The Voice of the End of December: On Leonard Cohen’s Life and Music

By Tom GallagherJanuary 7, 2013

The Voice of the End of December: On Leonard Cohen’s Life and Music

I’m Your Man by Sylvie Simmons

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 with some regularity at that point, but still, it does seem that if there’s a “Beatles or Rolling Stones” debate for the “singer/songwriter” generation, it would come down to Dylan or Cohen. By the time the 33-year-old Cohen first sang with Judy Collins, the then 25-year-old Bob Dylan had already recorded — in four years — the seven albums that made him the “Bob Dylan” to which everyone else would be compared. Cohen’s career has run quite a different course.

For many listeners of a certain age, i.e., those approaching Cohen’s age, “Suzanne” remains the highlight of his career, perhaps even the only song of his they could name. He wasn’t exactly the kind of musician you would hear regularly on commercial radio. His first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, came out at the end of 1967 and reached number 83 on the Billboard charts. Next year’s Songs from a Room did a bit better at number 63, but he would not match that sales level for over 40 years. He went 30 years without a studio album that even cracked the Top 200. When he improbably collaborated with “Wall of Sound” producer Phil Spector on his 1978 Death of a Ladies Man, he had reached the point where there were not that many people taking notice of how truly bizarre this match was. (Spector is currently in jail for murder, and Cohen does tell Simmons he recalls the presence of guns at the recording sessions.) The line from “Suzanne” — “He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone” — seemed to about sum up his relationship with the American public.

Such was not the situation everywhere, though. Not surprisingly, he’s always been more popular back home in Canada, but he was also much better known throughout northern Europe, Australia and most notably, the United Kingdom, where his second album went to number 2 on the charts. In the US, however, his stock sank so low that his label, Columbia, wouldn’t even release his 1984 album, Various Positions. Ironically that album, released by a small label in 1986, contained “Hallelujah,” a quintessential Leonard Cohen song about the ineffable — which at this particular moment might be the woman in the dark dress at the other end of the bar. In 2001, Rufus Wainwright sang it on the soundtrack of Shrek. Since apparently every American below a certain age has been compelled to see this film, the song has become Cohen’s mostly widely known, with over 300 cover versions. The song also happens to be brilliant — at least in this listener’s opinion.

The year Shrek came out, Cohen reached Billboard’s Top 200 Albums once again. When people started taking another look at him and what he’d been up to for all these years, it turned out that not only had he never gone away, but he had been turning out great songs all along. Just not very quickly: he has only released 12 studio albums (to Dylan’s 35).

Simmons does a solid job of walking the reader through both Cohen’s musical archive and his life story. The true fan looking for the Marianne of “So Long, Marianne,” who lived with Cohen on the island of Hydra and was pictured on the cover of his second album, will find her here. I’m Your Man may also straighten you out on your Suzannes: The mother of his children, Adam and Lorca, is Suzanne, but she’s not that Suzanne. (The Suzanne who fed him tea and oranges that came all the way from China lives near Santa Monica, by the way). Cohen got his blue raincoat during a stint living in London. And while this is nothing like a “tell-all” book, given Cohen’s recurrent themes, you can hardly blame Simmons for telling about some of the other women he’s kissed. (Joni Mitchell, yes; Nico, no — but not for lack of effort on his part; Suzanne of the song, no.)

The real news out of this book, though, is that Cohen may no longer be the sort of person you’d expect to find at a Leonard Cohen concert. For decades, he has been the voice of “four in the morning, the end of December.” Simmons calls his Live Songs “perhaps the most somber live album ever” — its liner notes include a letter to Cohen from a woman who killed herself in a mental institution. After Johnny Cash famously sang at Folsom Prison in 1968, Cohen’s band played mental institutions on their 1969 European tour — a lot of them, Simmons says. Cohen once told another writer he had “the feeling that the experience of a lot of people in mental hospitals would especially qualify them to be a receptive audience for my work.”

But that was then. If you’ve actually seen him on tour over the past several years, you’ve already witnessed the change. He regularly tells his audiences how, although he has spent considerable time pursuing the knowledge of various religions and philosophies, somehow “cheerfulness kept breaking through.” That pursuit had taken him in quite a different direction after his last tour in 1993, when he moved to a monastery on Mt. Baldy, about 50 miles from Los Angeles, and was actually ordained a Zen Buddhist monk in 1996. Death of a ladies man, indeed. He went to the mountain to spend more time with Roshi, a monk whom he’d come to consider his teacher, who was then nearing 90 years (Roshi is 105 years old today). But after five years, this too would pass, for as Roshi told him, “You can’t live in God’s world. There are no restaurants or toilets.”

So far as worldly matters went, though, the business end of the music business was never one of Cohen’s strengths. By the time “Suzanne” came out, he had somehow sold off the rights to it. In 2004 he learned that his manager had swindled him out of most everything he had. The swindle would ultimately send him back on the road to recoup his losses. In 2006, he finally published another book of poetry, Book of Longing, his first in 22 years. He even sang “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne” at a bookstore signing in Toronto, where 3,000 fans showed up. It would take a couple more years for his return to actual concert performances, starting very tentatively at a 700-seat theater after four months of rehearsals. His little winning streak has been going on for over four years now, to the point where it looks like the victory lap of a lifetime. We assume that the man who wrote the line, “There is a crack in everything — that’s how the light gets in,” appreciates the irony.
For the past five or so years, I have been pleased to be part of one of the more unusual byproducts of Cohen’s career: the Conspiracy of Beards, a 20–30 member all-male a cappella choir that sings only his songs (see page 348, I’m Your Man). After his return to the road, one of our people contacted his people and arrangements were made for us to sing in the lobby of the Oakland Paramount Theater before his three shows there in October 2010. The lobby was beautiful and all, but otherwise the gig wasn’t much; our potential audience were official Leonard Cohen Fan Club members who were granted early admission, the main benefit of which seemed to be first crack at the T-shirts for sale. The Webb sisters, his back-up singers, had to be pulled away from listening to us one night so they could get to another engagement, but unless he came in disguise, Leonard’s curiosity never got the better of him.

I would no doubt have stayed a disappointed man, if not for Simmons’s description of Cohen’s relatively contemplative mode of life on the road this time around. Where his band once went though an airport holding hands because they were all tripping and didn’t want anyone to get lost, now it’s led by an ordained Zen Buddhist monk who’s not likely to come on stage on a horse again or invite the entire audience back to his hotel either. So if Leonard should read this, I want him to know that I’ve let it go. And, by the way, if you haven’t seen him perform live: do it.


LARB Contributor

Tom Gallagher is a writer and activist living in San Francisco. He is the author of Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools and The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes On the Military Industrial Complex. He is a past member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.


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