[from the Globe and Mail
Ain’t No Cure
Hello, said Groucho Marx, I must be going. Leonard Cohen is more lyrical: I told you
when I came I was a stranger.
For more than forty years, Cohen has been reworking that theme in poetry, fiction, and
music. In the final poem of his most recent collection, he evokes a perfect Greek night
and recalls “Marianne and the child ... the precious ones I overthrew/for an education in
the world.” Cohen is nothing if not acutely self-aware, especially of what that education
cost. It has made for hauntingly beautiful writing but an agonizingly haunted life. But
that’s a story not fully told in Various Positions, Ira Nadel’s admiring, unauthorized-but-
Cohen is a relentless keeper of letters, drafts, and notebooks, and Nadel had good access
to them and to Cohen. That may have been too much of a good thing, however; it
overwhelms if not what everybody knows, at least what somebody else might know. The
result is one-sided, too much Leonard Cohen’s own take on Leonard Cohen.
Various Positions certainly includes more about Cohen than has ever before been
assembled. There’s a steady tracking of his restlessness, geographical and otherwise. We
see him somewhere above the pack of poets. And the book confirms the reputation as
lover, Wilt Chamberlain set to music. (Things, however, need occasional editing:
“Tokay”, a Montreal restaurant, becomes “Tokai”; “breath” becomes “breadth” in “Take
This Waltz”.) But it’s the Jewish Buddhism that provides the most important context, as
with this Leonard koan: “A Zen man has no attachments.” Hello, I must be going.
The difficulty with Various Positions is not what’s there but what isn’t. Take, for
example, Suzanne Elrod, wife of ten years, mother of Cohen’s children, not the famous
Suzanne of the famous song. Elrod isn’t so much heard as heard about: She goes
“carousing with several men,” she “scorns” his work, their marriage is a “prison,” life
with her is “difficult.” But it’s all Cohen’s voice. Show It Happening was a possible title
for Beautiful Losers, and it’s good advice for biography as well as fiction.
For all Cohen’s self-awareness, then, the book needs other narratives. A Zen man may
have no attachments, but Cohen had many, which he continually left “to further his art”;
those departures want reciting by someone other than Cohen. What version of intimacy to
include is any biographer’s tough call, but even a difficult wife’s deserves hearing. And
other versions—Cohen’s children’s, for instance—are similarly absent.
Compare, for example, the recent Saturday Night piece by Irving Layton’s “other” son,
David: There we get some sharply drawn family scenes, angry and probably unfair, but
with real bones and real flesh. And that’s not just when some fan of Canadian poetry
simultaneously masturbates Cohen and Layton senior, to Mrs. Layton’s bare-breasted
encouragement. Competing narratives are both messy and essential.
Nadel amends Cohen’s overplayed reputation as the depressed “prince of bummers,”
sampling memorable wisecracks and the inspired on-stage shtick. But Cohen’s clinical
depression is ongoing, and although it’s mentioned several times, Various Positions
doesn’t sort out its difficult mix of poetic muse, Zen response, and messed-up serotonin.
Maybe there ain’t no cure.
Various Positions does usefully chart Cohen’s musical career. Cohen underwent a
remarkable transformation from a folkie guitarist with three chords—okay, five—to a
sophisticated composer who can tell studio musicians just what kind of recording mix he
wants. And as a performer, he has come far from the night in 1967 when, stricken by
stage fright, he walked offstage and had to be coaxed back by Judy Collins. That pivotal
episode, however, deserves more than the quick re-telling it gets.
But the book doesn’t say enough about why Cohen turned mainly to performing. Nadel
cites making a decent living, but surely there’s more: Song as the first, best voice of
lyricism? A need to portray deepest secrets before thousands? Just that old bitch goddess,
music industry success?
The story of Cohen’s life, of course, shouldn’t reach closing time while he’s still drinking
and still dancing. But to get closer to it, we’ll need the distance of other, less reverentially
told, ways to say good-bye .
Arnie Keller teaches at the University of Victoria. He’s a fan.