June 13, 2024

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A masterful biography of Leonard Cohen reveals a selfish man with irresistible charm: Video

21.09. – Happy Birthday !!! At the age of 80, Leonard Cohen has created a masterpiece. It’s a smoky, late-night concoction delivered with a deceptively light touch that masks deep seriousness.

Opening track Slow proves a gentle curtain raiser, played out with wry humour over a bluesy electric piano, Cohen taking the opportunity to dismiss notions that advancing years might be responsible for the sedate pace of the music: “It’s not because I’m old/ It’s not what dying does/ I always liked it slow/ Slow is in my blood.”

The band builds throughout the track and those that follow with splashes of organ, the flutter of percussion, the fruity push of horns and harmonic sweetness of female backing vocals, each new element adding warmth and depth. The past few years of constant gigging seem to have emboldened Cohen to let his band have some headway, at long last ditching the constricted keyboard and drum machine sound he has favoured since the late Eighties. And where better singers battle decaying vocal cords and diminishing range, Cohen embraces it all, growly edges fraying his whispery baritone with bluesman gravitas.

The ‘popular problems’ he addresses involve internecine conflict, viewing civil war through the metaphor of human relationships and vice versa, illuminating the macrocosm in the microcosm of troubled times.

Almost Like the Blues frets at the darkness in the human soul, evoking the story of “the gipsies and the Jews”. Genocidal, geopolitical conflict lurks in these grooves but Cohen doesn’t pin his colours to any mast. The epic Born a Slave examines his Judaic roots while the astonishing Nevermind focuses on the plight of other displaced people, an inspirational flourish of Arabic singing implying compassionate identification with Israel’s historic enemies. Samson in New Orleans addresses cultural divides in America while the beautifully ruminative A Street views a battle from the perspective of a divided love affair: “You put on a uniform to fight the civil war/ You looked so good I didn’t care what side you were fighting for”.

Cohen’s couplets are so satisfying, you can’t help but smile when he reaches the inevitable rhyme, even when the underlying message is disturbing. He is not afraid of ambiguity but doesn’t use it to disguise woolly thinking. There is always a sense of deeper layers of meaning, images that linger and ideas to contemplate when the music fades. The album ends, rather wonderfully, with breezy anthem You Got Me Singing, suggesting Cohen is in no hurry to leave the stage: “You got me singing even though the world is gone/ You got me thinking that I’d like to carry on/ You got me singing even though it all looks grim/ You got me singing the Hallelujah hymn.” Hallelujah to that.

This notorious ladies’ man, Leonard Cohen biographer Sylvie Simmons concludes more than once in her enthralling, meticulously researched account, would have made a very good rabbi. Never mind that Cohen – poet, singer, 78 – is also an ordained Buddhist; had attained the grade of Senior Dianetic, Grade IV Release in the Church of Scientology in 1969 before falling out with the organisation; and knows a hell of a lot about scripture. A grandson of a rabbi, Cohen was born into a priestly class in Montreal’s old, thriving Jewish community. But a keen interest in the profane – in sex and drugs, if not exactly rock’n’roll – has made him, instead, one of popular music’s most unflinching sages.

Fans of long-standing will know Cohen as the singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter, whose devastating verses have the tensile strength of haikus. Those of us in his thrall, Simmons included, have no trouble claiming that he leaves Dylan in the dust for skewering the human condition. Songs about break-ups and hard-ons sit next to prostrations before higher powers, often female, just as often, unknowable. With his depressive’s grasp of the puny moral wraiths we are comes an active sense of the absurd, too, and some hair-raising tales.

The time when Cohen single-handedly stopped a riot at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival is well-documented. Less well known is the time his band, only weeks earlier, arrived onstage at a French festival on horseback and were derided for acting like rock stars. Or when, in 1977, while working on the Death of a Ladies’ Man album, producer Phil Spector puts a gun to Cohen’s neck and tells him he loves him. “I hope you do, Phil,” replies Cohen with characteristic dryness.

Latterly, though, Cohen has reached a wider renown as “that guy who wrote Hallelujah”, now a TV talent competition staple, whose many ironies include the fact that its parent album was rejected by his record company in 1983. Hallelujah’s path to ubiquity has so many meanders that there is an entire book devoted to it, due out in December. Simmons explores it here in the context of a long career in which Cohen’s songs often go on to have lives of their own, often for other paymasters. His effusive Russian mother warns him to beware of shysters, a warning that would come to be prophetic.

As befits the authorised biographer, Simmons assiduously tracks all Cohen’s works – the poetry, fiction and music – as components of the same artistic arc, painstakingly interviewing his literary peers, producers and session musicians, as well as the key female figures in Cohen’s mythology – the sainted Marianne Ihlen (So Long, Marianne); the Montreal Suzanne of the tea and oranges; Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his children; and latterday partners Rebecca De Mornay and Anjani Thomas. Dozens get away; the interplay in art of Cohen’s convoluted love life could easily fill another 600 pages on its own.

If Simmons’s book has a weak spot, it is one she alludes to throughout: everyone, but everyone, is putty in Cohen’s hands. Only two people have a bad word to say here about the selfish, philandering, commitment-phobic vagabond who dumps his women to go off and hang out in war zones such as Cuba (Marianne) and Israel (Suzanne Elrod, who’d just given birth to their first child, Adam). The son of his former manager, Steven Machat, confesses he never liked him, but helps him nonetheless.

Even his then-partner Anjani Thomas’s ex-husband, a music industry lawyer, gives Cohen his legal time for free and eventually becomes his manager. How? Simmons posits the young Cohen was a great hypnotist, who practised on the maid. (A 1985 poem, “Days Of Kindness”, apologises to Marianne and her son, Axel.)

With a delicious grasp of karma, the zeitgeist wound its way back round to Cohen in 2004, when a financial betrayal of the greatest magnitude struck. Semi-retired, Cohen was a practising monk at the Mt Baldy centre outside Los Angeles, serving his long-time master, the centenarian Roshi Joshu Sasaki, when he heard through the grapevine that all his money was gone. His trusted longtime manager, Kelley Lynch, had been draining his accounts. A long, ugly legal battle ensued, one that, alone, could yet again fill another tome, involving complex suits and counter-suits, bikinis and Swat teams; Simmons handles it all masterfully.

So the sage reluctantly came down from the mountain and started singing for his supper again. Latterday albums – 2004’s Dear Heather and this year’s Old Ideas – and a valedictory two-year world tour have, belatedly, established Cohen as a household name and earned him more money than he lost ($10m-$13m, Simmons reckons).

Gossips might want to know more about the scene when Suzanne turfs Marianne out of the house on the island of Hydra. Perhaps this might not be the biography that Cohen, the man, deserves. But it is the definitive volume on the guy right at the top of the tower of song.

Leonard Cohen's new album is a smoky, late-night concoction delivered with a deceptively light touch'

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