New biography of Leonard Cohen reveals complexity of his relationships

By the time Leonard Cohen  died in November 2016, journalist and author Michael Posner had a profound belief that in spite of countless articles about the poet and singer-song writer, and two solid books, “there is more here.”

“As a journalist, you always have an instinct that there’s more. What am I missing? This was a complicated guy, active in various domains – poetry and literature, music, and Judaism, and romance,” Posner said from his home in Toronto.

With no commitments from any publishers, and though he never got Cohen’s cooperation, Posner went ahead on his own and conducted 520 interviews over three and a half years of research to produce Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years, covering his life until 1970.

As he writes in the introduction, Posner’s interest was propelled by Cohen’s status, and not just as a poet-novelist and singer-songwriter – “He functioned as a kind of seer, a magus.”

“His songs were more than just songs: – they were hymns and psalms…Cohen had matured into a master cartographer of the human heart and its many mysteries, commingling the sacred and the profane.”

An arts features writer at the Globe and Mail, Posner had written to Cohen proposing the book project and asking for an interview.

It was not long after Posner had finished his oral biography The Last Honest Man, Mordecai Richler (McClelland & Stewart), published in 2004. It became a national bestseller, as did All of Me, the biography he co-wrote with singer Anne Murray. But Cohen would not commit.

“He was in the middle then of suing his former business manager (Kelly Lynch, accused of defrauding him of more than $5 million). He responded very nicely and gracefully, but kind of let me down, gently, and said this wasn’t a good time. I just put it aside.

“When the Globe retired me six years ago I was looking for a new project, and I didn’t actually think of Cohen until he died.”

The fact that Posner never got to interview Cohen did not deter him. The success of the Richler posthumous biography persuaded him that the project was feasible. Reviewing the book in the Globe, T. F. Rigelhof observed that he felt “like being a bystander to spirited conversations and having the freedom to make up your mind for yourself about the merits of the subject and the reliability of speaker.”

Posner plunged ahead and quickly realized the untold stories added depth and contours to what is publicly known about Cohen’s life and development.

“I started making some calls to people who knew him, and every time I did an interview I came away with something new – something that hadn’t been in print or if it had I got a few more interesting details.”

One interviewee would suggest other possible sources, and this had a multiplier effect. “I could see that I had good material and that kept me going.”

Many interviews were in person, in Los Angeles, where Cohen lived his final years and died, Greece, Montreal, New York City, Austin, Tex., London, U.K., and among those who were with him in Israel when he entertained Israeli troops during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, including former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler, Israeli singer Oshik Levi, and Canadian singer Fran Avni, then living in Israel.

Although his agent was getting rejections, Posner persisted. “I still had faith in the project because I knew I had good material, even if I would have had to self-publish.”

In spite of his strong background as a journalist and his successful books, Posner did not get interviews with some of the people who were closest to Cohen: They include his son and close collaborator Adam Cohen, Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his two children, longtime manager Robert Kory, or his oldest friends, sculptor Morton Rosengarten and Nancy Bacal, who was working on her own book about Cohen.

But Posner did get to interview several of Cohen’s cousins, ZBT fraternity brothers and debating partners while he was at McGill, poets David Solway and Seymour Mayne, Aviva Cantor, the ex-wife of Cohen’s mentor, Irving Layton, his friends Israel Charney and Barrie Wexler, and his one-time neighbour, Québécois writer Michel Garneau.

Posner’s approach in selecting and editing his interviews was less about fact-checking anecdotes and more about enabling Cohen’s friends and associates to speak freely.

“Except by triangulating with other points of view about the same anecdote, I generally took people at their word. There are people who will at the end exaggerate their relationship with Leonard in order to inflate their own egos, which doesn’t necessarily mean that what they told me wasn’t true.

“They may not have been as close to him as they wanted to believe or pretended to be, but I was more interested in things that happened, in things they did with Leonard. Most people didn’t have an axe to grind, they were just telling me what happened. It would have been impossible to fact check anyway.”

When Posner finally generated some interest from his publishers, he presented 600,000 words, and their first reaction was to ask him to cut back on the material so it would work for a single volume. Posner told them he was prepared to do some editing, but not the drastic slashing to fit a single book.

After reading ten chapters, Posner said the editors told him, “this is really good, we’ll go to three volumes.” For the moment, they are only committed to Book One.

When his father, scion of a prominent Westmount Jewish family, dies when he was nine, “he becomes literally the man of the house, and little Leonard at ten and 11 is carving the Thanksgiving turkey, or the Rosh Hashanah Chicken.”

Losing your father at such a formative age, and thereafter looking for a father figure, may well explain his early attachment to poet Irving Layton and later his devotion to Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi in California. Cohen also had a complicated relationship with his mother, Masha.

“She was very encouraging about his artistic development, but also very controlling, and hovering, and protective, and somewhat smothering, and he needed to escape. That’s a formative event.”
Reflecting on his research and interviews, Posner stresses the importance of their “cumulative nature” more than any single story.

“There are some new voices, some with whom Cohen had relationships that have not been previously identified, one from Greece and a couple from Montreal. These shed some light on aspects of his romantic life that have not been disclosed.”

One such voice is that of Montreal-native Barrie Wexler, who lives in Athens, who co-wrote the Leonard Cohen show that ran at The Centaur Theatre in the early 1980s, directed by Guy Sprung. “From 1967 until the late 1980s he was very close to Leonard, and was very insightful.”

The Cohen that Posner sees emerging in those early years: “He’s a guy who’s trying to make his way in the world: he’s blessed with great creative gifts. They are apparent from a very early age, even in his early teens he’s showing great creative promise. But he’s troubled, psychologically, in part genetically.

His mother suffered from depression. He’s a troubled guy and he’s trying to figure things out: he’s got this talent, but then it becomes clear to him that he can’t really make the kind of living he wants to make as a writer. He doesn’t want to starve. He wants to live simply – he always lived simply, even when he had money. He likes to travel, he likes to move around, and he’s not going to make it as a writer.”

“He always had an affinity for music, even at a young age. When he heard Dylan he thought, what does he have than I don’t have? His voice is not so hot. He writes great lyrics but I can write great lyrics. He realized that with music you can actually make a decent living, which he always wanted to do.”

Cohen emerges as “a hugely complicated man,” Posner said, and writing the book he understood that he cannot be reduced in any simplistic way.

“He’s not a saint, nor is he a devil.

He is capable of phenomenal generosity and love and tenderness, and he’s also capable of great anger and jealousy. He’s a human being. That is the man who I hope emerges from these very disparate voices.”

Read more

Book review: Must-read for Leonard Cohen lovers explores his early years

Leonard Cohen’s long-time friend recalls the bard

Leonard Cohen’s influence spans generations

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