Lennie Has the Last Laugh

Sylvie Simmons's biography of Leonard Cohen uncovers the importance of his Jewish identity in understanding the troubadour's great output

Robert Low

In the late 1960s no student’s room was complete without Leonard Cohen’s first two albums. His gloomy ruminations about fleeting or broken love affairs, with a strong undertone of maudlin religiosity, found a keen audience among that generation’s angst-ridden adolescents; most of us can probably still sing a fair few of them off by heart.

It is interesting to learn from Silvie Simmons’s exhaustive biography that Cohen was much more popular in Britain and, naturally, his native Canada than he ever was in the United States. Perhaps his ingrained pessimism was just too much for the Americans, essentially an optimistic people. The British music press swiftly dubbed him “the bard of the bedsit” and then, as his albums became ever more introverted and melancholic, “Laughing Lennie”.

In common with many of his Sixties contemporaries—those who didn’t die young from drugs overdoses, at any rate—he is still laughing, all the way to the bank. Now 78, he continues to tour the world, playing to packed houses. He sings the old songs and a few new ones that have also become instant standards, his voice a couple of octaves deeper, his polished routine backed by an excellent band, a far cry from the anguished loner who once hated to go on stage.

Cohen grew up in a wealthy Jewish home in Montreal: his father ran a successful clothing business (Leonard inherited his love of a good suit) but died when his son was only nine. Leonard’s mother, Masha, who was born in Russia, had an artistic streak, and her son remained devoted to her for the rest of her long life: on the face of it, the classic basis for a nice Jewish boy to be unable to form lasting emotional attachments of his own. Cohen has always been a zestful pursuer of women, without committing to any of them for more than a few years: indeed the title of one of his best-known albums is Death of a Ladies’ Man. It is a reminder that Cohen, as Anthony Powell’s General Conyers was wont to say, has been a keen guardian of his own myth: Death of a Womaniser doesn’t have quite the same ring.  Simmons, who appears more than a little smitten herself by her subject, lovingly catalogues as many of Cohen’s liaisons as she can, but he would always ditch them if they got too close. “He had his own rules and needed his freedom,” explained one. Most of them have, however, stayed on good terms with him, which speaks to Cohen’s good nature, if not his constancy. 

Long before he became a rock star, Cohen was a noted poet, garlanded in his home country for his first collection, appropriately entitled Let Us Compare Mythologies, published when he was only 21 in 1956. But he had always been musical, being taught the rudiments of the guitar by a young Spaniard who committed suicide after their third lesson, a suitably Cohenesque touch. Cohen never forgot him. His great hero was Federico Garcia Lorca: he even named his only daughter after him. 

His songs are, of course, poems set to music, and it is fair to say that he is a poet of considerable ability. He has the priceless asset of simplicity, and the ability to set out the most complex thoughts in language that is pared to the bone. Take the poem “Not A Jew”: “Anyone who says/I’m not a Jew/is not a Jew/I’m very sorry/but this decision/is final”.

His Jewish identity is crucial to the understanding of Leonard Cohen. His maternal grandfather was a noted rabbi and scholar and he was steeped in his religion as a boy. It seeps into many of his poems and songs, despite an overlay of Christianity and Zen Buddhism, the religion to which he has devoted much of his adult life. The melancholic nature of most of his work is no pose: he has suffered severe depression for much of his life, and alcohol and drugs, ingested in prodigious quantities by Simmons’s account, predictably provided no lasting answers. 

Spirituality, or the search for it, has been a central pillar of Cohen’s life: he even spent five years, on and off, in a Buddhist monastery in California, although he was always able to disappear off to Los Angeles, where his first stop was McDonald’s for a Filet-O-Fish, to be followed by a bottle of good wine when he got home. It is surely not unfanciful to link his devotion to his Master, a Japanese centenarian named Roshi, with the loss of his own father so young. But one feels that deep down he is just as influenced by Rashi as by Roshi.

Cohen went back on the road not to relive his youth but for a more prosaic reason: he was broke. He had never taken the slightest interest in money, and it took a friend to point out that it had all gone. When his manager died, he entrusted his affairs to the man’s personal assistant, a pretty young woman with whom Cohen inevitably had an affair. When the alarm was finally raised, years later, a mass of litigation followed and the courts found for Cohen, to little avail: there was no money to hand back. My proof copy of the British edition of Simmons’s biography has several passages relating to this business blacked out with felt-tip pen, evidence that the matter remains highly sensitive to someone. Cohen scholars are recommended to compare the US and UK editions to work out exactly what. 

Never mind: thanks to the extraordinary success of his recent world tours Cohen has got all his money back and then some. More than that, he has demonstrated that he has finally reached a plateau of something approaching serenity. And his fans will be pleased to hear a final remark to his biographer: “I have no sense of or appetite for retirement.”

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