her diaries and more than 30 letters from Cohen and other memorabilia. It makes for poignant reading.
One moment leaps unforgettably from the page: Cohen asks Valenzuela to cut his hair, and both end up naked. He becomes erect. She says, “naughty client, you can’t do that to a barber.” She removes the cloth that covered his shoulders, ties him to the kitchen chair, and seduces him.
“We had an incredible orgasm that went beyond resonating together at a different frequency. He was howling, like an animal, and then he started shaking and crying. He was still tied up.”
Valenzuela ended up sleeping on a cot while Cohen “wrote and wrote and wrote.” The relationship lasted some five years, ending badly but, images from that love-making scene seem to be reflected in the Hallelujah lyrics, where he sings:
“She tied you to a kitchen chair/She broke your throne, and she cut your hair/and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.”
Was that the inspiration or was it the Biblical story of Kind David committing adultery by sleeping with and impregnating Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, or even an allusion to Delilah cutting the heroic Samson’s hair? The sexuality-religion dualism here is a hallmark of much of Cohen’s inspiration and work, which in the case of the Hallelujah song devoured his attention for some five years and resulted in more than 70 stanzas.
Cohen first recorded Hallelujah in the CD Various Positions, which studio boss Walter Yetnikoff thought was good enough to release in Canada and Europe, but with insufficient potential for the U.S. market. It took a while, but after Jeff Buckley cover it the song became hugely popular, with some 200 artists taking up the song.
It wasn’t all roses for Cohen during that period when his friend and fellow poet Seymour Mayne assembled an anthology of Jewish Canadian poetry and wrote that Cohen’s “personal poetry was thinning itself out as a reductive expression of artistic self-doubt and failure.”
As we know, Cohen’s career path reached new heights with worldwide recognition, adulation, and commercial success. Posner’s third volume will surely provide a fascinating new look at the rollercoaster ride that marked Cohen’s later years.