Thursday, September 21, 2023

Notes For September 21st, 2023

This Day In Literary History

On September 21st, 1934, the legendary Canadian poet, novelist, singer, and songwriter Leonard Cohen was born in Westmount, Quebec, Canada, a suburb of Montreal. Born to a wealthy and prominent Orthodox Jewish family, he lost his father when he was nine years old, which would affect him deeply.

He entered high school at 14 and became enamored with the works of legendary Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. His poetic influeces would also include legendary poets William Butler Yeats and Walt Whitman. He taught himself to play guitar and formed a country-folk group called The Buckskin Boys.

Cohen started writing poetry when he was fifteen and gave readings at nearby clubs. Having no interest in the family clothing business, he left that to his older sister and determined to become a writer.

Leonard Cohen's first poetry collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published in 1956, after he'd graduated McGill University with an English degree. Dedicated to his late father, it contained poems he'd written between the ages of 15 and 20.

His next collection, The Spice-Box Of Earth (1961), made his name on the Canadian poetry scene and led the influential critic, editor, and broadcaster Robert Weaver to proclaim him "probably the best young poet in English Canada right now." It included classics like Beneath My Hands:

Beneath my hands
your small breasts
are the upturned bellies
of breathing fallen sparrows.

Whenever you move
I hear the sounds of closing wings
of falling wings.

I am speechless
because you have fallen beside me
because your eyelashes
are the spines of tiny fragile animals.

I dread the time
when your mouth
begins to call me hunter...

Cohen followed it with another classic poetry collection, Flowers For Hitler (1964). To support himself while he wrote, Cohen did odd jobs and had a modest trust fund left to him in his father's will. He also appeared in a film made for CBC-TV.

Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965) was a 44-minute documentary, shot and edited in Cinéma vérité style, that followed Cohen on his 1964 North American poetry tour, as he read his work at universities and coffeehouses.

The film's beautiful black-and-white cinematography perfectly captured the early 1960s Beat scene in Montreal. Co-directed by Don Owen and Donald Brittain, it would win the Canadian Film Award in the TV Information category at the 18th Canadian Film Awards.

Introducing Cohen's trademark style of darkly lyrical, melancholic poetry seasoned with smarmy humor to a wide audience, it's an absolute must for Leonard Cohen fans. Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen was released on videocassette, DVD, and Blu-Ray.

As Cohen was making a name for himself as a poet in the early 60s, he used a $1500 inheritance (about $15,000 in today's money) from his grandmother to buy a cottage on the Greek island of Hydra, then a laid-back, socialist paradise where drugs were plentiful, gay people were accepted, and the police rarely bothered anyone because there were few laws to enforce.

Also having a very low cost of living at the time, Hydra was a haven for writers, artists, musicians, and expatriates of all sorts, and Cohen took advantage of the creative atmosphere, writing more poetry collections and two novels, The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966).

The Favourite Game, a lyrical, semi-autobiographical novel, finds Cohen's alter ego Lawrence Breavman, a young Jewish man from a wealthy family, coming of age in 1950s Montreal along with his friend Krantz, in a story with a Catcher in the Rye vibe.

Beautiful Losers is an experimental Joycean masterpiece full of dazzling prose poetry. The narrative intertwines the true story of 17th-century Native Canadian (Mohawk) saint Catherine Tekakwitha with the tale of a bisexual love triangle between two men and a woman.

The novel is broken up into three "books" - in the first, The History of Them All, an unnamed narrator tells the story of Catherine Tekakwitha and how his domineering best friend and occasional male lover, referred to only as F., slept with his wife Edith, a troubled Iroquois Native Canadian who later killed herself.

The second book, A Long Letter From F., is written to the unnamed narrator by his friend - a mystic, radical Québécois separatist, and Member of Parliament. F. writes from the confines of a Catholic-run insane asylum, as syphilis is eroding his sanity.

The third and shortest book, Beautiful Losers, is told from the third-person point of view and follows F. as he's being hunted as an escaped lunatic and terrorist. Cohen wrote the novel while high on amphetamines and on a 10-day spiritual fast. He collapsed afterward.

While living on Hydra, Leonard Cohen struck up a close friendship with Norwegian writer Axel Jensen and his wife, Marianne Ihlen. After Jensen abandoned Marianne and their little son Axel Jr. to return to Norway and take up with another woman, they were homeless.

So, they moved in with Leonard. He and Marianne fell passionately in love, and he became a surrogate father to Axel Jr. Their relationship would end several years later, along with the 1960s. Cohen blamed his insecurities and cowardice for not marrying her. He would immortalize her in the classic song, So Long, Marianne, which featured these memorable lines:

Well you know that I love to live with you,
but you make me forget so very much.
I forget to pray for the angels
and then the angels forget to pray for us.

Now so long, Marianne,
it's time that we began
to laugh and cry
and cry and laugh
about it all again.

We met when we were almost young
deep in the green lilac park.
You held on to me like I was a crucifix,
as we went kneeling through the dark.

Now so long, Marianne,
it's time that we began
to laugh and cry
and cry and laugh
about it all again.

Your letters they all say that you're beside me now.
Then why do I feel alone?
I'm standing on a ledge and your fine spiderweb
is fastening my ankle to a stone...

After the publication of his fourth poetry collection Parasites Of Heaven (1966), despite earning critical acclaim, Cohen's writings brought him little commercial success and he was living hand to mouth. So he decided to switch gears and become a songwriter.

He went to America intending to be a professional country-Western songwriter, but never made it to Nashville. After hanging out with Andy Warhol's "Factory" crowd, he got caught up in the burgeoning folk music scene and met legendary folksinger-songwriter Judy Collins, who said when she saw him:

[I] found a good-looking, slightly stooped figure, his handsome face wreathed with a smile — a sweet smile, an engaging smile, a rare smile… I knew in an instant that he was special, and knew that I didn’t care if he couldn’t write songs.

But Leonard could write songs. Collins was blown away when he played his classic song Suzanne for her - over the telephone. She immediately asked if she could record it, and he said yes. Her cover became a huge hit.

When she organized a benefit concert for the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy at New York City’s Town Hall in 1967, Collins demanded that Cohen play Suzanne for the sellout crowd. He said that he wasn't a performer, but reluctantly agreed to play.

Judy brought Leonard onstage and introduced him. Overcome with stage fright, his voice and hands shook when he began the song. But he soon steadied himself, and the audience began to revel in the haunting song's beautiful, poetic lyrics:

Suzanne takes you down
to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by,
you can spend the night beside her

And you know that she's half-crazy
but that's why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
that come all the way from China

And just when you mean to tell her
that you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
that you've always been her lover

And you want to travel with her,
and you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you've touched her perfect body with your mind...

Halfway into the song, Cohen's hands suddenly fell from his guitar and hung limp at his sides. He said to the audience, "I'm sorry, I can't go on," then he quietly left the stage. Mistakenly believing this was a poetic statement, (it wasn't; he'd broken a guitar string) they gave him a thunderous ovation.

A few moments later, Leonard and Judy Collins returned to the stage, finished the song, and received another huge ovation. After the show, everybody was talking about the brilliant, enigmatic new Canadian folksinger named Leonard Cohen whose songs were pure poetry. A star was born.

Columbia Records producer John Hammond signed Leonard to a record deal, and in late December of 1967, his first album was released. Songs Of Lenoard Cohen, opening with Suzanne and packed with classic tracks like Master Song, The Stranger Song, Sisters Of Mercy, and So Long, Marianne, was mostly panned by American music critics, but became a cult favorite.

Cohen's sound, mostly acoustic folk seasoned with elements of blues and rock, with poetic lyrics full of melancholy and heartbreak, was not something that American music fans were used to, but in the UK, the album spent over a year on the charts.

It was folllowed by more classic albums, including Songs From A Room (1969), Songs of Love and Hate (1971), and New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974). Songs From A Room (1969) featured a back cover photograph of Marianne Ihlen wrapped in a towel and sitting at Leonard's typewriter in their cottage on Hydra.

Dismissed by critics as relentlessly bleak, the album opened with one of Cohen's most popular and enduring songs - Bird on the Wire. It also contained The Partisan, a cover of the 1943 French Resistance song La Complainte du Partisan (The Lament of the Partisan), sung in English and French. Cohen's first album to crack the Billboard charts in the U.S., it was also the #2 album in the UK.

Songs of Love and Hate featured more classics such as Avalanche, Dress Rehearsal Rag, Last Year's Man, Famous Blue Raincoat, and Joan of Arc, and was Cohen's first truly commercially succesful album.

New Skin for the Old Ceremony, featuring lyrics by Cohen and music written in collaboration with pianist-arranger John Lissauer, marked the beginning of an evolution in Cohen's sound which, formerly raw and basic, now included instruments such as violas, mandolins, and banjos. He also put together the first of many bands known for being the best live ensembles.

Featuring Chelsea Hotel No. 2, (Cohen's sexually frank tale of his one-night-stand with a woman whom he later revealed was legendary rock singer Janis Joplin), Who By Fire, and Field Commander Cohen, where Leonard famously described himself as:

...sone grateful faithful woman's
singing millionaire -
the patron saint of envy
and the grocer of despair,
working for the Yankee dollar.

The album was again successful in Europe but not in the U.S., and Cohen, fearing he'd be dropped by his label, decided he needed a change. This made him easy prey for the most notorious producer in the music business.

By this time, Cohen and his then girlfriend Suzanne Elrod (not the Suzanne from the song) had two children - a son, Adam (who would become a fine singer-songwriter himself) and a daughter, Lorca (who became a professional photographer and videographer) - though they never married. So when Phil Spector approached Leonard with an offer to work with him on his next album, he accepted.

From the early 1960s through the early 70s, Spector, a producer, composer, and arranger, had been a bona fied starmaker - and known for his mental instability and passions for drugs, alcohol, and firearms. By the mid-1970s, his career was on the decline, though he guaranteed Cohen a #1 record. The result, Death of a Ladies' Man (1977), was anything but.

Spector's bombastic pop-rock was a weird mismatch for Cohen's lyrics, and Leonard was baffled and embarrassed by Spector's bizarre decision to use the guide track he'd recorded (for session musicians to follow along with) as the album's final vocal track. Cohen described the scary and surreal atmosphere of a Phil Spector recording session this way:

There were lots of guns around in the studio and lots of liquor, a somewhat dangerous atmosphere. He had bodyguards who were heavily armed also. He liked guns - I liked guns too but I generally don't carry one, and it's hard to ignore a .45 lying on the console.

Cohen was lucky. When Spector had previously recorded John Lennon's album Rock 'n' Roll (1975), Lennon, who was battling alcoholism at the time, struggled to get through a listless take. To sober him up, Spector fired a gun in the studio, which, given the acoustics, must have sounded like an atomic bomb blast.

The former Beatle dryly and famously quipped, "Listen Phil, if you're going to kill me, kill me, but don't fuck with me ears. I need 'em."

Though regarded by critics, fans, and Leonard himself as Cohen's worst album, Death of a Ladies' Man does have a few good songs, such as the title track, True Love Leaves No Traces, Paper Thin Hotel, Memories, and Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On, which, despite the blaring horns and other bad music, features backing vocals by Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan.

Cohen never again worked with Spector, who in 2009 was convicted of second degree murder for shooting and killing actress Lana Clarkson in his mansion in Alhambra, California, and sentenced to 19 years to life. In 1979, Leonard Cohen returned to top form with a new album, Recent Songs. It was old school Cohen but also marked a further musical evolution, as it featured elements of jazz, which became a new trademark.

After his tours ended, Cohen didn't release another album until 1984. Various Positions, now considered one of his greatest albums and featuring classics like Dance Me to the End of Love, Night Comes On, and Hallelujah, didn't keep him afloat in the changing, choppy currents of music in the 80s. He slipped into obscurity until singer Jennifer Warnes released a certain album in tribute to him.

Warnes had sung backing vocals on Leonard's previous two albums and would work with him on his next one. Her 1987 album, Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, became a hit and renewed interest in his music. So, he released another album the following year. It was called I'm Your Man, and it made the then 53-year-old Cohen a star again.

With unforgettable songs like First We Take Manhattan, Ain't No Cure For Love, Tower Of Song, and the title track, and with a modern sound (including synthesizers) that managed to stay true to its roots, it was the most successful album Cohen ever released in the United States. My favorite song is the snarling, cynical Everybody Knows:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes -
everybody knows.

The 1990s was a period of transition for Leonard Cohen. In 1992, he released another great album, The Future. Modestly successful in the U.S. and UK, it went double-platinum in Canada and won him the 1993 Canadian Juno Award for Best Male Vocalist, leading him to quip in his acceptance speech, "Only in Canada could somebody with a voice like mine win Vocalist of the Year."

In 1994, Cohen became a Buddhist and entered the Mount Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles as a Zen Buddhist monk for what would be a five-year period of seclusion. He took the Dharma name Jikan, which means "silence" and ultimately became an ordained Buddhist priest, though he would also practice his Jewish traditions, as Buddha never claimed divinity or told people to believe in or worship any god.

By 1999, he was contributing regularly to The Leonard Cohen Files - the Internet's largest Leonard Cohen fansite. Then in 2001, at the age of 67, he returned to music with Ten New Songs - a new album and the first of several co-written with singer-songwriter-producer Sharon Robinson.

Rolling Stone music critic Steven Chean said that it "manages to sustain loss's fragile beauty like never before and might just be the Cohen's most exquisite ode yet to the midnight hour."

Playboy magazine said "Although the tones of these odes and meditations is mournful, at the age of 67 Cohen's pessimism about the human condition is tempered with reconciliation. He'll never be cheerful, but a Zen-like serenity pervades every song."

When he wasn't writing and recording music, Cohen continued publishing poetry collections, including Book of Mercy (1984) and Book of Longing (2006). Stranger Music, a classic collection of Cohen's song lyrics and poems, which featured some previously uncollected poetry, was published in 1993.

After releasing another album, Dear Heather, in 2004 - which featured both songs and spoken word performances set to music and was known for On That Day, a somber song about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City - Leonard's retirement was rudely interrupted.

His daughter Lorca came to him with suspicions that his longtime manager, Kelley Lynch, was stealing from him. He looked into it and found that Lynch had paid her $75,000 credit card bill with his money. A further examination of his accounts revealed that she'd stolen nearly all of his money, even draining the trust funds he'd set up for his children and grandchildren.

In total, over a period of eight years, Lynch had stolen $5 million from Leonard and left him with only $150,000 to live on. It was a devastating blow; the Cohen family had always considered Kelley Lynch a close friend. He sued her and won a $9 million award, but she fled to escape a subpoena for her financial records and ignored the lawsuit. With the money hidden, Cohen couldn't collect.

Lynch did receive some comeuppance - an 18-month prison sentence for harassing the Cohen family after Leonard fired her and publicly exposed her crime. Nearly broke, the 73-year-old Leonard Cohen was forced to come out of retirement and go to work to earn back the money he lost. He embarked on his first world tour in 15 years. It lasted from 2008-2010.

The tour was a huge success, with Cohen proving that he was still the master and receiving rapturous ovations at every show. A 2008 concert in London was released the following year as a double-live album and concert video titled Live In London. He earned back the money he lost and then some.

Cohen loved touring again, saying that "[Being] forced to go back on the road to repair the fortunes of my family and myself... [was] a most fortunate happenstance because I was able to connect... with living musicians. And I think it warmed some part of my heart that had taken on a chill."

He continued to release studio albums - Old Ideas (2012), Popular Problems (2014) - which were well received by critics and fans. His talent never faded. In 2016, at the age of 82, Cohen released his last album during his lifetime, You Want It Darker. Critics and fans called it the best album he'd ever done.

They didn't know how truly amazing it was until Leonard passed away - just seventeen days after its release. Cohen was dying of leukemia and in a wheelchair while recording it, but his vocals were perfect. Though leukemia was a contributing factor, the main cause of his death was a nasty fall at home he'd taken on the day he died. He passed away in his sleep that night.

Leonard's great love, Marianne Ihlen, also died of leukemia - three months and nine days before he did. In an often misquoted farewell letter he wrote to her, read to Marianne just before she died and again at her funeral, he said:

Dearest Marianne,

I'm just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too.

I've never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don't have to say any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road. Endless love and gratitude.

— your Leonard

Leonard Cohen's final album, Thanks For The Dance, which contained nine unreleased tracks from the You Want It Darker sessions, was released in 2019. The unfinished music was completed by his son, Adam Cohen.

Leonard's final poetry collection, The Flame, which also contained drawings and journal entries, was published in 2018. His final fiction collection, A Ballet of Lepers, which contained a novella and fifteen short stories written between 1956-1960 and previously unpublished, was released last year.

Quote Of The Day

“There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.” - Leonard Cohen

Vanguard Video

Today's features a rare 1980 Canadian TV interview with Leonard Cohen. Enjoy!

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