The Book of Envy

There are greater singers than Leonard Cohen, and as a new biography by Sylvie Simmons details, few cultural icons who can rival him for caddish behaviour. Still, after a career spanning fifty years, the appeal of both his art and persona endures. How does Cohen get away with it?

If you’ve ever been afflicted by poetry, romance, acerbic humour or self-pity, you probably have a story about how you discovered Leonard Cohen. Mine is pretty banal, starting with stumbling across Selected Poems: 1956-1968 in Grade 9 in the school library, and then Songs of Love and Hate in the record shelves of the public library, startling me with its half-shouted paeans to suicide.

But what really lit the fuse on a long fascination was a documentary series about folk music on TV Ontario, featuring Cohen reading his poem “The Killers” and then a newsreel-style video for “Story of Isaac.” I’d never heard anyone articulate such a clear politic of pure critique, calling out the venality of power, top to bottom, without a hint of rationalization or hope of remedy. It seemed like it would take such steel. 

(As it turns out, these were rare moments of political incisiveness from a guy who was also given to jetting off to try to join the revolution in Cuba and later the Israel-Egypt war, and was rejected each time—perhaps the two most naïve, spoiled-North American-boy moves he ever let us catch.)

From that moment, and I don’t think I’m alone, I’ve been compelled by Cohen’s persona even more than by his art. There are countless songs and poems of his I cherish (especially from the 1990s, when the sense of humour really gelled), not to mention the dirty parts of Beautiful Losers. But more often I dwell upon his ability to turn a perfect phrase on stage or in an interview; his balance of gravity and gracious irony, of brutal honesty and jokes; his slender frame in modest yet impeccable black or blue suits; and, I admit, the women, from the Norwegian blonde Marianne Ihlen in a cottage on a Greek island to Janis Joplin in the Chelsea Hotel to movie star Rebecca De Mornay, his fiancée (but never wife) in his 60s.

I knew, too, that he had struggled. But so do a lot of other people, and they don’t get to be Leonard Cohen. Not tall, handsome, or even especially musical, he did it on sheer wit and will. So, more than with almost any other celebrity, one could entertain the notion it was possible to be him, this runty seducer with his gospel of negative thinking.

The news that I actually couldn’t, which came down the wire soon enough, served to nourish and water a little sprig of envy in the midst of my regard. So when I set out on Sylvie Simmons’ new biography I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, I was doubtful: Did those green-eyed shoots really want more fertilizing?

To be sure, for a chronicle of music’s self-appointed “grocer of despair,” I’m Your Man is surprisingly action-packed and rollicking, a montage of exotic locations, triumphs and calamities, famous people and intriguing bit players, monks and reprobates, bleak hotel rooms and packed stadiums and girls, girls, girls. Not an official bio, but made with the cooperation of its subject and many of his intimates, it feels up-close and comprehensive, frank but forgiving. Yet it’s also somehow incomplete.

I devoured it, but it was like an eight-course meal in which every second course is an empty plate. (One revelation is Cohen’s fetish for fasting, which Simmons skewers as half spirituality and half vanity diet.) Or perhaps it’s a whodunit in which it’s never certain which figure is the killer, which the private eye and which the corpse.

That is fitting, though. There are greater writers. G-d knows there are greater singers and musicians. Part of what Cohen brings to the poetic lineage is a post-Elvis, Dylan-and-Warhol-contemporary identity performance: An alternate title for a biography might be found in his poem “The Cuckold’s Song”: “I like that line because it’s got my name in it.” The milder, more widely adopted version of that thought is from “Famous Blue Raincoat”: “Sincerely, L. Cohen,” but what does sincerity mean for him? He told us when he came he was a stranger. In reality, a unity of life and art can only be reached via the put-on.

Yet Cohen was also more old-fashioned and passive, more Canadian, than those other avatars of self-invention. His act was half-throwback, a Fame Monster in many ways less freakish and more genteel than the world it found itself in, however much he partook of the modern liberties of drugs, sex, travel and appropriated eastern religion. No wonder, as the book traces, he kept quitting the pop “racket” and then returning.

Ultimately, however much he seems like our contemporary, no one of my generation or after really can emulate him. Cohen does come from a lost world. Simmons does a good job of sketching it, the upper-middle-class, patrician Jewish Montreal of which he was a scion—the first line of the first chapter is, “The chauffeur turned off the main road by the synagogue …” More crucially, he came of age well before feminism. Not that men today can’t treat women as shabbily and contradictorily as Cohen did, but we can’t plausibly claim it as a form of holy enlightenment. Cohen’s best lyrics (like “Hallelujah”) are in the ancient tradition of blending the erotic with the sacred; his weakest are in the mode of the dickish writers a bit his elder (Updike, Mailer, Cohen’s buddy Irving Layton). “Rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters” is lovely, but “You have touched her perfect body with your mind” is just cringey.

The biography adds detail to some of that creepiness, such as his long-term stalking of Warhol star Nico, or his absconding back to the Chelsea the moment his first child was born and embarking on the hatefully anti-marriage screeds of his book Death of a Lady’s Man. His ex-wife Suzanne Elrod (not the “Suzanne” of the above-quoted song) is the most impressively restrained of Simmons’ many interviewees. (By all accounts he did redeem himself as a father later.) If we could ask all the unnamed women who keep appearing in the margins of these scenes, no doubt we’d find more caddishness yet undocumented.

How did Cohen get away with it all? Perhaps the era expected no better from men. Perhaps his kindness in other ways evened the scales, as most of the exes who talked to Simmons seem to agree. You also can’t underrate his personal magnetism—which for all his demurrals, is such that in the summer of 1970 he could mesmerize into calm a crowd verging on a riot at the Isle of Wight festival simply by taking the stage stoned to his eyebrows on Mandrax and dragging out interminably the first few syllables of “Bird on the Wire” (“Liiiiiiiiiiiiike … aaaaaaaaa… biiiiiiiiiiirrrrrrrr…”). With that kind of mojo, how much more easily can you con the people who already love you?

Finally, Cohen might avoid culpability by having tried and sentenced himself for his all crimes in advance. (When he wrote “So Long, Marianne,” for instance, he and Ihler were still very much together—he kept changing the title back and forth from “Come On, Marianne.”) A scholar of many religious narratives, he plays the archetype of the worthless sinner, the prodigal son/lover/husband, forever cast out, forever coming back home.

Likewise he balances his weakness for playing prophet with self-deprecation: As he sings on his latest album, “He will speak these words of wisdom/ Like a sage, a man of vision/ Though he knows he's really nothing/ But the brief elaboration of a tube.” In that song, “Going Home,” he portrays God or the muse addressing him as an inadequate vessel and servant—a long-standing spiritual/artistic hustle that’s lost some of its charm in its 21st century. But it remains pretty charming.

The soundness of Cohen’s morality or philosophy may not impinge upon the value of his art. It could have some bearing on how we feel about his personage. But Simmons’ biography raises another question—whether any of this is legible in itself, or must be read as symptomology: as outcroppings and escape routes from his lifelong suffering with anxiety and clinical depression.

The book tells the story of how that depression “just lifted” sometime around 1999, on a stay in Mumbai where he was studying with the guru Ratnesh Mathur—a spirit guide much less prominent in Cohen’s publicity than the Buddhist monk Roshi, but the one who seems to have done the trick.

“I said to myself, ‘This must be what it’s like to be relatively sane,’” he tells Simmons later. “You get up in the morning and it’s not like: Oh God, another day. How am I going to get through it? What am I going to do? Is there a drug? Is there a woman? Is there a religion? Is there a something to get me out of this? The background now is very peaceful.”

It was this new serenity that led him back to making music and finally to the past few years’ seemingly endless and acclaimed concert tours—at first a reluctant, emergency financial measure after he was famously bilked by his business manager, but later, as Simmons makes clear, a true labour of love.

Cohen’s depression was always there in plain sight (after all, I first encountered him singing about Santa Claus bringing the gift of death “with a razor in his mitt”), yet its existence seemed to be confirmed for certain only when it disappeared. It was always hard not to suspect Cohen of poetically magnifying his melancholy, as both artistic device and behavioural license. He said in a 1997 interview that he knew people had a hard time grasping how dysfunctional he really was, because he had such a good “cover story.” One people might even envy.

In fact, he tells Simmons, “I had wonderful love, but … I was unable to reply to their love. Because I was obsessed with some fictional sense of separation, I couldn’t touch the thing that was offered me, and it was offered me everywhere.”

He says he doesn’t know if it was spiritual practice or an aging brain that relieved him. Part of me wondered, unkindly, if he’d simply lost the appetite for the habits the despair excused. But that’s one of the ugly effects of depression and addictions: not just their ruses and evasions, but the way they render everyone within radius (even a distant admirer) suspicious and disconnected—steely and unforgiving, like that early Cohen political poem that arrested me.

Perhaps the truth is closer to “Story of Isaac,” in which an unseen force compels a father to drag his own offspring, his weaker self, up a mountain to be nearly killed. It’s some kind of fulfillment, maybe, but it doesn’t sound that enviable. Let the jealous peacock close his fan, and as Cohen has so often, ask instead for mercy.

Carl Wilson is the Toronto-based author of Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, named the best music book of the decade by Paste magazine; Nick Hornby wrote in The Believer, "I may well have to insist that you read this book." It is being reissued in new, expanded form in 2013.