Leonard Cohen’s life is ultimately a story of enlightenment and redemption, says Richard Fitzpatrick
THERE are many clues to the Grocer of Despair’s personality in Sylvie Simmons’s fascinating 500-page biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. The troubadour was born into a wealthy Jewish household in Montreal in 1934, good fortune which shaped him in several ways, not least his impeccable dress sense and good manners. It was his father’s death at nine years of age, however, which had the most profound effect on him.
“He said publicly before that he didn’t cry when his father died,” says Simmons. “It maybe is cold, that it didn’t seem to affect him, but it did. His first piece of writing, apparently, he folded up and put into one of his father’s bow-ties and buried it in a secret ceremony in the garden, so there’s some kind of strange significance there if you like in his writing life, but more pertinently his mum doted on him. He was the only son, though he had one sister. So he was in a house of women. He loved women; women loved him.
“His mother indulged him in many ways in his wandering around Montreal at night, playing his guitar and writing his poetry... He didn’t have that male influence that would have probably sent him into one of the big professions, as a lawyer or a businessman or something.”
Cohen shot to prominence on the Canadian literary scene at 21 with the publication of his first volume of poetry. But his novel Beautiful Losers was dismissed by one critic as “mental masturbation”. It was written on the Greek island of Hydra — one of several resting points for the peripatetic poet during his 20s — under a haze of speed and scorching sun. On finishing it, he promptly undertook a 10-day fast, which resulted in hallucinations and a visit to hospital.
Fasting became a lifelong pursuit for him, as much, suggests Simmons, for vanity (Cohen has chubby cheeks) as transcendental reasons. The amphetamines — his drug of choice, alongside hashish, LSD and the downer pill, Mandrax — he kicked immediately afterwards, maintaining it took 10 years to fully recover. He has battled constantly with depression, an affliction his mother shared; on setting off for Columbia University for postgraduate study she advised him to take a long shave whenever he felt the blues setting in, advice he practised.
There was a small, bohemian ex-pat community on Hydra, which was a pit of incestuous love affairs; it was said one of Cohen’s lovers dived into the sea in a despairing chase for his departing boat, only to be rescued by a man who became her new lover.
It was on Hydra in 1960 that Cohen met the greatest of his many muses, Marianne Ihlen, the ravishing Norwegian blonde immortalised in the ballad, ‘So long, Marianne’.
Their affair lasted for most of the 1960s. Cohen often toyed with domesticity, and has two children with Suzanne Elrod, but, as Simmons suggests, it was always more tantalising to have a lover to long for, rather than there beside him.
The lovers included Janis Joplin, with whom he had a notorious tryst in the Chelsea Hotel; Joni Mitchell, who said in a 2005 interview: “I briefly liked Leonard Cohen, though once I read Camus and Lorca I started to realise that he had taken a lot of lines from those books, which was a disappointment to me”; and an engagement to the actress Rebecca de Mornay in the 1990s which foundered when he entered a monastery, a remarkable five-year interlude which he spent in robes working as a chauffeur for Roshi, a small, rotund Zen guru still alive at 105.
Cohen also chased Nico, the blonde German model-cum-singer, known for her stint in the Velvet Underground, but unsuccessfully. He was 32 years old at the time; she preferred her men young, like Jackson Browne, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix.
“I went with Nico to hear Jim Morrison — I think he was playing for the first time in New York at a club — and Hendrix showed up and he was glorious, very beautiful, and I’d come with Nico and when it was time to go I said, ‘Let’s go,’ and she said, ‘I’m going to stay. You go,’” recounted Cohen to Simmons with a laugh.
Cohen, of course, came late to the music parlour. In 1966, despondent at the penury that had been his lot as a writer, he set off for Nashville to become a country singer but only made it as far as New York where, through an intermediary, he met up with Judy Collins, who was beguiled by the songs he showed her.
His first live appearance — alongside Collins, singing Suzanne, at a theatre in New York in February 1967 — was an ordeal. He twice left the stage with the jitters, “my fingers like rubber bands”, he wrote to Ihlen, only to return a third time to complete the song.
“One thing I was very much struck by was his resilience,” says Simmons. “On one occasion.... I’d asked him who his hero was. The answer he gave was Muhammad Ali — ‘takes a lickin’, keeps on tickin’.
“For almost his whole life, Leonard was in the ring, fighting depression, but he kept going, and ultimately beat it in his old age. And in his 70s, having discovered that his manager and financial advisers had completely wiped him out, he picked himself up, dusted himself down and got back to work.
“I never knew that I would be writing a book about enlightenment and redemption but three years after starting it, that’s where all those paths led me.”
* I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, by Sylvie Simmons; Jonathan Cape, €22; e-book: €13.00
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