“Lots of writers have dared walk up to the edge of reason and stare into that great chasm, into the abyss. Very few people have got there and laughed out loud at what they saw. It’s the divine comedy.”
—Bono, on Leonard Cohen
You either love or hate Leonard Cohen’s music. I bought Songs of Leonard Cohen when I was in my early 20s. I had never heard anything like it: the spare songs with minimal instrumentation, the almost monotonous but compelling voice and the clever, beautiful and sometimes funny lyrics (in spite of complaints that his music is suicidal, it’s often laced with humour). The record saw me through a period of deep depression when I was unable to listen to music. It felt like only Cohen’s songs seemed to be able to penetrate the darkness, and it is still one of my favourite albums.
Liel Leibovitz makes it very clear that this is not a biography of Cohen. Instead he tries to understand what makes Cohen so important. As he puts it, there have been better poets, more skilled novelists and songwriters with greater talent. “But Leonard Cohen lingers and thrives because he is not really any of these things, at least not essentially. He is something more intricate, the sort of man whose pores absorb the particles of beauty and grief and truth that float weightlessly all around us yet so few of us note.”
But who was Leonard Cohen and what shaped him? He was from a Jewish family in Montreal. His father, Nathan Cohen, died when he was nine, something that affected him deeply. One of his early influences was his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, who spent almost a year with them after his father’s death. Rabbi Klinitsky-Klein’s Judaism, with “its language of punishment and justice, of damnation and salvation”, was far more fiery than the “polite theology” that the Cohens followed. It was spiritual but also erotic, something that spoke to an adolescent Cohen. This influence can be seen through many of Cohen’s songs: the drawing on images from the Bible and the mix of the sacred and profane. As Cohen puts it: “Real spirituality…has its feet in the mud and its heart in heaven”.
If you know Cohen’s songs, you will enjoy this book. Leibovitz goes into detail about how some of the well-known songs were conceived. When Cohen went into the studio to record Songs of Leonard Cohen, the producer John Simon thought Sisters of Mercy needed a hurdy gurdy to give it a sense of a “mobile healing operation pulling into town” (quite clearly, Simon did not understand what the song was about). Cohen relegated the hurdy gurdy to the background and put the lyrics front and centre, which is where they needed to be. “If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn / They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.” Why would lyrics like these need to be dressed up?
And then, of course, there is Hallelujah, the song that took Cohen a year to write. There are probably around 80 verses but most versions—including Cohen’s—only use a handful of them. The song is a masterpiece of pain and loss.
“Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”
What I liked about this book is that it tries to explain what made Cohen the poet/songwriter he was. It is not a gossipy, tell-all book but gives a more in-depth perspective of the times that Cohen lived in—the literary scene in Canada, the rise of the protest song in the US or the politics in Israel—and how he reacted to, and was affected by, these events. Cohen was one of the greatest poets of our times, and this book does his work justice.