Bloomsbury Popular Music - Ladies And Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen
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Dylan and Cohen
Dylan and Cohen

David Boucher

David Boucher is Professor of Political Theory and Head of the School of European Studies at Cardiff University, UK and Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Staffing and Diversity.. He is the Chairman of the Trustees of the Collingwood Society and Director of the Collingwood and British Idealism Centre at Cardiff Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Continuum, 2014

Subjects

Music Genres:

Folk Music

Peer-Reviewed:

Yes

Periods:

1950s, 1960s, 1970s

Topics:

Politics

Related Content

Ladies And Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen

DOI: 10.5040/9781501330537.ch-004
Page Range: 99–116

I’ve had people tell me that my records have made their lives not worth living.[1]

I loved Dylan’s stuff as soon as I heard it. I was living, in a certain sense, in the same kind of universe that he was living in, and that when I heard him, I recognized his genius, but I also recognized a certain brotherhood in his work. And we have since become … acquaintances, I might even say friends. There is some kind of communion between us.

—Leonard Cohen

Cohen’s early interest in music came after the big band era, but just before the rise of a youth culture and the invention of the teenager. He enjoyed the music of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, and Johnny Ray, and later became passionate about Hank Williams and Ray Charles. Ray Charles, for example, achieved worldwide success in 1960 with the Hoagy Carmichael song “Georgia on My Mind” and classics such as “Take These Chains from My Heart” and “Hit the Road, Jack.” He recorded two volumes of country-and-western-influenced material that became extremely popular. These albums, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Volumes One and Two (1962), were among Cohen’s record collection, and played over and over again while he worked on his poems and prose.

These musical influences surface most distinctively on Death of a Ladies’ Man, the album overproduced by Phil Spector, and which lack of success inspired CBS America to become distinctly cool toward Cohen until the huge popularity of I’m Your Man in Europe in 1988. The song inspired by

Figure 4.1. Leonard Cohen and girl.


Nico on Death of a Ladies’ Man, “Memories” is played in the style of Frankie Laine, with loud, wailing saxophones in the foreground and the voice receding into the distance, and opens with the line “Frankie Laine was singing ‘Jezebel.’”

When Cohen was young, he played guitar and clarinet and also took piano lessons. The first live performance Cohen attended, in 1949, was of Josh White, who was associated with the leftist folk movement of New York, but who later lost a lot of credibility because of his testimony against Communist folksingers in the McCarthy witch hunts. At the age of fifteen, Cohen was more thoroughly introduced to the world of protest music by Irving Morton,[2] a folksinger and left-wing agitator who, at a Jewish community camp, Camp Sunshine, in 1950, taught Cohen and other campers traditional songs from John Lomax’s The People’s Songbook, which included songs from Woody Guthrie and Josh White. (One of the compilers of the book was Pete Seeger.) Cohen later acknowledged the influence of these songs by including several of them on his first live album, Leonard Cohen: Live Songs (1973). At the time that he was introduced to the songbook, Cohen was learning Spanish guitar and reading the poems of Federico García Lorca. The songbook included songs of Spanish oppression and resistance, which had an inspiring effect on Cohen, who was at that time, following the death of his father, his mother’s remarriage to Harry Ostrow, exhibiting early signs of the depression that was to plague him throughout his life.

Ed McCurdy in Montreal, the Weavers, Pete Seeger, and the work of John and Alan Lomax were making popularist music more widely known. The emphasis on “the people” in these songs gave the whole genre a left-wing slant. “The people” themselves were to be the salvation of society, delivering it from all its evils. It was perhaps a naive but laudatory faith in the power of democracy. The People’s Songhook included antifascist songs and French and Spanish Republican Army partisan songs. The book taught Cohen that music was a medium through which freedom, resistance, and political protest could be conveyed, reflecting both social and personal optimism. Evenings later spent in Montreal cafes and bars and in friends’ houses, playing these songs and composing a few of his own, helped shape Cohen’s style. It was through folk music that he discovered what a lyric was, and he was inspired to undertake a more formal study of poetry at McGill University and later at Columbia University.

Poetry and Jazz

Cohen developed his public persona primarily through poetry recitals, often with fellow Canadian poets Louis Dudek, Irving Layton, and A. M. Klein. In addition to these, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation brought together poets A. J. Smith and F. R. Scott for the film Six Montreal Poets (1957), which followed the poetry tour and interviewed Cohen along the way. Cohen read eight poems from his Let Us Compare Mythologies, which was first published in 1956.

Cohen also chanted poetry to the accompaniment of his own guitar improvisation and occasionally to jazz music. His first readings to jazz accompaniment were in 1957 (some sources say 1958) in Birdland, a poor imitation of the original New York club, above Dunn’s Restaurant and Emporium on Sainte-Catherine’s Street, Montreal. Cohen would improvise, while Bill Barwick’s Trio or Maury Kaye and his jazz group played. Cohen also worked with a jazz guitarist from Winnipeg named Lenny Breau, for example, when they played Manitoba in 1964.

Cohen had heard Jack Kerouac’s jazz poetry readings at the Village Vanguard while he was a student at Columbia University. It took guts for Cohen to stand up in a seedy nightclub)—where most of the clientele had

Figure 4.2. Poster for Leonard Cohen poetry and jazz, 1964 (original held in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto).


come to see the girly floor show the Tappettes, in which the buxom dancers undressed to the legally permissible limit—and chant poetry to jazz accompaniment. One account relates how, early in the evening, Maury Kaye’s band would play more conventional popular tunes in keeping with the floor show. When the excitement died down around midnight, Cohen, dressed in black and illuminated by a single spotlight, would appear. To the audience’s astonishment and their exclamations of “What the fuck!” he would start reciting poetry.[3] On occasion Cohen was joined by other poets, including Layton, Dudek, and Daryl Hine.

A $2,000 Canadian Arts Council grant enabled Cohen to go to London in the late 1950s, before it became the “swinging” place to be. There he started to write a novel, The Favourite Game (then titled Beauty at Close Quarters), which he completed on the Greek island of Hydra, where he had bought a house for $1,500. He returned to Montreal in 1959 for a brief period to earn some money at poetry readings, including one in New York with Layton and his former teacher, F. R. Scott.

In 1961, at the age of twenty-six, he published his second collection of poems, The Spice-Box of Earth. His popularity became such that the National Film Board of Canada made a documentary, directed by Donald Brittain and Don Owen, with Cohen as the centerpiece. The film Ladies and Gentlemen … Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965) captured the poet as performer, humorist, and personality. In it Cohen delivers a carefully prepared, immaculately timed comic routine in which he pauses strategically for laughs.

Cohen’s next collection was the much more deliberately provocative and offensive. Flowers for Hitler, originally titled Opium for Hitler, which was published in 1964. The poems reflected the themes of his adopted island of Hydra, history, and politics.

Like Dylan, Cohen has projected a public image that has changed over the years, but not as persistently and radically as Dylan’s. The answers he gave to serious questions in interviews were often irreverent, flippant, and mostly tongue in cheek. Privately, however, he was very shy and insecure, uncertain of his talents and his prospects of success. Cohen’s papers in Toronto University show that he was much more self-disclosing than Dylan. Cohen is self-effacing, disarmingly honest in talking about his lack of success with publishers. In his private correspondence he doesn’t try to present himself as other than what he is. The letters reveal that while he was writing what was to be described as “pure filth,” Beautiful Losers, he was at heart a good Jewish boy, writing to his mother and sister Esther frequently. The struggling artist relied heavily on the support of both, receiving the odd cash contribution and loan when times were hard. Many of his relatives visited him on Hydra, including his mother, Marsha, his cousin Alan, and his uncle Edgar.

While on Hydra, Cohen worked intensively and obsessively on his second novel, Beautiful Losers, published in 1966, which outraged some critics and sent others into raptures. In Canada it was almost wholly vilified. Maclean’s Review characterized it as reducing “sex to something at once more elemental and sick, more psychotic than pornographic.” Robert Fulford, in the Toronto Daily Star, thought it “the most revolting book ever written in Canada.” Outside Canada Robert Am, writing in Cambridge Review, described the book as a “tirade of obscene poetry.” Its message, according to Arn, was little more than that we live in strange and disturbing times, the originality of which consisted in the fact that it is “expressed with such relentless insistence in terms of the genitals.”[4]

In the United States, critics were kinder. Beautiful Losers was better received in the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books. In the former, for example, despite the fact that “constipated, masturbated, fantasy-sated, our hero promises the experienced reader of anguished monologues another ride through another hell,” the critic acknowledged that there are “bursts of expository eloquence.”[5] It is a novel, another critic commented, that delighted in blood and buggery in a way reminiscent of William Burroughs.[6] Beautiful Losers was eventually translated into twenty languages and sold over three million copies, after selling only a few thousand copies before Cohen became famous for his singing and songwriting. In the same year he published the collection Parasites of Heaven (1966).

After being well received as both a poet and an author, Cohen made his way to New York and became part of the folk music culture, which had changed considerably since Dylan’s entry into it. Cohen had listened to country music on the Armed Forces Radio broadcasts in Greece while writing Beautiful Losers and had written some early versions of songs. It was Nashville that beckoned to him, but on the way he became interested in a new phenomenon in music, Bob Dylan. In a self-deprecating way, Cohen once described to a friend the qualities he possessed that enhanced his own chances of success: “I’ve got three things going for me. I have a terrible voice, can’t even carry a tune. Also I’m very small, emaciated, with a residue of acne. And I’m demonstrably Jewish (Dylan is not). The only thing going against me is that I play the guitar too well.”[7] For a year or so Cohen simultaneously pursued his musical and poetry reading careers. Invitations to his manager, Mary Martin, continued to flood in for his appearance at poetry festivals and for his contribution to panels discussing the state of modern poetry, even after his musical success.

In New York, Cohen associated with Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez and made his debut at a Judy Collins anti—Vietnam War benefit concert in April 1967. When he first met Collins in 1966 to play her his songs, at Mary Martin’s instigation, Cohen struck her as “very shy and nervous,” especially about singing in public.[8] He had been introduced to Collins by Martin, Al Grossman’s Canadian assistant, who was also responsible for getting the Hawks to play backup for Dylan. Collins immediately thought Cohen’s songs were beautiful but believed there was nothing in his repertoire for her. She asked him to let her know when he had something else in which she might be interested. Cohen went back to Montreal to finish Parasites of Heaven and there put the finishing touches on a song that he had been working on for some time. He knew the lyrics were powerful, capturing the mood of the Montreal waterfront and the righteous beauty of Suzanne Vaillancourt, the wife of Cohen’s friend Armand Vaillancourt.

Meanwhile, Cohen’s fame in Canada as a novelist and poet worked to his advantage as a singer in so far as he was permitted a little self-indulgence. He first sang on television on the CBC show Take Thirty in 1967. The producers had never heard Cohen sing but took the risk in order to get an interview with the poet. For the show, he wore an immaculately tailored gray flannel suit and sang a twenty-minute version of “The Stranger Song,” which was considerably shortened for broadcasting. Cohen’s publicity for poetry reading recitals, such as the one he gave with Irving Layton in New York in February 1966, describes him at the time as also being a “song-writer.”

“Suzanne” was the song that launched Cohen’s musical career. Judy Collins released it on her successful album In My Life in November 1966, and Noel Harrison took it to the charts in 1967. Collins’s follow-up LP, Wildflowers, reached number five in the charts in November 1967 and included three Cohen compositions: “Sisters of Mercy,” “Priests,” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” Collins’s next album, Who Knows Where the Time Goes (1968), included two Cohen songs, “Story of Isaac” and “Bird on the Wire,” both of which were featured on Cohen’s second album, Songs from a Room (1969). (His first, Songs of Leonard Cohen, was released in December 1967.)

Even though Cohen has never written a conventional protest song, he has nevertheless included some in his repertoire over the years. In his 1972 tour of Europe, for example, he included the anticapitalist song “Banks of Marble,” which Pete Seeger made popular, an Irish Republican song, “Kevin Barry,” and the American labor movement and civil rights song “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

Figure 4.3. Flyer for a Layton and Cohen poetry reading in New York, 1966.


Although Cohen was often linked with the New York folk music scene, he was nevertheless distanced from it in a number of ways. He was much older than the new generation of folksingers when he released his first album. At thirty-three, he was positively ancient. He had a university education and wore expensive suits. But above all he was not as overtly politically left wing as the movement in general. He was more comfortable with the avant-garde New York cultural scene surrounding

Figure 4.4. Leonard Cohen at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival (Glenn A. Baker Archives/Rctirerns).


Andy Warhol and the Chelsea Hotel. He was also much more self-absorbed than many of the young folksingers. He was only half joking when he said that after seeing Nico, the singer with the Velvet Underground, at Warhol’s club, the Dom, he forgot about the “good society” and followed her obsessively all around New York.[9]

The songs that reflect the early influence of The People’s Sonqbook are “The Partisan,” “The Old Revolution,” and “The Traitor” (Accent Songs, 1979).[10] “The Partisan,” written by Anna Marley in 1944 and included in all of Cohen’s tours between 1970 and 1988, was a response to the German occupation of France in World War II and Marley’s role in the French Resistance. The song tells of the enemy pouring across the border and killing a woman who has given refuge to three soldiers. Only one of the three sheltered soldiers survives, and it is his voice that speaks the narrative. In contrast to the specific story of “The Partisan,” “The Old Revolution” and “The Traitor” do not have a clear message. They may be inspired by actual events, but they are not ostensibly about those particular situations. Their imagery may reflect identifiable events, but the songs are woven into an imaginative web that conveys a mood rather than a message. They offer no solutions, merely invitations to share in the singer’s suffering.”[11] “Story of Isaac” (Songsfrom a Room), which one critic, Mikal Gilmore, described in 1985 as the best antiwar song written in the past thirty years, serves as an illustration. The song is ostensibly a retelling of the biblical story of Isaac, whose father, Abraham, was ordered by God to sacrifice. Throughout the song, however, the particular is universalized to deplore man’s inhumanity to man and to extend the reprieve to our relations with each other in the contemporary world. Judy Collins’s version was altered by her to fit in more specifically with the anti—Vietnam War sentiments of the late ‘60s. She ends the song with the lines “And may I never learn to scorn / The body out of chaos born / The woman and the man.” Cohen himself denied that “Story of Isaac” could fit squarely into the antiwar camp. Indeed, his version concludes with the ambiguous lines “Man of peace, man of war—the peacock spreads his fan.” He said in 1973 that he didn’t need to have a song like John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” A song about conflict sung in a peaceful way would have the same message. In fact, he expressed his disdain for “slogan writers.”[12] He nevertheless thought that all his songs were political in some sense. They were often strongly against one kind of authority or another.’[13] In his song “A Singer Must Die” (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974), he says:

The courtroom is quiet, but who will confess? The answer is Yes. Then read me the list of the crimes that are mine. I will ask for the mercy that you love to decline. And all the ladies go moist, and the judge has no choice: a singer must die for the lie in his voice.[14]

The Future (1992), implicitly conveys a suspicion of all individuals or movements that promise perfection, such as communism, fascism, and certain types of religion. The extremes have become alluring and having left the middle ground exposed and vulnerable. It is a song that portends the future, but more disturbingly it is saying that the future is here and now. In the present the catastrophe is already evident. We are in the flood, the signposts are submerged, and the lights have gone out.[15] It is not something about which we can be indifferent: “The deluge is here and I care what happens.”[16] There is a collective nervous breakdown taking place, testimony to which is the sale worldwide of fifty million Prozac pills a week.[17] The social contract between individuals has become frayed and is dissolving, and there is a return to tribalism where individuals are protecting their turf by reverting to homicide.

In such songs as “Democracy” (The Future) and “The Land of Plenty” (Ten New Songs) there is a sharp social criticism of the United States, in praise juxtaposed with irony and in satire portraying the light and the darkness, the delusions and the aspirations of the “land of the free.” Each of these songs is an invitation to the country to transcend the blindness of greed and to redeem itself with a broader vision capable of a greater inclusivity, not only within society, but also between the society and races. Cohen implores the mighty ship of the American state to transcend corrosive hatred and the reefs of greed in order to land safely on the shores of need. Both songs are immensely optimistic; despite the squalor, degradation, violence, hatred, and sense of void, there is a huge potential to be realized and shared: “It’s coming to America first / the cradle of the best and the worst. / It’s here they got the range and the machinery for change / and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst” (“Democracy”). “Democracy” is a spirited song, a call to maintain the rage against the dying of the flames of freedom, and to spread the flames of the white heat of resurrection. It has the same determination as “First We Take Manhattan” (I’m Your Man), without the sinister intent, but serves to remind us that the forces of good and evil have equally strong battalions in the struggle for survival. The song also is a caution to those who were exuberant over the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and believed, as Francis Fukuyama did in The End of History and the Last Man (1992), that liberalism had triumphed. Events in the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Afghanistan and the destruction of the Word Trade Center in New York, along with the rise of right-wing movements in France, Germany, and Eastern Europe, have sadly confirmed Cohen’s skepticism as justified. Nevertheless, whatever may be unedifying about the United States, Cohen sees it as the great social experiment, the land where the races face each other, rich and poor are in confrontation, and the sexes battle for supremacy. It is the laboratory of democracy, with no guarantee that the experiment will work.[18]

In “The Land of Plenty” the crusader becomes the reluctant hero; after withdrawing to find a personal spiritual peace, he cannot renounce the social conscience that longs for the light of truth to illuminate the whole world. At the same time, not having the practical motivation, the fire to engage in the cause, or the will to fight, he is left, like Moses, wondering why he has been chosen to lead the exodus: “Don’t really have the courage / to stand where I must stand. / Don’t really have the temperament / To lend a helping hand.” Both “Democracy” and “The Land of Plenty” continue themes that first emerged in Flowers for Hitler. Here Cohen is clearly repulsed by the greed, cruelty, and hypocrisy of modern society and politics and sees its transfiguration in religious revelation: “May the lights in The Land of Plenty / Shine on the truth some day” (“The Land of Plenty”).

Political themes, without overt finger-pointing messages, permeate Cohen’s poetry, and the power of his imagery, when it works, has a profound and disturbing effect. There is often overstatement, sometimes to the extent of voicing an extreme opinion more for effect than substance. The man known for his seriousness and intensity of mood finds it difficult to sustain this seriousness when asked to comment on serious issues. He may often self-mockingly call himself “laughing Lenny,” but he is only half joking. Some poems are humorous and satirical, as, for example, his merciless mocking of the language issue in “The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward” (Flowersfor Hitler). In writing this poem, Cohen performed a political action by invoking the conventions of joking, overtly enough for everyone to get the joke, but subtle enough not to be too obvious and tiresome. He exhorts his compatriots to make the French speak English, to invent a completely new language, and to award a Canada Council fellowship for the most novel suggestion. The poem is a series of one-and two-line sketches that are juxtaposed but not thematic, united in their tone and overall point rather than in the details. Toward the end, alluding to fears that Canada may become the fifty-first state of America, Cohen says, “Let us threaten to join the USA / and pull out at the last moment.”

Cohen has certainly not been reticent to voice political opinions in interviews. His experience of the darker side of New York life, the poverty and the despair, contrasted with immense wealth, puzzled him. Conspicuous consumption channeled into the living rooms of the poor through their television sets and the contrast between rich and poor on the streets generated for him a conundrum: Why did American society hold together? Why did the cohesiveness remain strong when everything to which the poor, both black and white, the oppressed, could not aspire to have or attain was constantly being rammed down their throats? Why didn’t those who had little or no stake in society simple revolt? They were being infuriated by being exposed constantly to what they didn’t have. Cohen further saw the cohesiveness of society being eroded by drugs and by the federal government’s showing little interest in doing something concerted to stop the drug trade. For Cohen, the reformed drug abuser, the only way to arrest the almost deliberate targeting of white and black youth culture, destroying the life chances of the young, was to identify and attack those countries supplying drugs. The systematic supplying of drugs constituted an attack on the United States every bit as serious and perhaps more invidious than a conventional attack. Cohen responded to such an attack by using the conventional weaponry of war: “I think this is a real attack and I think that it should be met with real force … with the full force of the American armed community. So I would really go in and bomb the countries that are supplying drugs to America.”[19]

The Man with the Golden Voice

We have seen that Leonard Cohen mixed with the usual suspects in the New York folk music scene, heard much the same music, and was subject to many of the same influences. So what made him stand out from the crowd as a performer, someone able to capture audiences in ways that most of his contemporaries in the genre were unable to do? What made the man of the sorrowful countenance touch the lives of so many? Kris Kristofferson was able to encapsulate the power of Cohen’s understated persona when commenting on the way he projected his personality before crowds. At the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, a weary audience, disgruntled with long delays in setting up equipment and sound level checks between acts, witnessed a disheveled, unshaven Cohen take the stage at 4:00 a.m. in battle fatigues and pajamas, semi-composed, tune-up for what seemed like an eternity, and begin to play. Kristofferson thought the audience would kill Cohen: “Then he did the damnest thing you ever saw: he charmed the beast. A lone sorrowful voice did what some of the best rockers in the world had tried to do for three days and failed.”[20]

Besides the banal observation that Cohen’s lyrical poetry had a depth and intensity that created a strange mood, that mood could not be set without the vehicle through which to do it. A hypnotic voice and good lyrics were not enough. Although Cohen himself did not rate his singing ability, and indeed mocks it in his song “Tower of Song” (I’m Your Man), it was recognized to have a mysterious and alluring quality. One reviewer remarked that Cohen’s voice “has a magic incantatory quality which hypnotises his audiences, and especially teenage audiences, into a state of bliss if not grace.”[21] The ingredient that crystallized the experience was the unusual musical forms and chord sequences. Although Cohen was in the American folk music scene, he was not of it. He did not rely on tried and tested melodies, nor did he play the guitar after any recognizable pattern. Yet there was a subtlety to the difference that did not make what he did jar with convention, but imperceptibly made listeners alert to a difference.

Buffy Sainte-Marie was immediately alert to this difference that set Cohen apart. She thought that it was probably his lack of musical training and ignorance of what he was doing that made his melodies exude originality. They are not conventional and certainly not predictable. Most songwriters, she suggested, use a very simple melodic line if the words are powerful and significant, and a very complex line if they are not. Cohen accompanies his forceful imagery with “outrageous modulations,” often starting in one key and ending in another. Enchanted by the poetry, the listener is drawn into wanting to hear the song over and over again to grasp and appreciate what is happening in the music. Sainte-Marie argued that Cohen “has the delicious gall to ask us, who do not even know him, to follow him into a completely original and sometimes scary mind of words without the aid of any of the old folksy musical cliches we are used to holding on to as a guide-rail.”[22]

In his mature life Cohen has become renowned for his immaculate and suave appearance. He always was meticulous about his appearance, but from time to time he has cultivated different styles. His famous blue raincoat (“Famous Blue Raincoat,” Songs of Love and Hate, 1970) became part of his persona for a decade or more. It fit in with his fantasy of being discovered on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and of playing the part of a detective in a Hollywood movie. He became so attached to his raincoat that it literally did become torn at the shoulder. In an interview he gave to Duel magazine in 1969, Cohen told the interviewer that he tended to wear clothes until they wore out. He found it difficult to find clothes that represented him. Clothes, he argued, have a magical quality in that they can really transform you in a day. In order to choose clothes that represent you, it is necessary to discover and know who you are. It is something that women have known for a long time and that men are only just beginning to acknowledge.

Songwriting for Cohen is not merely an expression of emotion; it is that, but it is also something much more disturbing, more akin to the exorcising of demons than to the calming of the spirit. It is certainly cathartic, serving to purge inner thoughts. The effect, however, is a severe withdrawal into himself, wounded with flesh torn and his personality under attack. The completion of each creative phase or projection is also the disintegration of the self, which each time has to be painfully and laboriously rebuilt. The process invoked, for Cohen, is whatever works: sex, drugs, antidepressants, religion, art, poetry.

Cohen’s writings exude torment, the unending quest for redemption through troughs of deep depression, verging on insanity. With the release of Ten New Songs (2001), Cohen for the first time freely talked of his clinical illness, manic depression. It was for him a lifelong affliction with only brief and infrequent moments of respite. Interviews over the last three decades or so hint at his dark states of mind, periods of intense confusion, self-doubt, and self-hatred. Cohen spoke of being almost paralyzed by anxiety, unable to write, and filled with confusion. During the recording of Songs of Leonard Cohen, Richard Goldstein spoke to him in the Chelsea Hotel and was obviously irritated by what he took to be Cohen’s affected fascination with “cracking up.” Goldstein claimed that Cohen’s favorite words were at that time wiped out and bewildered. Cohen told the interviewer that being wiped out was the “real” moment in life, and that around thirty or thirty-five was the traditional age for poets to commit suicide.[23] Goldstein remarked that Cohen appeared to judge episodes in his life by his inability to cope with them. In an interview published in the June 1972 issue of Maclean’s, Cohen’s response to the question “How are you feeling?” was, “I’m just reeling… . I’m staggering under the blows. No doubt I contrive these blows for myself.” In other words, he took full responsibility for his state of mind, and with the exception of recent interviews, has never attributed the darker side of his thoughts to a clinical illness.

The songs Cohen wrote brought a degree, if only marginally, of coherence into his life, only to be almost immediately dissipated. He described his second album, Songs from a Room, as very bleak. The voice projected despair and pain and accurately reflected the state of mind of the singer. In The Favourite Game Cohen sensitively characterizes an extremely disturbed child, Martin, who dies at the summer camp where Breavman is working. Cohen felt an affinity with that boy, unable to communicate with the world, unable to make sense of it. As a youth, he himself was drawn to the people who the world called mad, as well as the socially aberrant, the drug addicts, tramps, and alcoholics who draped themselves all over Philips Square and Clark Street in Montreal. The completion of his second novel, Beautiful Losers, made him completely “flip out.” His reason for writing it was that he considered himself a complete loser, both as a man and as a lover, morally and financially. He resented his own life and even vowed to fill the pages with black as an alternative to killing himself. When the book was finished, he fasted for ten days and had a nervous breakdown. He was taken to a hospital on the island of Hydra, where, he contended, the sky was black with storks who rested on the roofs of houses and took flight the next morning along with his depression.[24]

The 1971 tour included in its itinerary a series of unpublicized concerts at psychiatric institutions. Cohen did this tour not out of any sense of charity, but because he enjoyed playing to mentally ill patients and admired their honesty. If they did not like a song, they just got up and left.[25] Cohen maintained that “those people are in the same landscape as the songs come out of. I feel that they understand them.”[26]

Daphne Richardson was a patient in a London psychiatric hospital whom Cohen visited on one of these trips. She had previously written to him, sending samples of her work, both prose and poetry. Some of her work juxtaposed lines from Cohen and Dylan, but she had failed to get permission for the use of the Dylan material. Cohen found on meeting Richardson that she was much more lucid and intelligent than he had expected. He was so impressed by her artwork that he asked her to illustrate his poetry collection The Energy of Slaves (1972). Richardson spoke to her caretakers of Cohen’s invitation, but they did not believe that she had actually made contact with the famous poet. In responding to her subsequent anger and frustration, they were forced to restrain her. Richardson’s letters and telegrams to Cohen asking for confirmation of his invitation to assure the hospital staff that she was not suffering from delusions did not reach him until after she had committed suicide in 1972. Ignorant of this, Cohen had actually instructed his agent to issue a contract and to confirm the truth of their professional relationship. The album Leonard Cohen: Live Songs (1973) includes an illustration that reproduces page 3 of Richardson’s notebook. The first word of the first line of prose acts as the title: “Transfigurations.” In the center of the page is a brightly colored eye, the corners of which are made up of red, blue, and green partial ellipses, with the remainder constituted by decreasing colored ellipses, the iris changing from orange, to green, to red, with the pupil colored blue and red. In capital letters following the line of the eye is the word INTENSITY. In this work, Richardson claims that, despite the fact that she could not substantiate her “outrageous claims,” God had brought about a transfiguration by entering her body, in which, as a consequence, love bleeds and burns.

In the late 1970s, Cohen had a severe breakdown and found himself unable to write. He sought medical advice and was prescribed antidepressants. The drugs leveled out his mood, but they also put a ceiling on the heights of his emotions. He was semi-comatose, able to write a little but frustrated by the rate of progress. Cohen eventually threw away the drugs and regained his composure and determination. It was after this that he completed the songs for I’m Your Man, the album that resurrected his career.

In some moods Cohen thought of his songs within the genre of blues music. They were an expression of his low self-esteem and unhappiness. Leadbelly amusingly says in the prologue to “Good Morning Blues” that the white man does not have the blues because he’s got nothing to worry about. Cohen’s take on this is slightly different. He contends that “the blues as an art form didn’t come from the black man being more miserable than the white man, but rather from his being more honest with himself about it.”[27]

Since leaving the Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy, near Los Angeles, where he had trained since 1993 and where he had become ordained as a monk, Cohen has talked more freely about his fight against depression. In talking about the song “Alexandra Leaving” (Ten New Songs) on the LeonardCohen.com Web site, he said that all his life he had been fighting against clinical depression and that all of his obsessions and indulgences, from sex and drugs to religious contemplation, were attempts to deal with it. That depression has now lifted, and he attributes the relief to nothing that he has done, but instead to a natural process. According to Cohen, he read once that as you grow older, the brain cells responsible for anxiety die more rapidly. He had expressed this same belief in 1993 while promoting The Future, but nevertheless he felt that he needed the disciplined guidance that the monastic life could give him.

After The Future, no new songs or poetry emerged until 1997, with the single entitled “Never Any Good.” Ten New Songs was his first album since The Future. Cohen continues to write, but it is a painstaking process for him.



[1] Quoted in Tom Chaffin, “Conversations from a Room ,” Canadian Forum (August/September 1983): 8 ; and Jim Devlin, Leonard Cohen in His Own Words (London: Omnibus Press, 1998), 82.

[2] Cohen’s introduction to folk music is also attributed to Alf Magcrman.

[3] Doug Beardsley, “On First Looking into Leonard Cohen,” in Intricate Preparations , ed. Stephen Scobie (Toronto: ECW Press, 2000), 6–7.

[4] See Maclean’s Review, May 14, 1966; Robert Fulford, Toronto Daily Star, April 26, 1966; and Robert Am, Cambridge Review, December 2, 1967.

[5] Lawrence M. Bensky, “What Happened to Tekakwitha,” reprinted in Leonard Cohen: The Artist and His Critics , ed. Michael Gnarowski (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1976), 28.
[6] Dennis Duffy, “Beautiful Beginners ,” reprinted in Leonard Cohen , 29.

[7] Quoted in Ira Mothner, “Songs Sacred and Profane ,” Look , June 10, 1969.

[8] Judy Collins, Singing Lessons (New York: Pocket Books, 1998), 144.
[9] Jim Devlin, ed., In His Own Words (London: Omnibus Press, 1998), 84.
[10] Ira B. Nadel, Various Positions (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), 26.
[11] Jim Devlin, Leonard Cohen in Every Style of Passion (London: Omnibus Press, 1996), 37.

[12] Devlin, In His Own Words, 51.

[13] Ibid., 59.

[14] David Whiteis, in “It Seems So Long Ago: Random Memories and Vingettes of Leonard In Person” (wenheights.net/spcakingcohcn/whitcis.htm), has suggested that Leonard Cohen passed on to him an anecdote: “[Cohen] said that ‘A Singer Must Die’ was written at least partially in response to his having learned that he was on President [Richard] Nixon’s ‘Enemies List’—the list Nixon and his henchmen drew up, consisting of dissidents and counterculture figures who were targeted for |Fcdcral Bureau of Investigation] or [Internal Revenue Service] harassment. He asked me not to print this—‘I don’t want to inflame them even more’—hut he definitely knew, or at least believed, that he’d been the subject of Nixonian surveillance.”

[15] Jim Slotck, “Cohen’s Future Is Now ,” Toronto Star , November 19, 1993.

[16] Michel Field, interviewing Leonard Cohen on the television program Le Cercle de Minuit, France2, December 1992.

[17] Wayne Robbins, “The Loneliness of the Long-suffering Folkic ,” Newsday , November 22, 1992.

[18] Ibid.

[19] CBC documentary, “Leonard Cohen: A Portrait in the First Person,” first broadcast 1988.

[20] “How Was He for You? Famous Fans on Why Leonard Cohen Is Essential Listening ,” The Observer , October 14, 2001, 13.
[21] Desmond Pacey, “The Phenomenon of Leonard Cohen ,” Canadian Literature 34 (1967): 5.
[22] Buffy Sainte-Marie, “Leonard Cohen … His Songs ,” Sing Out (August/September 1967).

[23] Richard Goldstein, “Beautiful Creep ,” Village Voice , December 28, 1967, 20 . Reprinted in Gnarowksi, Leonard Cohen, 42.

[24] Ibid., 27.

[25] Paul Saltzman, “Famous Last Words from Leonard Cohen ,” Maclean’s (June 1972).
[26] Jack Hafferkamp, “Ladies and Gents, Leonard Cohen ,” Rolling Stone , April 2, 1971.
[27] Paul Williams, “Leonard Cohen : The Romantic Ragpicker’s Trade,” Crawdaddy (March 1975).