Oct. 22, 2020
By RUTH SCHWEITZER
Leonard Cohen rarely gave candid interviews and he also managed to avoid media scrutiny. He was a man of mystery cloaked in bohemianism.
Generations of fans of the brilliant Montreal-born poet, novelist and singer-songwriter have been touched by his interesting mind and his penetrating song lyrics for decades. They’ve connected to him, sometimes deeply, yet know little about him.
A new Cohen biography, Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years, published by Simon & Schuster Canada, reveals more about Cohen’s personal and professional life than previous biographies do. At nearly 500 pages long, it will certainly satisfy the inquisitive.
This is the first volume of Michael Posner’s series about Cohen. Posner, a former writer for the Globe and Mail, interviewed more than 500 of Cohen’s friends, associates, one-time lovers, and acquaintances, and gathered enough material for three books. The second volume is due in the fall of 2021, with a third to be released in the fall of 2022.
They are oral biographies, made up of brief excerpts from the interviews Posner conducted, with some quotes from Cohen himself. Posner doesn’t vouch for the accuracy of those memories that often come into conflict. Was it Cohen who gave LSD to the 15-year-old son of his muse, Marianne Ihlen, or was it the boy’s father? From the accounts in the book, it was probably not Cohen, but we’ll never know for sure.
In his introduction to volume one, Posner writes that one of the virtues of oral biography is that “everyone gets to take the stand, and the jurors – readers – decide whose version of the truth they endorse.”
The book opens with chapters about Cohen’s family and his youth in Montreal during the 1940s and ‘50s – he was born in 1934 – and ends in 1969, by the time he’d achieved minor stardom as a songwriter and singer.
Cohen’s grandfather, Lyon Cohen, was president of Montreal’s Shaar Hashomayim synagogue, where the extended Cohen family filled two rows during services. About Judaism, Cohen said: “What I missed in the tradition was that nobody ever spoke to me about methods, about meditations. I was hungry as a young man – I wanted to go into a system a little more thoroughly. I wanted to be exposed to a different kind of mind.”
What Cohen found lacking in Judaism was the seed that propelled him on a lifelong spiritual search, from Scientology to Zen Buddhism. Then at the end of his life, the search brought Cohen back full circle, to Judaism.
The most influential woman in Cohen’s life was his mother, Masha. Cohen’s longtime friend, fellow poet Irving Layton, paints a picture of Masha as a stereotypical, domineering Jewish mother, commenting that “her eroticism was directed at Leonard.” Linda Clark attributed his inability to make a full commitment to a woman to Masha, because part of Cohen heart always belonged to her.
But Cohen had a huge appetite for sex. Deadly charming, he was frequently on the prowl and seduced many women. “A friend of mine once asked me if Leonard had ever hit on me,” Cheryl Sourkes says. “I said no. She said, ‘We must be the only two women in Montreal [that he didn’t hit on].’” Many worshipful women were drawn to Cohen, too, attracted to him like metal filings to a magnet, recalls Max Layton, Irving Layton’s son.
Some readers may be troubled by the sexism of Cohen’s generation of men and his younger, artistically inclined male followers, who got easy access to the women around Cohen. “The men around him were treated to the women, whether they were married men or not,” recalls Carol Zemel. “It was one of the ways he held men in his thrall – there were always women around. If he wasn’t sleeping with them, he shared them.”
In 1960, Cohen moved to the Greek Island of Hydra, where he lived with Marianne over a period of seven years, when he wasn’t in Montreal or New York City. Hydra was an artists’ colony and, being the 1960s, sexual freedom was blowing in the wind. But freedom didn’t necessarily make for happiness. “Relationships were unraveling. Everyone was sleeping with everyone else,” says Aviva Layton, Irving Layton’s wife. “Open marriages. It really was a painful, emotionally dangerous time.”
Drugs were easily available on Hydra and Cohen indulged in several, including cannabis, hashish, LSD and amphetamines. Always a hard worker, drugs didn’t stand in the way of his creative output, maybe even enhanced his work.
Several books of Cohen’s poems were published in the 1960s: The Spice Box of Earth in 1961; Flowers for Hitler in 1964, and Parasites of Heaven in 1966. His semi-autobiographical novel, The Favourite Game, came out in 1963, and a second novel, Beautiful Losers, was published in 1966.
The critic Leslie Fiedler said Beautiful Losers was either one of the best or worst novels he’d ever read – he wasn’t sure which.
Critic Myra Bloom wrote that Beautiful Losers’ “experimental form, along with its critique of history, religion and other metanarratives, make it a perfect object lesson in Canadian postmodernism.” But she added that “lately, though, the book has started to resemble a how-to guide for writers who want to tank their literary careers.”
Sales were poor for Beautiful Losers, so Cohen decided to become a singer-songwriter. But it was not just for the money, Barry Wexler, a Canadian writer and producer and friend of Cohen’s for 50 years, maintains: “Leonard never thought he’d be spoken of in the same breath as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and e.e. cummings – or even first-rate poets like Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, and Allen Ginsberg,” Wexler said. “He knew he was good, but didn’t think he was great. That, in part, is why he applied his talent to song. There, a minor poet – no small thing in itself – could become a major lyricist.”
The release of Cohen’s first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967, foreshadowed the kind of chart success he would go on to achieve. The album, which included Cohen’s signature song, Suzanne, reached No. 83 on the Billboard 200 and peaked at No. 13 on the UK Albums Chart. Cohen had made it to the bottom rung of stardom.
Cohen wasn’t a good singer, but by 1967, that no longer mattered, after a folksinger with a whiny voice, Bob Dylan, had paved the way for Cohen to become successful singing his own songs. Audiences were beginning to appreciate what songwriters bring to performances of their own material.
Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years is a detailed account of Cohen’s fascinating early life and career. For serious Cohen fans, it’s a page-tuner.