In the Human Frame
Memories of the baffled king
When I went to university in Montreal in the early 2000s, my friends and I would often meet in the Portuguese Man Park, as we called the Parc du Portugal, the little square on the Main that hosted daily minglings of pigeons and greybeards, whose most revered inhabitant was the spirit if not the fact of Leonard “September” Cohen, as he liked to call himself. Nodding at the big stone house on the corner, we’d say, “That’s Leonard’s house,” as knowingly as if he’d once welcomed us in for a chat. If only. We didn’t really know his work, hadn’t read his novels (though perhaps a few poems). Certainly, we’d tried to teach ourselves guitar with the easy chords of “Hallelujah,” maybe hummed a few strains of that one about the river, and given as an epigraph to the incredibly earnest creative writing collection we put together in 2003 or 2004 that ubiquitous line about how the crack in everything lets the light get in. The comfort we took in Cohen went beyond our knowledge of what he had to say. We were followers. It wasn’t, as he would say, academic, though we were students. It was love.
It’s September again, and in September we always return to school. Reading Michael Posner’s Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years, the first of three planned volumes of conversations with Cohen’s friends, reveals the extent to which students invited him into singing and hosted the events that drew him further on stage and away from his earlier role as a poet alone. Descriptions of his charisma make him sound like an influencer avant la lettre. Even as an undergrad, he had “followers.” Irving Layton’s son Max remembers that Cohen “had that teacher persona already, at only twenty-five.” His long-term appeal to the young is perhaps surprising, as the actor Patricia Nolin aptly points out, given that “his most successful avatar was the old man. He became this fantastic old man.” The strangeness and power of Cohen’s persona can be best explained by the writer and producer Barrie Wexler’s observation that “what was extraordinary was that he had the same effect on thousands as he had on someone across the table from him.” The voices in Posner’s book add up to a chorus of those on whom, beyond the stage, he really did have that personal impact across the table.
Posner coaxes a clear and engaging narrative out of interview excerpts arrayed like a script. It’s sometimes annoying that the voices appear out of time. When and where, exactly, did these characters make these comments? In what fit of pique or more generous mood? And maybe too much of the book is given over to restatements of Cohen’s walloping charm. But this was frankly great pandemic reading, filled with crowded rooms, new people, even soirées. As I read these pages while listening to Cohen’s records and hummed “Love Calls You by Your Name” between unsatisfying Zoom calls, an interplanetary distance stretched out between those teeming 1960s cafés and my quarantine couch. What another time those “doom decades” were.
If you are thinking that you do not need to read another Canadian biography of a Canadian, you may be right, but, I have to say, hearing all these voices from solitude carried the great interest of gossip. Consider the real sneaky pleasure in reading the evaluations of Leonard Cohen’s work as a summer camp counsellor (for not one but two years in a row) or hearing about how the famous Marianne traced the great attraction to how Cohen reminded her of her grandma. You could wonder about what Leonard would have said in the profile of Glenn Gould that he was supposed to write for Esquire in the early ’60s, which no doubt would have been worth framing, or at least collecting in that wild, never-to-be-printed anthology of unwritten classics. You could eavesdrop on his exploits on Hydra, the Greek island where a number of artists sought out a creative refuge. You could enjoy his friends’ hilarious bafflement when, despite his voice, his musical ambitions actually panned out, or the efforts at tact of his former lovers in describing his demeanour in bed (“I don’t want to say catatonic — but he would wait for the energy to inhabit him”), or how, even with people he’d slept with, he opened calls with a sombre “This is Leonard Cohen” and once “nearly burned down his mother’s house” in an inferno of love letters.
Sometimes, if you Google them, you’ll find the old friends Posner quotes have turned out to be glam Sotheby’s real estate agents in Montecito, perhaps set for an appearance in the next season of Netflix’s Selling Sunset (see Vivienne Leebosh). After Leonard, Marianne took up with the reportedly very dishy French model Jean‑Marc Appert, a quick search of whom (pics or it didn’t happen) turns up as the first hit a short-term rental listing for a four-bedroom house on Hydra — with fifty photos to click through (you’re welcome).
Part of the interest here is social. If I, not even a boomer, thought I recognized a reference to an extended family member, I wonder how many Canadians of a certain age and address in the Annex or Westmount or with a prominent place on a list of McGill donors might have even more fun playing Where’s Waldo? with this book, to see who among them brushed close to greatness. Canada is small, but our reverence for homegrown celebrity runs deep. “In Montreal,” as Cohen said, “we always thought we were famous.”
One of the novelties of reading about Cohen’s world was discovering how deeply situated his communities of practice were, both in Montreal and in Hydra. Toronto poets appear, and Cohen appears in Toronto, but the city that now feels like the centripetal black hole of Canadian culture doesn’t play much of a role in the book. In the same way that all these youthful Canadian influencers of the 1960s circled each other and published each other, called each other, hung out, did LSD, broke down and moved to Hydra together, and then devoted themselves to the strung-out literary community of angel-headed hipsters they created there, it seems to me that now we have Twitter, where the best minds of my generation are insufficiently archived, inaccessible to anyone who wasn’t already in the flow of the multi-faceted conversation, there on Twitter as on Hydra.
I found myself wondering about how, someday, the old will be interviewed about what happened on Twitter all those years ago, just as Hydra is memorialized in this book, and then as I read I began replacing “Hydra” with “Twitter,” to great effect. For example:
In the harbour on [Twitter], there were broken columns and statues in the water, and in those days everyone threw their garbage there, where the children played.
Those relationships on [Twitter] were all doomed.
Life on [Twitter] in those days was nightmarish — sex, drugs, satanism.
Once you’ve lived on [Twitter], you can’t live anywhere else, including [Twitter].
This last refrain on the livability of Hydra was Cohen’s own borrowing of a line from Ken Koch, who’d shifted it from John Ashbery’s expat take on Paris. Moving somewhere to be part of something seems to be less of a thing now that communities form not in cities but on social media. Now if people move to a remote and idyllic spot, it’s because their community is already online. Interestingly, Cohen felt he could abandon the modern world on Hydra until telephone poles appeared down the road, prompting “Bird on a Wire,” that famous song. “Suddenly,” he said, “there was this symbol of modernity straight across my window.” Hydra is like Twitter except that all those artists went there intending not to forge modern culture (though they did, as much as viral tweeters do today) but to escape it.
My favourite and least favourite aspects of Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories were the ruminations on Cohen’s personal exceptionalism. The writer Pico Iyer describes the impact of his few words in conversation as “like something coming up from the deep, a polished pebble coming up from a deep well, the deep well of himself,” while a friend, Anne Fougere, felt that she “was in the company of one of our universe’s most incredible beings.” It’s all very nice, and somehow gratifying, to know people had these powerful responses to Leonard in person as from afar. That he could be very sweet is repeated in many credible anecdotes. For example, he spends literally an entire night rubbing someone’s back; he sews on a button for a friend; he says something rather lovely about an inedible tarte au sucre. But some stories work against this view of his tenderness, from the slight — how he surreptitiously exposed a friend’s roll of film — to the increasingly disturbing and misogynist, including the vicious things he would say about Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his children; his treatment of Marianne and the painful chronicling of the five abortions she had because Leonard did not want her non-Jewish children; and, especially, the accounts of the many very young women he targeted, including an abusive sexual manipulation of seventeen- or eighteen-year-old Barbara Dodge that Posner’s editorializing does not handle well.
Cohen mistreats women throughout the book, and today many of his habits would not be acceptable, but for now these aspects of his story, as the critic Myra Bloom put it in a 2018 essay, seem “to have been grandfathered in.” Bloom also noted that the status of the second of his two novels, Beautiful Losers, has rightly plummeted since it appeared in 1966. Posner quotes the filmmaker Tony Babinski, who says of the novel, “It’s a misogynistic, kind of creepy book.” On its violent appropriations of Indigeneity, the educator Carol Talbot-Smith says, “It didn’t bother me at that point, even though I’m half-indigenous. I didn’t know enough about my aboriginal history. Today, I would take umbrage.” And as the filmmaker and physicist Henry Zemel recalls, “Beautiful Losers — whatever that’s about. It’s like nonsense. We didn’t talk about it much. He himself would have said it’s unreadable. I felt that at the time, but did not say it.”
On the syllabus for his Leonard Cohen class at McGill, the literature professor Brian Trehearne writes, “Students who ‘love Leonard Cohen’ when they enter the course are often shocked to find some of his works ethically repellent.” Infrequently read though it may be, this body of work is part of Cohen’s legacy.
While Cohen’s oeuvre and behaviour display a troubling misogyny, Posner also reveals that women writers were not part of the literary universe in which he situated himself. Posner’s first volume ends with Cohen the same age as I am now, thirty-seven, which I note because it is fun to compare mythologies: at every year, in each new phase of life, in contrasting my experience with Cohen’s, I was struck over and over by how a girl, woman, or mother like me would have been shut out from equal participation in his world. So many women appear in this book who couldn’t declare authority —the right to be heard based on claiming an inevitably male inheritance of literary voices — the way he did. For example, the poet David Solway contends that “among the Jewish poets, the original prophet was A. M. Klein, and he passed the mantle, like Elijah to Elisha, to Irving Layton. And Irving in later years gave the mantle as a gift to Leonard.” In the margin next to this pomposity, I had no choice but to write an exasperated “Oy.”
Cohen references so many male mentors and favourite artists but rarely if ever places women in those roles. Indeed, we seem simply to be in the wrong category for influence. On the friendships he enjoyed with his all‑male McGill profs at poetry parties, Cohen says, “There were no barriers, no master-student relationships. They liked our girlfriends.” The misogyny of this circle of men passing literary torches back and forth between them like back pats, with women filling sexual roles only, is revolting. Sarah Avery Kelly, one of Cohen’s university friends, makes the uncomfortable observation that she “was the only other female there,” a remark that held true for my own graduate school days of after-hours socials with professors. Male students seemed to benefit from some sort of chummy mentorship that wasn’t replicable for or among women. Reading this book sent me back to those school days and made me realize that maybe I didn’t feel I fit in because I hadn’t really been invited to the party. Not being a girlfriend, I had no role to play.
I recall my high school self performing one of Cohen’s poems for drama class and angrily shouting the line “Do you like your thighs?” (Apologies to anyone who shares this memory.) I’d chosen the piece, and no doubt a better actor could have made it captivating, but I could never get it right. The reading made no sense, and I didn’t know why. Only years later, now, do I see that it wasn’t meant to be read by someone like me, that it was never meant to be read by a teen girl, out loud. I was the object, not the voice. “He owns the phrase ‘naked body,’” says his ex-lover Joni Mitchell. “It appears in every one of his songs.”
Instead of straining my eyes to reconcile the ick with the admiration, perhaps I should just let Cohen go and be a dirty old man among the strangers of the Portuguese Man Park, along with a send‑off from one of his own songs: “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel, / that’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.” Still, though calling on a literary genealogy of women feels far from Leonard’s habits, I’d nonetheless like to reference the critic Terry Castle’s famous allusion to Susan Sontag on Virginia Woolf: “But now the lady’s kicked it and I’m trying to keep one of the big lessons in view: judge her by her best work, not her worst.”
For a while, in a bit of unsanctioned street art in direct violation of Bill 101, the sign for Rue Marie-Anne across from Cohen’s old house in Montreal was annotated to read, “So long, Marie-Anne and Leonard.” Indeed, we’ve been bidding a long farewell to this country’s foremost sage since his death in 2016. Cohen’s face hangs over the horizon in Canada, and the burnt gravel road of his voice can be hard to leave. Ongoing endings were, after all, among his favourite themes.
Cohen is turning into a “secular saint,” as Brian Trehearne, the McGill professor, points out in his foreword to Francis Mus’s The Demons of Leonard Cohen. A large part of Mus’s project is teasing out significance from a vast genre of ephemera, such as album covers and minor sketches, but the book is broadly a study of Cohen’s personas — what Mus, who teaches at the University of Antwerp, refers to as his “demons”— as well as how audiences have received these poses.
While Mus generally proceeds with a breathless reverence for Cohen and his work, the highlight of the book for me was his questioning of the same habit among his scholarly colleagues. He describes how, at an academic symposium in Montreal in 2018, the presentations “were more like testimonies,” an impression he says was bolstered by the “recurrent use of the first name ‘Leonard’— pronounced in either English or French.” Mus eloquently questions the familiarity implied by this form of address, but many of us speak directly to Leonard sometimes, don’t we? Some people find his work maudlin, depressing, even dull, but to those susceptible to the elements of the sublime in his best work, the personal appeal of his songs draws responses in kind from his listeners, and his memory continues to invite a strange intimacy, just as his performances did. As he grew older, he became increasingly interested in prayer as a genre of writing, and some, from Bob Dylan to Rabbi Mordecai Finley (whom Cohen met in Los Angeles) to Cohen himself, suggested that his work should be read as such. If he is now becoming a secular saint, someone whose name can be taken in vain, someone who calls us by our names, perhaps it is because first he was a liturgist.
In any process of saint making, forgetting is part of remembering, and if the value of what can be taken from remembering excuses the lapses in memory, then people seem to find the process worthwhile. “What is a saint?” Cohen asks in Beautiful Losers, a work so obscene it’s hard to fathom it appearing, as I think it must have, on both my grandmothers’ shelves as part of the New Canadian Library series. “I think it has something to do with the energy of love,” he answers. “It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of love.”
I am not persuaded that many of us would seek blessings from the men Cohen imagines in this pantheon, these monsters, but it is easy to imagine him looking to stand among them. The refrain of “The Gallery,” one of the songs Joni Mitchell is said to have written about Cohen, shifts between the lines “I am a saint” and “I am no saint.” Mus helps us to think about how the grandiosity of Cohen’s claims to grace managed not to fall flat because of his persistent irony about himself and his poses. A line that comes to mind in this context is one by our profane Etobican Churchill of the glib and snippy quip, the late Rob Ford: “There’s a lot of perfect people out there. I’m not one of them.”
That Leonard seemed to disavow his sainthood while also declaring it makes it somehow easier to bestow it on him. Mus observes that The Spice-Box of Earth contains the line “I played with the idea that I was the Messiah,” and he points out how often Cohen “reincarnates himself,” a trick he’d perfected. Perhaps in canonizing Leonard, we’re awaiting his messianic return, looking to our secular saint to be born again, purified of sin. He all but told us to expect it. Posner quotes Barrie Wexler, who says, “He could conjure up himself,” while the broadcaster and Cohen ex Madeleine Poulin echoes many of us who never even met him in saying, “I can relive his personality in my mind quite easily.”
Cohen’s old friends describe a person always on the move, who “never really lives anywhere physically,” with a habit of turning up when people most wanted him, and maybe vanishing too when they missed him most. A line he repeated about Hydra and Marianne —“I’ll want to go away so I can come back again”— becomes a refrain for everywhere and everyone he visited, and any place that, in the end, like Cohen himself, is not so much longed for as difficult to fully abandon. For women trying to understand how to look at his haloed figure as it hovers about and wondering where to stand for a clearer view, maybe we want to go away, so we can come back again.
Nevertheless, when, in some negligible text message about a recent curbside pickup, my phone auto-corrected our national brand to “Canadians tired,” I thought of Leonard. He would have found a way to articulate our longing through all the loneliness and fear, through the languishing of the pandemic. The writer Leon Wieseltier says in Posner’s book that Cohen found the calm before the storm boring. “But the calm after the storm — that was his ideal.”
I now think that, all grown up and world famous in Montreal as my young undergraduate friends and I were, and misinformed though we may have been, just at the start of an endless education, the reverence we had for Leonard Cohen was the comfort we took in thinking that nearby dwelt a father who saw the world through the eyes of children. This September, as we face, hope for, and examine an end to this pandemic, as we slowly return to school, maybe he’s a poet once again to speak to us of aftermath.