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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser