I’m fairly certain that I would have spent my high school years as perpetually moody and angst-ridden as Molly Ringwald in any given John Hughes movie had it not been for Theatere (capital-T, said in your best Addison DeWitt voice).
To the Shaker Heights High School Theatre Arts Program (yes, it’s really called that) I owe a debt of gratitude: for leading me to my two best friends in high school, one of whom I met when she was tasked with teasing my nearly waist-length hair so that it would stand straight out from my head; for playwriting class; for teaching me the world “décolletage”; for the knowledge that I should never, ever wear flesh-tone spandex; for the chance to eat lunches with friends in Room 129; for the ability to recite, in perfect tandem with any other alum, “Shaker Theater events are non-smoking, non-drinking, non-drug-using, safe-driving, recycling events”; and for Leonard Cohen.
The department chair, Mr. Thornton, had a fondness for the Canadian singer-songwriter, and from the moment I heard that smoky voice singing “The Window,” I was hooked. I used my babysitting money to buy his albums, talked so much about him that my parents knew to get me Ten New Songs for my birthday, and hoped Leonard Cohen would tour someday so that I could see him live. One of the stupidest things I’ve ever done is not begging, borrowing, or stealing enough money to see him in concert in Boston in 2012.
Before he became famous, relatively late (he was in his thirties) as a singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen was a poet and novelist whose work earned him comparisons with James Joyce, even if it didn’t pay the bills. Music did, and more than forty-five years after the release of Songs of Leonard Cohen, the dapper and impeccably polite poet is a musical legend.
I was so entranced by his music that it wasn’t until college that I went looking for Mr. Cohen’s published poetry and fiction. Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) which I recently re-read, is raw and energetic, the work of a young idealist who’s afraid the world is already lost. Book of Mercy (my favorite of the collections) is often called a modern book of psalms, although in an interview Mr. Cohen characterized them as “more conversations with the absolute” (148). The prose-poems — fifty of them — are prayers of great sadness and great longing. Here’s part of my favorite (19): “O beloved speaking, O comfort whispering in the terror, unspeakable explanation of the smoke and cruelty, undo the self-conspiracy, let me dare the boldness of joy.” It’s the same voice — almost mystic, worldly, sad — from “The Window”:
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host
Gentle this soul
Like his poetry, Leonard Cohen’s songs are about the difficulties of love, of living, of dying; he sings about a world that’s broken and the people trying and often failing to keep the pieces together. He writes songs about betrayal, sex, faith, politics. A reviewer once famously said that it was “music to slit your wrists to,” but I’ve never found it anything but comforting, occasionally funny (see “Tower of Song”), and very, very beautiful. I’m not the only one.
Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters*, edited by Jeff Burger and recently published by Chicago Review Press, is a book meant for fans of the man who wrote not only “Suzanne” and “First We Take Manhattan” and yes, the ubiquitous “Hallelujah” (for the record, I like Leonard’s version best, followed by Jeff Buckley’s, followed by John Cale’s, then k d lang’s), but also Book of Mercy and Beautiful Losers and The Spice-Box of Earth. Judiciously selected interviews from Mr. Cohen’s four decades in the music industry trace the evolution of his public persona even as they illuminate aspects of his personal life and career that aren’t widely talked about. (Did you know he once made a signature drink for his band? I do now, and I’ll be mixing up a few batches this summer.)
What comes across in these interviews — which the interviewers themselves note in their interviews with Mr. Burger — is Leonard Cohen’s graciousness, his sense of humor, and his modesty. He unflappably fields predictable questions about his lack of commercial success in the U.S., speaks well of every woman he’s been romantically linked with, and pokes fun of himself (he riffs on his early albums’ bland (“neutral”) titles by joking that he’ll call the next one Songs in English .) He’s completely open about the grueling process of songwriting (he’ll write dozens and dozens of stanzas for one song, rejecting all but a few; songs often take years to complete), his difficulties with romantic relationships, and, in the later interviews, about his struggles with depression. Most longtime Leonard Cohen fans know that he spent years in relative isolation at a Zen center outside Los Angeles, but these interviews offer a fuller view of what those years were like, which I found particularly fascinating.
With more than five hundred pages of interviews (several never before translated into English, some transcribed from the raw footage of television interviews), it’s not surprising that some material is repetitive. Interviewers ask questions asked many times before, and sometimes Mr. Cohen’s answers retread ground already broken. Still, the book is a treasure trove, and worth reading just for the interviewers with specialized backgrounds who share long, knowledgable conversations with Mr. Cohen on songwriting and his Jewish background, among other subjects. Rarely did four or five pages pass without me turning down a corner to come back to an idea or a phrase; choosing favorite passages and quotes for this review proved an impossible task. But here’s a snippet from a conversation the editor had with interviewer Thom Jurek, who spoke with Leonard Cohen in 1993:
Jurek recalled asking Cohen why it had taken so long after the release of The Future for him to tour. “He explained that it was because backing vocalist Julie Christensen had borne a child; it was important to hold off on the tour to give the new family time to bond.” What about finding another singer? Cohen said he hadn’t even considered that. “The reason, he said– and I am pretty sure I remember this by heart–was: ‘She shouldn’t be punished for bringing life into the world.’
This from a man who says, “We cannot forestall the apocalypse. The bomb has already gone off. We are now living in the midst of its aftermath. The question is: how can we live with this knowledge with grace and kindness?” (507).
There is a risk in books of this kind — as in meeting a favorite author — that the subject will be demystified in some way, will appear all too human, which is not, after all, how we prefer our idols. This isn’t the case with Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen. For all his foibles and favored anecdotes, the man is consistently human in the best sense of the word: compassionate, invested in the welfare of others, deeply concerned with ideas. I came away admiring him, and loving his work, even more.
Wednesday: An Interview with Jeff Burger, Editor of Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.