by Sylvie Simmons
Leonard Cohen’s songs mix the sleazy and the sacred in ways that break down both categories. This music, delivered in Cohen’s nasal non-voice, often played on cheap synthesizers, shoddily produced, sometimes badly recorded and unreliably distributed, nevertheless finds unlikely access to words like “holy,” “saint,” and “prayer” as though to transcend its origins in the gut and the loins. Cohen has attracted many disciples and inspired many conversions. He is one of the most beloved figures in modern pop, but everyone who listens to Cohen feels he has bailed him out of impending obscurity.
He has had a nomadic life, moving from Montreal to New York to London and Greece to Mumbai and Singapore and back again. He is not identified with any one place or scene. He hung with Andy Warhol and Judy Collins in the same day. His music is the work of a man constantly entering new milieus, making the new appeal. His lyrics are a species of banter or rapport, unlike, say, Dylan’s, which exist in a hermetically fused chamber of their own brilliance when they do not practice outright exclusion or even accusation. This ambivalence, approaching disdain, for his audience is Dylan’s genius; Cohen, who was called “the Canadian Bob Dylan” when he appeared on the scene in the mid-Sixties, could not be more different. Cohen’s music assumes admiration from his listeners and assumes, furthermore, that admiration is just uncatalyzed lust. Many people who have heard Cohen’s music, over the years, have right away gone to bed with him—or, if he was unavailable, with the person next to them. He is one of those sublime charlatans who can make spiritual matters seem to depend on taking immediate carnal action.
He is a throwback: a poet (Bono, who nobody ever thought of as a poet, said he was our Shelley, while others name Rimbaud and Baudelaire); a man, Cohen has said, “born in a suit,” a figure out of old Montreal and the nearby minor-league borscht belt of the Eastern Townships and the Laurentians. The Cohens were prominent in Montreal, but the family was in some disarray: Cohen’s father died when Leonard was nine; his mother remarried. As a teenager Cohen often came down from his perch on Westmount, where the Anglos and wealthier Jews lived, to walk the streets of the seedier districts and “catalogue the magic and tricks, rubber cockroaches and handshake buzzers,” as Cohen wrote, and to meet the “men who wore overcoats even in summer.”
Joni Mitchell, who met Cohen in Greenwich Village in the Sixties and fell for him instantly, has a gorgeous song about sleeping on Cohen’s mother’s bed in Montreal while Cohen, ever the observer, watches her sleep:
It was a rainy night
We took a taxi to your mother’s home
She went to Florida and left you
With your father’s gun, alone
Upon her small white bed
I fell into a dream
You sat up all the night and watched me
To see, who in the world I might be
Finding instant success with domestic animals, he moved on to the domestic staff, recruiting as his first human subject the family maid. At his direction, the young woman sat on the chesterfield sofa. Leonard drew a chair alongside and…told her in a slow gentle voice to relax her muscles and look into his eyes…. Leonard instructed the maid to undress.
What a moment it must have been for the adolescent Leonard. The successful fusion of arcane wisdom and sexual longing. To sit beside a naked woman, in his own home, convinced that he made this happen, simply by talent, study, mastery of an art and imposition of his will.