Leonard Cohen at 70: He's a bohemian with the courtly manners of a gentleman on day parole from the 18th century, but he's also a provocateur
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 21 September 2004)

In show business no one ever forgets your age, which may occur to Leonard Cohen as he awakens this morning on his 70th birthday. He learned about age in the mid-1960s, when he was young but maybe not quite young enough. He was in New York because his poems and novels weren't producing much income and he hoped the skills he had developed playing country music in Montreal would get him into the folk-music boom.

It was humiliating when potential agents pointed out that he was old to be starting a career. They had a point. He was 32 while Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were 25. Seven years seemed a lot. This morning 70 seems a lot, but senior citizens everywhere will rejoice over news of the forthcoming Dear Heather, yet another Cohen CD with new songs.

Judy Collins was the first star who endorsed his ballads, especially Suzanne. Today that remains the ultimate Cohen autobiographical lyric, sometimes precisely literal. A real Suzanne did take him to her place by the river (the St. Lawrence) and did feed him tea and oranges (actually, orange-flavoured Constant Comment). Jesus sailed into that song because He was the leading citizen of Montreal. Except for Salt Lake City, Montreal in the 1950s was the last faith-driven metropolis north of Mexico, which helps explain Cohen's lifelong religious concerns. He believes that no one from the old Montreal ever leaves the Church -- not the Jews, not the atheists, no one.

Suzanne contained a theme that has worked for Cohen ever since: the compassion a man yearns for from women in times of need. That song also stirred the interest of John Hammond, discoverer of Billie Holiday and Dylan, among others. After he heard a few more ballads, Hammond said, "You got it, Leonard." A week later they were in a Columbia recording studio.

What was it Cohen had? Two qualities that connect him to audiences with wires of silk. One was a feel for the grievances and paranoia of his time. Cohen's nerve ends twitch to the beat of the Zeitgeist. The men in his songs may be outmatched (in love, especially) but they will never be outdated. He also knew how to make self-regard sound attractive. His poetry had been developing into a drama starring himself, and when he transferred it to songwriting millions of teenagers could share the undercurrents of his self-pity.

At the first recording session, Cohen asked Hammond for a mirror. It was brought, and at the next session he had a full-length mirror. He explained, "I had always thought of myself as one day becoming a singer, and I used to stand in front of the mirror and sing, to see how I looked." He posed for the microphone.

Canada has known Cohen so long that we've lost our sense of his wondrous oddness. He's a bohemian with the courtly manners of a gentleman on day parole from the 18th century, but he's also a provocateur. At the Canadian Conference of the Arts in the staid and earnest Toronto of 1961, he stunned a polite Rosedalian audience by reading, with religious solemnity, a poem about the sweetness of fellatio.

In the early 1960s he agreed to be co-host of the CBC's supper-hour TV show in Montreal, and then abruptly withdrew because (he said) he thought it might be bad for his complexion. In declining the Governor-General's Award for his Selected Poems in 1968, he said he had consulted the poems and they had told him to turn it down.

Canada may have produced better writers or singers but no other Canadian contains such multitudes. He's packed three or four lifetimes of experience and dreams into seven decades. He took the I Ching seriously for a while, borrowed meditation techniques from the Hindu world, and wandered through the Kabbalah before Madonna went to high school. There was a time when even Scientologists claimed him as their own.

He's also embraced Buddhism while remaining resolutely Jewish. When Pico Iyer visited him at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in the mountains behind Los Angeles, he found a menorah in Cohen's primitive cabin. When the long, punishing Zen prayer retreat ended, Cohen celebrated by serving Iyer a meal of gefilte fish, Hebrew National salami, egg-and-onion matzoh and cognac.

Several new tunes on Dear Heather take him back to Montreal in the 1950s, when a cluster of Montreal English-language poets set the pace for poetry across Canada. Apparently this septuagenarian wants to revisit, one more time, the Westmount kid he was in the 1950s, when he was hoping to impress those elders. He begins by singing his version of Byron's Go No More A-Roving, dedicated to one of his mentors, Irving Layton, who is 92 and has been slipping away from himself in a home for the aged.

Byron was no random choice. As the first English poet to become a hero he provided the model for poets, like Layton and Cohen, who lust for fame, break out of the literary world, and display themselves as lovers and prophets. The CD also contains his setting of a poem by Frank Scott, a lordly McGill law professor who fought the tyrannical Duplessis government while writing witty verse and inspiring the young. Cohen also pays homage to A.M. Klein, the poet and novelist who died in 1972 after a tragic life overwhelmed by a depression that sounds at times like the condition Cohen struggles to overcome.

In an old-guy song years ago, Cohen lamented the frequent loss of friends. In June he lost one of his best, Jack McClelland, who believed in him from the start and never wavered. When Cohen submitted his second novel, Beautiful Losers, McClelland was afraid it would bring an obscenity charge against McClelland & Stewart (it didn't). Moreover, McClelland could hardly defend it in court, since he couldn't figure out what the hell it was about. Nevertheless, he loyally published it.

At McClelland's memorial service Cohen gave the briefest and most eloquent eulogy, describing Jack as "an open heart in Toronto." As a Montrealer, was he implying that open hearts weren't all that easy to find in Toronto? The overtones hung in the air above us, waiting as always for Cohen's listeners to interpret his meaning. Whatever he meant, we knew it wasn't ordinary.

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