“Going home / behind the curtain”: Farewell, Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen books photo by Carolyn Oliver

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat
from “Going Home”

If you’re a longtime reader of R&RG, you know about my devotion to Leonard Cohen. His death wasn’t public when I wrote the post quoting “Anthem” right after the election last week, but now I realize how strange it was that I used the past tense to talk about him—I almost always use the present when writing about living authors. The news of his death wasn’t shocking  (his last album, You Want It Darker, which is amazing, is also a farewell; and then there was his last letter to Marianne Ihlen, who died this summer), but it was heartbreaking nonetheless.

I can’t muster much more at the moment, except to commend his books to your reading and his albums to your listening; recommendations available upon request.

Rest well, Leonard. Endless love, see you down the road.

Here’s a 2014 review of Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, edited by Jeff Burger.


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 Theatre (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.

photo 3 (5)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.

photo 2 (14)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.

photo 1 (17)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 [163].) 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.


Related:

An Interview with Jeff Burger, Editor of Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen.

“Going Home”

Review of So Long, Marianne

New Yorker profile of Leonard Cohen (October 2016)

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of this review.

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“He wants to write a love song”: Leonard Cohen’s “Going Home”

Dear Readers,

photo (125)As you know, I adore Leonard Cohen. Today happens to be the release date for his latest studio album, Popular Problems (which I have pre-ordered, of course), and Sunday was his eightieth birthday (which he shares with one of my dearest friends).

So the poem of the week is “Going Home,” and it also happens to be the lyrics to the song of the same name from Leonard Cohen’s last studio album, Old Ideas. [By the way, Leonard Cohen once remarked, regarding the simplicity of his album titles, that he’d like to call an album “Songs in English.” I did mention that I love him, right?]

It’s my favorite song on Old Ideas; it’s both personal and universal, self-deprecating and serious, and above all, thoughtful. That second verse? Gets me every time.

You can read “Going Home” here. 

In Brief: Recent Works in Translation

Sworn Virgin*
by Elvira Dones
Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford

photo 3 (6)In Albania’s mountains, there’s a tradition in which it’s possible for a woman to become a man. If a family loses all its men, to blood feud or war or sickness, a woman can step forward, put on men’s clothing, and live the rest of her life as a man. If, that is, she forswears sex, marriage, and children.

Elvira Dones, an Albanian writer, explores this phenomenon (which you can read about here) in the fictional Sworn Virgin, which was originally published in Italian.

We meet Hana as she’s preparing to leave her life in Albania — and her identity as Mark — behind for a new life in America. The transition is a difficult one in many respects, reflecting the terrible challenge she faced nineteen years earlier, when she became Mark.

At the time, Albania was under oppressive Communist rule, and Hana had left her mountain home, and her beloved aunt and uncle, to study literature in Tirana. For reasons that slowly become clear as the novel progresses, Hana puts aside her hopes and her ambitions, and becomes a chain-smoking, heavy drinking shepherd in a mountain village without modern amenities. And she lives as Mark until she simply can’t anymore.

Ms. Dones has a gift for slowly opening up her characters — Hana, her family, her romantic interests, her cousins who take care of Hana in America. Hana’s decision to become Mark isn’t fully explained until the end of the novel (and for this reason I don’t recommend reading the Foreword until you’ve finished the book), and it’s depicted with care and compassion. Equally compassionate is Ms. Dones’s exploration of how Hana adjusts to becoming a woman again, to gaining her independence, learning English, and navigating American customs as a newly-arrived immigrant. Sworn Virgin is a fascinating novel, and highly recommended.

 

The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914*
by Béla Zombory-Moldován
Translated by Peter Zombory-Moldován

photo (114)Part of a larger autobiographical work, this slim volume was found, painstakingly edited, and translated by the author’s grandson; it appears for the first time (in any language) thanks to New York Review Books Classics.

The summer of 1914 found Hungarian artist Béla Zombory-Moldován enjoying a holiday with friends. When the war broke, he was summoned for duty, leaving the holiday for home to gather supplies and bid his family and city farewell. Just a few weeks later, Zomobory-Moldován fought in one of the war’s earliest battles, in Galicia, where he and his men had to fashion dugouts in the absence of tools. He was very badly wounded, and returned to Budapest to recover from his injuries and shell-shock; he soon realized that nothing would be the same again.

The Burning of the World was eye-opening for me, presenting as it does an under-read national perspective (Hungarian) and since it recounts experiences on the Easter Front, when I (along with most readers, I suspect) am accustomed to reading memoirs of trench warfare on the Western Front. In addition, Peter Zombory-Moldován’s Introduction gives an excellent thumbnail sketch of Hungarian history and pre-war life, as well as answering the reader’s questions about his grandfather’s eventual fate.

As in many war memoirs, we see the poor decisions of superior officers that lead to senseless deaths, and the quick onset of disillusionment. The memoir has a modernist feel; the author writes in the present tense, and is focused on his own interiority as much as his surroundings. (In one section, his attempt to recover some pre-war spirit in one of his favorite haunts sounds like something from The Sun Also Rises.) Zombory-Moldovan’s descriptions are carefully constructed and highly memorable; he describes shell fire as “the sound of a watermelon being struck with a stick” (44).

The Burning of the World is essential reading for anyone with serious interest in the war, Hungarian history, or memoir. Highly recommended.

 

So Long, Marianne: A Love Story*
by Kari Hesthamar
Translated from the Norwegian by Helle V. Goldman

photo 4 (6)As we’ve established, I love Leonard Cohen, and I think the rest of the world should too. So Long, Marianne takes its title from one of his most famous songs; the subject of both the song and the book is Marianne Ihlen. Though Leonard Cohen features prominently in the publicity materials, this book is Marianne’s biography (she doesn’t meet Cohen until halfway through the book). Born into a middle-class family in Norway, as a young woman Marianne had a turbulent relationship with the novelist Axel Jensen, traveling with him through Europe and eventually settling on the Greek island of Hydra. The two married, but not long after Marianne gave birth to their son, Axel abandoned them. Leonard Cohen had met the Jensens before their separation and was immediately smitten with Marianne, and soon the two began a love affair that lasted throughout most of the 1960s.

Though reading about Marianne’s relationship with the self-obsessed Axel was often frustrating, I found this book to be an interesting portrait of life lived without the comforting certainties of long-term plans or even everyday routines. Marianne’s self-confidence, as it emerges after her separation and during her relationship with Leonard Cohen, is something to cheer for.

I also loved the details about life on Hydra during the 60s — the market, the local restina, even the weather. When Marianne and Axel arrived in the late 50s, it was rustic, with few foreigners living there; by the time Marianne moved away, Hydra was home to a thriving expatriate artists’ colony.

For Leonard Cohen fans, So Long Marianne features a small selection of previously unpublished material (letters, poems, photographs), and confirmation that yes, Leonard is the kind of man who treats women with kindness and respect, even at the end of a relationship. But we knew that already.

*I received copies of these books from their respective publishers for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my reviews.

An Interview with Jeff Burger, Editor of Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters

On Monday I reviewed Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, edited by Jeff Burger. Mr. Burger graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

Would you tell us a little about how you selected the interviews included in Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen

Jeff Burger Photo Credit: Andre Burger

Jeff Burger
Photo Credit: Andre Burger

JB: With difficulty. Though the Zen Buddhists called Cohen “Jikan,” meaning “the silent one,” he sure gave lots of interviews. I included about 50 and was being offered new ones even after I wrapped up this project. I tried to incorporate material that covered as many years and as much fresh turf as possible. I didn’t reject interviews that have been published before if they contained important insights—I saw value in having as many good conversations as possible all in one place, in chronological order—but I did give some priority to rare and previously unavailable material.

Readers may know that you are an often-published music journalist. How did your preparation for this project differ from your approach to review and interview projects?

JB: This was completely different. For interviews and certainly for reviews and commentaries, you rely largely on your own imagination and views; this project required a bit less creativity on my part and a lot more research. Finding the material was part one; then of course, I had to secure permission to use it, which wasn’t always easy with regard to pieces that appeared decades ago in long-defunct publications. A lot of detective work was involved but it was satisfying to wake up in the morning and find an email from a writer I’d been trying to locate for months.

photo 1 (17)How long did it take to put together this collection? Was the process similar to the one you undertook for Springsteen on Springsteen, which you also edited?

JB: It took me the better part of a year, working virtually every night and much of every weekend. (I have an understanding family.) Yes, it was quite similar to the process with Springsteen on Springsteen, which was helpful: I learned a lot from doing that book, and what I learned made this one much easier than it otherwise would have been.

Before you started work on Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, did you have a favorite Leonard Cohen song, or book, for that matter? If so, did you learn anything surprising about that favorite song or work?

JB: I’ve been a fan of Cohen’s music since college and have a bunch of favorite songs, ranging from early classics like “So Long, Marianne” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” to “Hallelujah,” “In My Secret Life,” “Tower of Song” and the recent “Going Home.” I already knew a fair amount about these particular songs but I learned all sorts of surprising facts about Cohen from these interviews. For me, though, the most interesting thing was simply to observe how his thoughts, circumstances and personality evolved slowly over five decades.

After reading all these interviews, is there a question or question that you’d like to ask Leonard Cohen yourself?

I could probably formulate a few if the opportunity presented itself, but nothing immediately comes to mind. As noted above, Cohen has been interviewed extensively over many years, and the answers to just about anything I might want to ask are already in my book.

What’s next on your writing and editing horizon? 

I have a full-time job running a magazine and, on the side, I do a little writing on music and other subjects, mostly these days for TheMortonReport.com, NoDepression.com and my own website, byjeffburger.com. As for another book, I may well put together a third musician interview collection but not immediately. I need to take a break and spend some time with the family.

My thanks again to Mr. Burger for his time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about Jeff Burger on his website, byjeffburger.com.

Recommended Reading: Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, Edited by Jeff Burger

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.

photo 3 (5)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.

photo 2 (14)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.

photo 1 (17)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 [163].) 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.