A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord
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)