Tea and oranges (The Times Literary Supplement)

Apropos of nothing my partner one day asked: “Who do you love more, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen?”. Sylvie Simmons gives her answer on page 5 of her new biography of the latter. “It is no secret that Leonard’s background was privileged”, she writes. “Leonard has never denied being born on the right side of the tracks, has never renounced his upbringing, rejected his family, changed his name or pretended to be anything other than who he was.” Of course, we know who did all of the above: the former Robert Zimmerman.

The unacknowledged rivalry between these Jewish troubadours runs through the book like the scarlet thread that distinguished Jacob from Esau. Indeed, it is tempting to use those feuding twins as archetypes, and characterize Cohen as Mr Smooth and Dylan as Mr Hairy. But a more useful comparison might be between another set of biblical brothers: Moses and Aaron. As a matter of fact, Cohen are a priestly cast who trace their ancestry back to the aforementioned architect of the Golden Calf. This was an inheritance Cohen took seriously. Simmons records that at the conclusion of a concert at the Ramat Gan Stadium near Tel Aviv, Cohen raised his hands to the sky. Then, “Speaking in Hebrew, the descendant of Aaron gave the crowd the Birkat Kohanim, the ‘Priestly Blessing'”. Old Testament themes run deep in the lyrics of both Cohen and Dylan, on occasion the same ones. Both, for example, are drawn to the Akedah or Binding of Isaac; Dylan in “Highway 61 Revisited” – in which God commands Abraham to “kill me a son” – and Cohen in the “Story of Isaac”. Simmons notes the coincidence, and makes a few pertinent comments about Cohen’s version; how he transforms it into a protest about atrocity, both ancient and modern, and how he has altered Isaac’s age to correspond with his own when his father died. But she doesn’t really take the opportunity to analyse the contrasting lyrics and performances fully, and nail down the difference between the two goliaths.

I’m Your Man is subtitled “The Life”, not “A critical study”. As such it is positively encyclopedic.

Leonard Cohen, we learn, was born on September 21, 1934, into a family that was a pillar of the Jewish community, being patrons of the largest synagogue in Montreal. Cohen’s father, Nathan, ran a “high-end clothing business”. His mother, Masha, was a Russian Jew: a Chekhovian figure, according to her son. Both were descendants of rabbis and scholars. Their only son – as he puts it – was “born in a suit”. He also experienced – again in his own words – “a messianic childhood”. Nathan – sixteen years his wife’s senior – had served with distinction in the Canadian army during the First World War, but was thereafter plagued with ill health, exiting the scene when his son was nine. After his death his son lived in a house of women, a young sultan amid an adoring harem.

At his various places of learning Cohen’s silver tongue led him to the presidency of numerous debating and other societies. A tragic Spanish youth gave him guitar lessons, only to commit suicide long before the course was over. Cohen wrote a Bildungsroman, The Favourite Game, and another “novel”, Beautiful Losers. His poetry began to win prizes. Then in 1966 Judy Collins recorded “Suzanne”. The lady made a second appearance a couple of years later on our hero’s own Songs of Leonard Cohen. Simmons meticulously, even religiously, chronicles all the subsequent muses – Anne, Joni, Marianne, another Suzanne (mother of Adam and Lorca), Dominique, Rebecca, Anjani et al – and albums both printed and recorded, as well as all the attendant birth pains and abandonments.

To my mind Simmons relies too heavily on contemporary reviews, but when it comes to the women in Cohen’s life, she has a superabundance of raw testimony. Miraculously, not one of them wishes ill to the ladies’ man they have loved and lost. Cohen is equally forthcoming, though less forgiving of himself. Seeking redemption from his sins of omission and commission, as well as from the depression he inherited from his mother, he braved war zones in Cuba and Israel, exiled himself in the Zen retreat of Mount Baldy, selfmedicated with drugs and alcohol, and embraced as many religions as he did women, including Scientology.

And just when it seemed that one of the panaceas had worked, Cohen discovered that his manager had robbed him blind. But did he crumble, did he collapse? On the contrary, he seemed reborn. No longer does he dread touring. Nowadays he is relaxed and avuncular on stage, commands the auditorium like a “Rat Pack Rabbi” (to borrow his biographer’s neat description), and seems ready to dance his audience to the end of time, like Aaron of old.

by Clive Sinclair for <a href=”http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/reviews/other_categories/article1175633.ece “>The Time Literary Supplement</a>

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