“A peek into the cool heart of cultural icon Leonard Cohen” (Ottawa Citizen)

Many women have fallen for Leonard Cohen, but a fascinating new book about the masterful songwriter says he had trouble loving back, as “romantic relationships tended to get in the way of the isolation and space, the distance and longing, that his writing required.”

OTTAWA — Here he comes again, the old rogue, wearing a hat pulled low on his brow and “looking like a Rat Pack rabbi, God’s chosen mobster,” in Sylvie Simmons’ felicitous phrase.

Who else could it be but Leonard Cohen — Canada’s most acclaimed songwriter and the womanizer many men would give their left testicle to be, just for one night.

Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Biography of Leonard Cohen (McClelland & Stewart, $35), is a thorough and engaging examination of the most fascinating figure on the pop culture landscape.

The book was written with Cohen’s cooperation; she interviewed him several times as well as dozens of others connected to his life. But as Simmons makes clear from the first pages, this ain’t no hagiography.
Simmons undrapes Cohen to reveal a man with a sliver of ice in his heart, a man who drove away the beautiful women who loved him.

The most forgiving of these is Marianne Ihlen, the Norwegian model who is pictured draped in a towel on the back cover of Cohen’s second album, Songs From A Room.

Ihlen — the subject of So Long, Marianne, written many months before he left her — says she was fortunate to have Cohen’s love at that point in their lives. “He taught me so much, and I hope I gave him a line or two.”
Cohen was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Montreal. His father Nathan Cohen worked in the clothing business and died when Leonard was nine.

Simmons says that Cohen didn’t cry over his father’s death but grew closer to his mother Masha, the daughter of a highly regarded rabbi and Talmudic scholar.

At 13, Cohen studied a book on hypnotism and soon tried out what he had learned. In one session, he got the family’s maid to take off her clothes.

That incident says a lot about Cohen’s messianic voice and his relationships with women.

In some ways, Cohen’s life has been a daily battle with words. It took him five years to write Hallelujah, paring back 80 draft verses until each line rang true.

Cohen, who plays Scotiabank Place on Dec. 7, was still a struggling poet when he set out his plan for becoming famous in a letter to publisher Jack McClelland.

“I want an audience,” Cohen declared, promising to make his work accessible to “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography peepers, hair-handed monks and Papists, French-Canadian intellectuals, unpublished writers, curious musicians, etc.”
Cohen was likely half-kidding, but he was right on the money.

In all, Simmons writes, Cohen’s list of future admirers turned out to be “a pretty astute, and remarkable enduring, inventory of his fan base.”

That’s a bit sneery. You could also say Cohen’s fans are those who delight in the masterful songs he has written about religion, sex, love and loss — among them If It Be Your Will, Dance Me to the End of Love, Famous Blue Raincoat, Bird on a Wire, Sister of Mercy and Suzanne.

For a renowned ladies’ man, it’s surprising how frequently Cohen was a flop with chicks.

Nico, the icy blond model who was part of Andy Warhol’s inner circle, spurned Cohen for the much younger Iggy Pop. Judy Collins, who gave Cohen his first break as a songwriter by recording Suzanne in 1966, wasn’t interested in bedding him. Janis Joplin told Cohen she preferred sex with handsome men but would make an exception for him, just once, because she felt sorry for him.

Suzanne Verdal — the Suzanne of the famous song — tells how making eye contact with Cohen was the “most intimate of touches and completely visceral.” But things never went beyond longing gazes.

Joni Mitchell took up with Cohen but ended the affair after a year, dismissing him as “a boudoir poet” who had copped his writerly stance from Camus and Lorca, a Spanish poet.

Still, it was Cohen’s face that she drew across a map of Canada in her song A Case of You. After the affair ended, Mitchell remarked that, “I’m only a groupie for Picasso and Leonard.”

Cohen says he has always longed for the “company of women and the sexual expression of friendship.”
He admits that falling in love with him is no picnic.

“I had wonderful love but I did not give back wonderful love. I was unable to reply to their love.”

Simons writes that for Cohen “romantic relationships tended to get in the way of the isolation and space, the distance and longing, that his writing required.”

That seems to be as true for Cohen now, at 78, as it was in his youth.

“I don’t think anyone masters the heart,” he says. “It continues to cook like a shish kebob, bubbling and sizzling in everyone’s breast.”

Cohen deals with his lady-killer rep in a few lines from Book of Longing: “My reputation /as a ladies’ man was a joke / It caused me to laugh bitterly / Through the ten thousand nights / I spent alone.”

One of the book’s telling moments has Cohen returning from a triumphant 1985 tour to his empty house in Los Angeles. He opens a bottle of wine and heats up a TV dinner.

In his writing, Cohen has a “flair for fusing the erotic with the spiritual,” Simmons writes, but his quest for spiritual enlightenment is genuine and enduring.

Like wolves prowling outside the glow of a fire, depression has pursued Cohen throughout his life. For a writer like Cohen, Simmons notes, depression “means solitary confinement in one’s personal Turkish prison, cornered by black dogs.”

During a tour of the U.K. and Europe in 1970, Cohen gave concerts he paid for himself at several mental hospitals. “Fellow-feeling had something to do with it,” Simmons says. As Cohen puts it, “I’ve always loved the people the world used to call mad.”

After his engagement to actor Rebecca de Mornay ended, Cohen disappeared into a Buddhist retreat in California, where his spiritual guide Roshi, now 105 years old, still serves as a sort of camp commandant.
The rituals of the retreat were a balm for Cohen’s melancholy. He got up in the middle of the night and meditated for hours, striving for non-attachment of the self.

Cohen, dressed in his monk’s robes, did handyman jobs and worked in the kitchen during the day. He earned a state certificate that allows him to work as a chef, waiter, or busboy in California.

It took four years, but Cohen’s depression finally lifted, with the help from another holy man in Mumbai.
Serenity came to him in his early 70s, just when he needed it most. Cohen learned that his manager had betrayed him and spent her way through his money, leaving him on the brink of bankruptcy. It was the kind of pesky little problem that could “put a dent in your mood,” he joked.

The financial upheaval, Simmons writes, “forced the old monk back on the boards with his begging bowl.”
Luckily, the time was ripe for Cohen to go on tour. In the U.S., the Internet chat rooms were buzzing about Jason Castro’s performance of Hallelujah on American Idol. As well, Jeff Buckley’s haunting version of the song was at the top of the charts in the U.K. and Europe.

Thanks to the rigours of his spiritual retreats, Cohen was in great shape. For the first time since he was a teenager, Cohen had stopped smoking. He also gave up drinking and drugs.

The 2008 tour was an artistic and commercial success, replacing Cohen’s lost fortune and more. Since then, he has been skating along from one triumph to the next.

Simmons mocks Canada’s music industry and cultural elite for giving Cohen so many prizes over the years. Only in Canada, Cohen says, could he win a prize for best vocal.

It’s a fair point. In his homeland, Cohen has won everything but the Stanley Cup.

So maybe the governor general should present Cohen with the Cup when he comes to Ottawa. That’s the sort of gesture that would appeal to Cohen’s puckish sense of humour.

by Bruce Ward for The Ottawa Citizen

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