Life of a ladies' man: Leonard Cohen. Photo: Eric Mulet/ Agence Vu
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Stuart Maconie on Leonard Cohen: why I like the man more than the musician

Leil Leibovitz’s elegant fan letter casts its net far wider than the usual rock biog. You will find as much here on the Talmud as on the NME and more about the Yom Kippur war than Glastonbury.

A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord 
Liel Leibovitz
Sandstone Press, 220pp, £14.99

Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen 
Edited by Jeff Burger
Omnibus Press, 624pp, £16.95

At the height, or rather nadir, of the hippie fit of pique that threatened to engulf the chaotic 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, a nervous Leonard Cohen was coaxed from napping in his trailer to face the fractious countercultural hordes. The way Liel Leibovitz tells it in A Broken Hallelujah, Cohen’s beatific presence and gnomic utterances silenced the multitude and brought calm. He asked for the million-strong throng to light a match and, lo, the gathering was turned into a glittering communal constellation.

If you look at footage from that show, you’ll see that hardly anyone bothers. “A lot of you without matches, eh?” says Cohen wryly. This contrast between myth and material evidence runs through Cohen’s work and one’s response to it. If you were there, in a Seventies bedsit with a kaftaned lover, a bottle of retsina wine and some Red Leb, he was the sonorous voice of truth. If you were not, he can sound awfully like a letchy mature student singing (flatly) about his sexual past and citrus fruit. His guitar-playing is rudimentary, his singing voice more so, in a way that makes Bob Dylan sound like Plácido Domingo. Yet he is adored, as much for his inscrutable geniality and great personal charm as any of his toe-tapping hits, of which there are few.

Leibovitz’s elegant fan letter, though, casts its net far wider than the usual rock biog. You will find as much here on the Talmud as on the NME and more about the Yom Kippur war than Glastonbury, where Cohen performed a celebrated set in 2008 in what the singer calls his “autumnal” phase. Being relieved of a goodly portion of his pension fund by a sometime manager/lover has forced him back on the road and brought about something of a renaissance in his late seventies. Once mocked as “Laughing Len” by the British press for his lugubrious oeuvre, he is now something of an international treasure.

Cohen was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Montreal and as a youth fell under the spell of poetry, particularly that of Federico Lorca. It was said of David Frost that he “rose without trace” and Leibovitz’s book suggests a similarly effortless, inexplicable ascent for Cohen from student poet to pre-eminent man of Canadian letters in the late Fifties. Pretty much half of this svelte book is given over to Cohen’s pre-musical artistic activities. Opinions of this phase differ. The Boston Globe said of his 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers, “James Joyce is not dead,” while another critic said it was “the most revolting book ever written in Canada”.

Cohen’s poetry and his early reputation are probably best understood as part of a Canadian literature labouring under a weighty inferiority complex in relation to its southern neighbour and desperate for its own Canuck beatnik. Also, one has to see Cohen in the context of a Sixties rock culture whose idea of a poet was Jim Morrison, compared to whom Cohen is Milton. With all this in mind, Leibovitz is not over-reverential; he can gush, but this book is far from hagiography. He talks of Cohen “skilfully walking the line between genuine artist and smirking conman. Everybody knew that Leonard Cohen was playing the part of Leonard Cohen.”

After an obscurely funded sojourn on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen began to write songs. Leibovitz acknowledges the singer’s huge debt to Dylan and the possibility that his abrupt switch from the salon to the pop stage at the age of 31 was motivated by the desire to make Dylan-style money. Cohen is admirably candid about the rewards that hit albums offer over, say, finely wrought novellas. “There’s a possibility of substantial income, which is always delightful.”

He said that in a radio interview with the KCRW radio show Morning Becomes Eclectic in 1993. This and many other interviews spanning his lengthy career have been collected in a hefty volume called Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen. The book is better than its title, though no more complex in conceit; it’s a swath of Cohen culled from various sources spanning five decades, from interviews with a University of British Columbia student magazine to profiles in upscale US glossies.

Several constants figure through all of this: first, his unfailing charm, wit and erudition; second, the almost palpable schoolgirl/schoolboy swoon and fluster he engenders in even the hardest-nosed hack; and third, the associated atmosphere of the absurdly highfalutin. Cohen is the kind of chap who gets asked questions such as, “Do you find the tower of song a place of retreat or exile?” and even when asked boilerplate oldies such as, “How do you begin writing a song?” answers, “It begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect . . .”

Yet these two books offer a portrait of a man who sounds like a hell of guy to have dinner with, even if after the espressos and grappa, you’d be no nearer to knowing him. I came away liking Cohen the man more than I’ll ever like Cohen the musician. How can you not warm to someone who, when a concert audience applauded the intro to a tune, jokingly remonstrated: “How can you possibly know what song this is? All my songs start this way.” 

Stuart Maconie’s latest book is “The People’s Songs: the Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records” (Ebury, £9.99)

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State