BY 1967, IT HAD ALREADY BEEN 11 years since Leonard Cohen published his first volume of poetry. He had also written two novels, and was famous enough back in his hometown of Montreal for the Canadian National Film Board to produce a biography of him called Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen. But when he appeared with Judy Collins at a concert in New York’s Central Park that summer, few in the audience knew much about him. Some knew that he wrote “Suzanne,” a stunning song Collins introduced to the world on her 1966 album In My Life. What almost no one knew was what Cohen himself actually sounded like, since he had yet to release an album.
This reviewer is often reticent to read biographies about artists, so it was something of a relief to find my misgivings about the genre shared by a biographer: Sylvie Simmons, who wrote the new one of Cohen, I’m Your Man. To write biography, she says, “particularly of someone still living, is to immerse yourself in that person’s life to a degree that would probably get you locked up in any decent society.” With political or historical figures, at least, there’s the argument for the public’s need to get the facts straight, but this doesn’t necessarily hold for artists or performers. My justification for reading I’m Your Man was that, if nothing else, Simmons’s book might set me straight on some details of that long ago evening in Central Park when we all first heard Leonard Cohen. That the book proved up to the task is a fair measure of how thorough a treatment of his career she’s written.
It turns out that the Cohen appearance in 1967 took place in July, at the Rheingold Festival, which I more innocently had remembered as the Pepsi Festival. Cohen was “terribly nervous,” according to Simmons, this being more or less only his third public appearance as a singer. The crowd would have naturally been quite familiar with Bob Dylan, so the idea of the folk singer/songwriter who didn’t necessarily have a conventionally “good” voice was not new to them. But to my memory, that night Cohen took the phenomenon to a new level.
For years, the contrast between his finely honed lyrics and rough voice constituted one of two striking polarities in his music; the other being his continual juxtaposition of the pursuit of wisdom and the pursuit of women. But as decades have rolled on, the former dichotomy has smoothed out some. His voice may well still be considered an acquired taste, but one perhaps more easily acquired. As it has deepened, you might say the voice and the music have grown together.
The quality of his lyrics, however, has not changed. As a record label head put it, “You finish listening to a song of Leonard’s and you know [...] he didn’t let that song go until he’s finished with it.” Not so surprising, perhaps, in one who had been publishing poetry for a decade before he recorded music. And, with considerable success: his Selected Poems 1956–1968 sold 200,000 copies, Simmons reports. But still, virtually no one makes a living from their poetry, so Cohen, then living intermittently on the Greek island of Hydra, plucked a string from the lyre of the oldest Greek poet of them all, Homer, and added music to the act.
When Cohen surfaced as a singer, the “Canadian Bob Dylan” thing happened immediately. Of course, there were new Bob Dylans being discovered...read more