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Leonard Cohen and Robert Fulford

Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years by Michael Posner (Simon&Shuster, 2020)

Matters Of Vital Interest: A Forty-Year Friendship with Leonard Cohen  by Eric Lerner (DaCapo Press 2018)

Leonard Cohen: A Woodcut Biography by George A. Walker (Firefly Books 2020)

A Life In Paragraphs: Essays by Robert Fulford (Optimum Publishing 2020)

     I first heard of Leonard Cohen while still living as a teenager in Scotland. His Sisters Of Mercy was played on my favourite radio show, Top Gear, and the disc jockey, John Peel, raved about waking up after an all-night gig, hearing the song for the first time, and feeling like he was waking up on another planet. It struck me immediately as beautiful in some mysterious unearthly fashion, maybe only similar in tone to some Simon and Garfunkel songs. You haven’t heard much when you’re fifteen.

     Settling in Canada a couple of years later and adjusting to my new life in high school and then college, the beauties of his ballads had much more to compete with in the flush of great musical innovation then washing over the airwaves. Cohen’s Selected Poems seemed to be on every second bookshelf, and at various get-togethers I would sit to browse its pages. Often, one or other attendee tried the complex finger picking patterns behind the hypnotic melodies.

     As the cultural bubble of my generation slowly expanded, my reading of his novels The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers merged with the newer albums and earlier poetry books to form the beginnings of an oeuvre I found by turns fascinating and repellent. The sour taste left by the sword thrusts of The Energy Of Slaves (1972) shocked me with its bitter self-recriminations. Apparently, we were welcome to call him Len or Lennie now. It seemed, as he sang in Songs Of Love and Hate, that there were “no more diamonds in the mine,” and yet at the same time, on the same album, he sang that “love calls you by your name.” Such radical contradictions suffused his vision for decades.

     The long career trajectory, from obscurity to cult fame to obscurity to world wide fandom, is well known by now. Interviews, articles, films, and at least two responsible biographies have provided us with many fascinating sketches of the riddles that made up his life—riddles that are being gradually embellished with a wealth of detail. Many of those details are present in Michael Posner’s oral biography, Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years.  The first of three volumes, which is just short of 500 pages, promises a trilogy of around 1,500. I don’t know about you, but I say, Wow!

     Many of Cohen’s childhood friends, girlfriends, fellow writers, musical colleagues, and collaborators are quoted at length, often contradicting each other’s memories. It’s a charming complexity that Posner wisely refuses to smooth out with invisible edits, leaving us with an exhilaratingly bumpy ride as it meanders through childhood, summer camp, college, mid-sixties Montreal bohemianism, the paradise imbibers of Hydra, and the daring plunge into the New York music scene. We remember him well at that Chelsea Hotel even if we don’t think of him often.

     Here is John Simon (producer of his first album): “I suggested we go to my parents’ house to go over the material. Leonard stayed up all night going through my dad’s library. I slept, he didn’t. He was a man, while other rock acts I worked with were boys. An established poet, real bright and clever with words. Had that finger picking triplet style, very impressive, sort of classical.”

     Barrie Wexler (friend): “Leonard really understood the psychic glue that is Hydra. Call it magic, call it fairy dust—when you step away it dissipates. Love born on Hydra doesn’t travel.”

     Leonard Cohen (on Birdland, a short lived Montreal jazz club, circa ’59): “I’d come on at midnight and improvise while Murray Kaye played piano, sometimes by himself and sometimes subdued arrangements of tunes, while I did my own riffs or set pieces like something from Let us Compare Mythologies.”

     Seymour Mayne: (writer/friend) “For the Anglophone culture in Montreal, which had been very vigorous, French nationalism was a challenge. For younger Jews, who began to leave, it seemed to be a form of the nationalism that had oppressed Jews in Eastern Europe.”

     Alexis Bolens: (Hydra friend): “I was standing close to him on the terrace when somebody said they’d dropped a tablet of LSD on the floor. Leonard immediately went down on his hands and knees, poking under the legs of tables, and other guests, tying to find the acid.  You’d have thought someone had lost a diamond earring.”

     Julie Felix (folk singer): “I said, I can’t get into my place, and he said, ‘You can stay here.’  He had this tiny house with a great big double bed. Worried, I left my clothes on and hugged the side of the bed. He was very respectful. Next morning, with the window open, he was typing Beauty At Close Quarters when a gust of wind blew all the pages out into the street.  We ran out chasing them. I would have been upset but Leonard was laughing as we went running up and down.”

     The above selection gives only hints of the depths explored in this first third of the opus. Even if you have perused the previous biographies, as I myself have, you will be impressed by the deep catch of Posner’s fishing expedition. It’s as fine an oral biography as I have had the pleasure to read.

     As we await the later volumes, you might take some time to examine Eric Lerner’s 2018 memoir, Matters Of Vital Interest, commemorating his forty-year friendship with the poet, mostly from the era of that famed bungalow in LA, and the devotion to Roshi, the Zen master on nearby Mount Baldi. Very much a guy book, with a little too much boys-will-be-boys locker room talk for my taste, it does get quite real as both men age into infirmity and admit their failings, if only to each other.

     Lerner, while interleaving many of his own gripes over career crashes and health disasters, illuminates some of Cohen’s later-in-life challenges. His relationships with his growing children, Adam and Lorca, and his sister Esther are recalled with fond insight. The “insistent perfectionism” of his composing and recording process, at a time when record companies paused their earlier enthusiasm, is evoked with precision, and as the bone marrow disorder that afflicted him for years sentenced him to recurring bouts of fatigue, we hear this: “Nothing could rush him. He became slightly mesmerized by the grains of sand streaming through the narrow neck of the hourglass. ‘It’s a race to the death!’ he proclaimed with caustic glee.”

     Last but not least, we have George A. Walker’s Leonard Cohen: A Woodcut Biography (2020), which is exactly that. Many woodcuts (“on the endgrain of Canadian Maple”) depicting many stages of his life, some inspired by Sylvie Simmon’s biography I’m Your Man (2012).  Added to more mythical and metaphorical portraits are representations of Cohen with Ginsburg, Hendrix, Nico, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed and Phil Spector. All are accompanied by pithily appropriate quotes, many of which will be familiar to fans. It’s an aesthetic celebration that will no doubt be treasured by many.

     Whether Cohen was a projection of pure charisma or a mere pawn of the goddess charisma is a subject which will be debated for decades, I should think. That could not be said of Robert Fulford, now officially one of the grand old men of CanLit. He is more the intrigued inspector of spotlights than the object of one. A journalist, editor, and media personality of many years’ standing, he seems comfortable now, off to the side, ruminating and reflecting. I knew him best as the longtime editor of Saturday Night and his film reviews, which he penned as Marshall Delaney. His latest book, a collection of essays, originally appearing in Queen’s Quarterly, is A Life In Paragraphs (2020). And what an entertainingly thoughtful collection it is. I cruised through it with the kind of pleasure others find in yachting on a fine, slightly breezy sunny day. His concerns, though mainly cultural, are wide-ranging, and his probing intelligence transcends mere curiosity, catapulting the reader into that brainy vestibule of some museum of knowing, where every annex leads to fresh discoveries.

     His musings on Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, and Alice Munro are as impressive as those on Walter Benjamin, Anton Chekov, H.G. Wells, Alan Bloom, and Emperor Julian. To pick out a favourite, as I might with “The Munro Woman: History as We Read It in the Stories of a Nobel Laureate,” would be unfair to equally fascinating contenders like “Under the Spell of the Tango,” “Talmudic Thought and the Pleasures of Disputation,” “Neither Times nor Literary nor Supplement,” “Slumberous Mumblement in Academe: Tortured Sentences, Strangled Thoughts.” But let me say this: I could not put down this delightful meander through the author’s interests and obsessions. Yes, it was my book at bedtime, but it also served as mid-morning diversion and late afternoon stimulation, not to mention its taking me back to his 1999 essay lectures, The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture, which explores with cool aplomb the guises of that ubiquitous form: gossip, legend, romance, history, novel, film and critical theory.

     Years ago, I thought to praise the occasional essays of George Woodcock, as collected in the volume Powers Of Observation (1989), and I would have reviewed it, had anyone asked me, in those days before websites and blogs, when print seemed the only portal. But the good news is this: the essay form appears to be having a renaissance these days, and I applaud the young-ish women who seem to be following in the wake of Rebecca Solnit et al. in appending their thoughts to contemporary trends, issues, and outrages. Meanwhile let us salute the generation that is gradually passing into the immortality of cultural studies.

G.P. (Jan/21)

Gordon Phinn has been writing and publishing in a number of genres and formats since 1975, and through a great deal of change and growth in CanLit.  Canada’s literary field has gone from the nationalist birth pangs of ’65 – ’75 to its full blooming of the 80s and 90s, and it is currently coping as well as it can with the immediacy and proliferation of digital exposure and all the financial trials that come with it. Phinn’s own reactions was to open himself to the practices of blogging and videoblogging, and he now considers himself something of an old hand. His Youtube podcast, GordsPoetryShow, has just reached its 78th edition, and his my blog “anotherwordofgord” at WordPress continues to attract subscribers.

Phinn’s book output is split between literary titles, most recently, The Poet Stuart, Bowering and McFadden, and It’s All About Me. His metaphysical expression includes You Are History, The Word of Gord On The Meaning Of Life.

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