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

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.