Who By Fire


I’ve been reading a biography of Leonard Cohen, recently: the 2012 I’m Your Man, by Sylvie Simmons. It’s an interesting journey through the life and thoughts of an exquisite artist who is, by nature, somewhat reclusive and stays out of the spotlight, but is deeply dedicated to his art.

I don’t normally read “star” bios or autobiographies – frankly they often seem contrived and the lives portrayed, no matter how gussied up in prose, merely shallow. Most of them I categorize as “who cares?” books.

Even those musicians I respect and admire have little to keep me turning pages. I struggled with Keith Richards’ autobio and never finished it. In Eric Clapton’s bio I got through a mere chapter. I read the two-volume bio of Elvis, but it took months to complete. I have read a few Beatles’ bios, mostly because they were such a huge influence on me when I was young. Most of these books, however, bore me with their similarities and unbridled adulation.

But not this one. I was glued to it (as much as I can be glued to any one book when I’m always reading a dozen at a time).

Cohen interests me for many reasons. First, he’s Canadian and that colours his work and his life for me in ways an American or British artist cannot. Not many Canadian writers or musicians garner the praise and awards he has.

Second, he was first a poet and novelist before a songwriter, and I have an appreciation – bordering on worship – of both talents in others. I read his poems and books when I was a sales rep for McClelland and Stewart, in the mid-70s, and even met him once at a party thrown for M&S authors. I still have several of his books in my library.

Third, he eschewed the glamour and glitter that permeates most stars’ lives and lived plainly, simply and austerely. I respect people who do not feel the need to wear their money on their sleeve. He makes himself known by his literary and musical achievements, not by his bling.

Fourth, he studied and practiced Buddhism for many years, and was even ordained a Buddhist monk – a dedication and effort I can only admire from afar; my dabblings in Buddhism seem like a splash through a rain puddle in comparison. Yet the grandson of a respected rabbi also retained his Jewish faith and culture.

Fifth: I discovered Cohen’s music in the late 60s with the release of his first album. This was a time when I was very susceptible to pop culture and was also playing a lot of guitar, and I tried to learn everything I heard. Music from that period stayed with me. I thought him one of the best, most articulate, most intellectual and honest songwriters I’d ever heard, an opinion that has not dimmed over time. I still play several of his tunes on the ukulele.

True, there’s a certain darkness to a lot of his work (that isn’t always suited for the chirpy ukulele…), and the raw emotion he often gives us is not easy to take in large doses. It’s like a dinner of exquisite dishes: best to be savoured one at a time, not en masse. As it says in The Telegraph review of the book:

Out of this cocktail of suffering and desire, Cohen seems compelled to make music that turns out tender and profoundly meaningful, songs that are to his audience life-changing and hypnotic, delivered in that ever-deepening voice. When redemption comes, and almost miraculously the depression lifts, you want to join in with one of the 80 rousing choruses he wrote for Hallelujah.
Cohen’s long quest to find the meaning and beauty in life, expressed so honestly in his work, has earned him the twinkle in his eye as well as the evident love of the women in his life and of his still growing legion of fans.

Sixth, I had heard on CBC Radio an interview with the author of The Holy or the Broken, about how Cohen’s song Hallelujah had become such an iconic piece. I heard it at the same time I was arranging a version of the song for our local ukulele group. It’s a strange story for a song that was ignored for a decade after its release, but it speaks about the power of music in our lives. I bought a copy of the book and began to read it. Then, a week or so later, I found the Simmons’ book in a local used book store. It all revitalized my interest in Cohen and his work.

And finally, Cohen has become the epitome of cool. He was always cool, to his fans at least, but he has aged into a leathery smoothness and lustre that he never wore in the folk music days of his early career.

Cohen’s first books appeared in print at the time I consider the halcyon days of Canadian publishing and literature: the Sixties. Publishers actually printed books of poetry and they actually sold in Canadian bookstores. Not in any great numbers, true, but Canadians seemed to appreciate and support our national poets more then than today.

Looking through my own library, I see only a few titles left from that era, including Cohen. But I recall lugging my case full of samples from bookstore to bookstore around the province and pumping the latest collection of poems to the bookseller.

To be fair, any biography of a pop icon is going to roll along with its share of gossip, scandal, and waywardness. That’s just the human condition. Simmons is relatively uncritical when documenting Cohen’s meandering lifestyle, inability to make long romantic commitments, his mosquito-like flitting to and from spiritual and religious camps.

Neutrality is, however, better than adulation, and in her book, Cohen comes across as the archetype of the artistic seeker for wisdom, truth, and a little nookie while he’s navel-gazing. Most of the other players in this story are treated with similar abstention from moral judgment, although Phil Spector comes across as a bit of an armed and out-of-control nut case.

What intrigued me the most, I think, was Cohen’s time in New York when the music scene was heating up; at the tail end of the beat era, when folk had not quite given way to the hippie culture. That’s where Cohen met people like Nico, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchel, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and Judy Collins. All performers whose music I still listen to.

But his whole story proved highly readable, in part, I think because Cohen emerges from the narrative as fully human, not an object of fan worship. His fragility, vulnerabilities, his moods, his confidence and insecurities, his passions and his pain are all visible. It’s a good read.

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