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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear