“Hallelujah for the genius of Cohen” (London Evening Standard)

When Leonard Cohen was a lust-filled teenager in Montreal in the chaste early 1950s, long before he picked up a guitar, he developed an interest in mind control. Learning from a cheap manual (25 Lessons in Hypnotism: How to Become an Expert Operator), he experimented with some success on the Cohen family pets, before attempting to mesmerise the maid.

Seating her on a Chesterfield sofa, speaking low and slow, he managed to put her in a deep trance.

When he asked her to strip naked, to his delight and horror, she obeyed. No one pronounces the word “naked” like Cohen, after all. “This is what he had been waiting so long to see,” Cohen later wrote in his autobiographical novel, The Favourite Game. “He wasn’t disappointed and he never has been.”

It is tempting to see his art coming together in this moment. We have the deep longing; the surprising power of his voice; the co-mingling of the sacred, the sexual and the silly. (Even the classy leather sofa seems of a piece.) However, as Sylvie Simmons’s delightful biography makes clear, with Cohen, things generally happened a lot more slowly and painfully.

Simmons situates her subject well both in the Jewish tradition (if not a singer he would have made a fantastic Rabbi) and in his generation, that bit older than the brash Babyboomers. He learned guitar from a Spanish flamenco player who — d’oh! — committed suicide shortly after teaching him that rippling finger style. But this was before the guitar had any claim to iconography. Cohen’s first band, a country trio called The Buckskin Boys, had no higher ambition than “cornering the Montreal square-dance market”. He was 33 before he made the transition to songwriting from poetry.

Even as a lifelong fan (I have a strange memory of hearing So Long, Marianne in the cot) I found much unfamiliar here. His lyrics are so resonant in themselves that there never seemed much need to find out who Marianne, Nancy and Suzanne were — but it is a comfort to discover that they were all devastatingly beautiful and all speak of him kindly. Even through his chaotic episodes — his LSD-fuelled tours of mental hospitals; his foolhardy expeditions to war-torn Cuba and Israel — he remains true to his need to weigh the right word, to convey his feelings precisely.

And if the book travels through many stages of despair, it ends on an up beat. Cohen’s lifelong depression only lifted in his sixties, after many arduous years as a Zen monk, studying under his master Kyozan Jushu Sasaki (still alive at 105).

When his former manager, Kelley Lynch, stole millions from him it was enough to put “a serious dent in his mood,” but when he went on tour to earn a pension, it proved to be his making. His monkish habits suit him to a life on the road; his voice is now like worn leather; and the recognition, after so many years being ignored, is validating. Even Simon Cowell is a fan.

Cohen, now 78, gave numerous interviews to Simmons for the book, only asking her not to make it a hagiography. She doesn’t really keep her word, and has the icky habit of paraphrasing lines of his verse in her prose, treating us to flakes of his life, and so on.

Then again, those who love his music tend to internalise it — and anyway, Cohen remains a step ahead. “Think about this seriously before you answer,” he says, fixing his biographer in the eye as he welcomes her into his kitchen for a final interview. You wonder what is going through her mind, as he asks: “Would you like a scoop of ice cream in your coffee?”

An expert operator, even now.

by Richard Godwin for London Evening Standard

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