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Cohen, Leonard

Category: Mystic

Spiritual things, baruch Hashem”—thank God—“have fallen into place, for which I am deeply grateful.”

Leonard Cohen, (21 September 1934 - November 7, 2016) was a Canadian singer-songwriter, musician, poet, novelist and entertainer. And towards the end of his life - a mystic.  He frequently toured worldwide and did so even into his late 70s. Simon Sweetman in The Dominion Post (Wellington) of 21 January wrote:

"It is hard work having to put this concert in to words so I'll just say something I have never said in a review before and will never say again: this was the best show I have ever seen."

with Adam, his son - face painting

He studied music and poetry at school. As a teenager, he learned to play the guitar, switching to a classical guitar after meeting a young Spanish flamenco guitar player who taught him "a few chords and some flamenco." In 1951, Cohen enrolled at McGill University. He published his first poems in March 1954.  His literary influences at the time included William Butler Yeats, Walt Whitman, Federico Garcia Lorca and Henry Miller. His first published book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), was published the year after Cohen's graduation.

Cohen left New York and returned to Montreal in 1957, focusing on the writing of fiction and poetry, including the poems for his next book, The Spice-Box of Earth (1961). One of Cohen's biographers, Ira Nadel, stated that "reaction to the finished book was enthusiastic and admiring...the critic Robert Weaver found it powerful and declared that Cohen was 'probably the best young poet in English Canada right now.'"

The New Yorker – October 17, 2016 Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker By David Remnick
When Leonard Cohen was twenty-five, he was living in London, sitting in cold rooms writing sad poems. He got by on a three-thousand-dollar grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. This was 1960, long before he played the festival at the Isle of Wight in front of six hundred thousand people.. … In a letter to his publisher, he said that he was out to reach “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists.”

with daughter Lorca

Cohen continued to write poetry and fiction throughout much of the 1960s. He published the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964), and the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). Both Beautiful Losers and Parasites of Heaven, a book of poems, received mixed reviews and sold few copies.

The New Yorker – extracted from the article in the October 17, 2016 Issue   Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker By David Remnick
Cohen was growing weary of London’s rising damp and its gray skies. .. After weeks of cold and rain, he wandered into a bank and asked the teller about his deep suntan. The teller said that he had just returned from a trip to Greece. Cohen bought an airline ticket…. Not long afterward, he … made his way to the port of Piraeus, boarded a ferry, and disembarked at the island of Hydra. …. Cohen rented a place for fourteen dollars a month. Eventually, he bought a whitewashed house of his own, for fifteen hundred dollars, thanks to an inheritance from his grandmother.

with Marianne on Hydra

And it is there he met Marianne, of which more shortly.  In 1967, Cohen moved to the United States to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter and he and Marianne gradually drifted apart.

Cohen's first album was Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967). He followed up that with Songs from a Room (1969) and Songs of Love and Hate (1970). Then came New Skin for the Old Ceremony; in 1975 Cohen's Best Of release in Europe retitled as Greatest Hits; in 1977 Death of a Ladies' Man [co-written and produced by Phil Spector]; two compilations More Best of Leonard Cohen and The Essential Leonard Cohen. In 1979, the more traditional Recent Songs record featured instruments like the oud, the Gypsy violin and the mandolin.

In 1984, Cohen published a book of poems, Book of Mercy, which won him the Canadian Authors Association Literary Award for Poetry. Cohen himself referred to the pieces as "prayers". Many of Cohen's new poems were first published on the fan website The Leonard Cohen Files, including the original version of the poem "A Thousand Kisses Deep", which became a song.

Cohen with his record producer son Adam and grandchild.
Adam produced a number of his father's songs, including
his last album - you want it darker

In 1988, Cohen released I'm Your Man, which marked a dramatic change in his music with the use of synthesizers and “included more social commentary and dark humor”. In 1992, Cohen released The Future, the lyrics on the The Future were dark, and made references to political and social unrest. In 1993 Cohen also published his book of selected poems and songs, Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs. In 1997, Cohen oversaw the selection and release of More Best of Leonard Cohen.

After a period away, Cohen returned to music in 2001 with the release of Ten New Songs, with help from producer and co-composer Sharon Robinson. In October 2004, Cohen released Dear Heather, a musical collaboration with Anjani Thomas and Sharon Robinson. Blue Alert, an album of songs co-written by Anjani and Cohen, was released on 23 May 2006 Sung by Anjani, who according to one reviewer "...sounds like Cohen reincarnated as woman...though Cohen doesn't sing a note on the album, his voice permeates it like smoke."

Leonard Cohen's 12th studio album, Old Ideas, was released worldwide on 31 January 2012.  His last album was You Want it Darker.

So, there we have his musical and poetry output in a nutshell. But this says nothing of the man or where he got his inspiration from.

Marianne Ihlen with her baby son Axel [from a previous marriage] are pictured with Leonard Cohen in Greece in 1960

Life

His songs are the story of his life. Recurring themes in Cohen's work include love, sex, spirituality, betrayal, sex, love, guilt, redemption, sex, love, depression, sex, love, mortality, desire, sex, love, justice, more sex and music itself. So his inspiration is as one would expect from a life this complex.

The New Yorker – October 17, 2016  Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker By David Remnick
Cohen had known some success with women. He would know a great deal more. For a troubadour of sadness—“the godfather of gloom,” he was later called—Cohen found frequent respite in the arms of others. As a young man, he had a kind of Michael Corleone Before the Fall look, sloe-eyed, dark, a little hunched, but high courtesy and verbal fluency were his charm. When he was thirteen, he read a book on hypnotism. He tried out his new discipline on the family housekeeper, and she took off her clothes. Not everyone over the years was quite as bewitched. Nico spurned him, and Joni Mitchell, who had once been his lover, remained a friend but dismissed him as a “boudoir poet.” But these were the exceptions….
“Good gracious. All the girls were panting for him,” Marianne [Ihlen] recalled. “I would dare go as far as to say that I was on the verge of killing myself due to it.”

with Susan Elrod, the mother of his two children
Adam and Lorca

He was born in an English-speaking area of Montreal, Quebec, into a middle-class Jewish family. His mother was the daughter of a Talmudic writer, Rabbi Solomon Klonitsky-Kline of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry. His father and grandparents were also deeply involved in the Jewish religion. His Jewish roots were very strong and he himself said "I had a very Messianic childhood." He told Richard Goldstein in 1967, "I was told I was a descendant of Aaron". Aaron used to hear bells and have out of body experiences, so these are good roots to have!

These roots and his underlying spiritual yearnings are possibly the only solid foundation of his life, his spirituality derived from his links with the mystic side of both Judaism and Buddhism. In 1994, Cohen retreated to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles, beginning what became five years of seclusion at the center. In 1996, he was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and took the Dharma name Jikan, meaning "silence". He served as personal assistant to Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. Cohen went way beyond religion and by this time was among the great mystics. In "Who by Fire", for example, the words and melody echo the Unetaneh Tokef, an 11th-century liturgical poem recited on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Then there is "Hallelujah," "If It Be Your Will" should be self evident now to those who have read the section on puppets.

Cohen suffered terrible periods of depression during much of his life , which have the effect of [like most people] either completely stifling any creativity or giving it an impetus - a focus. Depression is a left brain phenomenon and needs a jolt to get the right brain working again, after which tremendous creativity can follow [see Rachmaninov]. And this too does seem to be a recurring pattern in his life.  But of course balanced by much love - below his two children Adam and Lorca with Susan

Betrayal

And then we have betrayal – quite terrible betrayal. We have two sorts of betrayal. "Famous Blue Raincoat" is from the point of view of a man whose marriage has been broken by his wife's infidelity with his best friend, and is written in the form of a letter to that friend. "Suzanne", one of his best-known songs, refers to Suzanne Verdal, the former wife of his friend, the Québécois sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. So maybe guilt hung heavy over this?

Suzanne Verdal

Then we have the betrayal of a trusted manager.

Kelley Lynch, Cohen's longtime manager, "took care of Leonard's business affairs … [and was] not simply his manager but a close friend, almost part of the family." However, in late 2004, Cohen's daughter Lorca began to suspect Lynch of financial impropriety, and when Cohen checked his bank accounts, he noticed that he had unknowingly paid a credit card bill of Lynch's for $75,000 and also found that most of the money in his accounts was gone (including money from his retirement accounts and charitable trust funds). Cohen would discover that this theft had actually begun as early as 1996 when Lynch started selling Cohen's music publishing rights. On 8 October 2005, Cohen sued Kelley Lynch, alleging that she had misappropriated over US $5 million from Cohen's retirement fund leaving only $150,000. In March 2006, Cohen won a civil suit and was awarded US $9 million by a Los Angeles County superior court. Lynch, however, ignored the suit and did not respond to a subpoena issued for her financial records. As a result Cohen was never able to collect the awarded amount.

Here she is in court

The New Yorker – October 17, 2016 Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker By David Remnick
In Los Angeles County Superior Court, Cohen testified that Lynch had been so outraged by the suit that she started calling him twenty, thirty times a day and inundating him with e-mails, some directly threatening, eventually ignoring a restraining order. “It makes me feel very conscious about my surroundings,” Cohen said, according to the Guardian’s account of the trial. “Every time I see a car slow down, I get worried.” Lynch was sentenced to eighteen months in prison and five years’ probation.
After thanking the judge and his attorney in his usual high style, Cohen turned to his antagonist. “It is my prayer,” Cohen told the court, “that Ms. Lynch will take refuge in the wisdom of her religion, that a spirit of understanding will convert her heart from hatred to remorse, from anger to kindness, from the deadly intoxication of revenge to the lowly practices of self-reform.”

Justice

Then there is the very very strong theme of justice. In "The Butcher", there is just the hint that Cohen got caught up in the American dream – money, drugs and guns – when he writes, "Well, I found a silver needle, I put it into my arm. It did some good, it did some harm." In fact one gets the overall impression that the culture of the USA dealt him much the same problems as it did John Lennon.  The culture even reached as far as Hydra ......

The New Yorker October 17, 2016 Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker By David Remnick
Hydra promised the life Cohen had craved: spare rooms, the empty page, eros after dark. He collected a few paraffin lamps and some used furniture: a Russian wrought-iron bed, a writing table, chairs like “the chairs that van Gogh painted.” During the day, he worked on a sexy, phantasmagoric novel called “The Favorite Game” and the poems in a collection titled “Flowers for Hitler.” He alternated between extreme discipline and the varieties of abandon. There were days of fasting to concentrate the mind. There were drugs to expand it: pot, speed, acid. “I took trip after trip, sitting on my terrace in Greece, waiting to see God,” he said years later. “Generally, I ended up with a bad hangover.

Thankfully whatever brush he had with drugs did not do the damage they did to John Lennon, who had much the same sense of right and wrong, but was too drug sozzled to be taken seriously.

 

The irony of his songs appears to pass most of his USA fans by. I don't think he believed any more than the rest of the world that the USA is the land of the free. In "Democracy" for example, he wrote: "from the wars against disorder/ from the sirens night and day/ from the fires of the homeless/ and the ashes of decay/ Democracy is coming to the USA." Really? And we have the words in the "Tower of Song" that "the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor/ And there's a mighty judgment coming." We shall see.  Would be nice wouldn't it?

He saw himself in the role of the knight – the hero figure when it comes to justice.

"I sing serious songs, and I'm serious onstage because I couldn't do it any other way...I don't consider myself a civilian. I consider myself a soldier........I don't want to speak of wars or sides .... The militarism I practice as a person and a writer is another thing.... I don't wish to speak about war."

Throughout his career, he expressed support for the oppressed.  One gets the impression that later in his life he may have regretted being so quiet and mild about the injustices he saw, that perhaps he ought to have been more of a leader to something more militant and destructive...

They're lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn't know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker....

but here I think he is wrong.  Injustice has to be righted in your name, you must stand as a beacon of Light, retribution must not be led by mystics, if you do this, you lose the very high pinnacle on which you stand.

Love, sex and love

Aaah but now we move onto a major influence, a recurring theme, a theme so strong and insistent one might be mistaken for thinking it was the only real inspiration – love and making love - sex.

Leonard Cohen lived at Hydra, Greece in 1960 with Marianne C. Stang Jensen Ihlen (born in Norway 1935), and the song "So long Marianne" was written to and about her.

Their relationship lasted for most of the 1960s. He lived at the time in 'quasi-reclusive circumstances' on Hydra. While living and writing on Hydra, Cohen wrote The Favourite Game (1963) which was autobiographical. It was about a young man who discovers his identity through writing and contained “a number of sexually graphic passages”.

Cohen had a relationship beginning in the 1970s with the Los Angeles artist Suzanne Elrod, with whom he had two children: a son, Adam, born in 1972, and a daughter, Lorca, born in 1974 and named after poet Federico García Lorca.
He loved them both in the best way possible, here love has been a saviour for him in times of depression. Cohen said that "cowardice" and "fear" prevented him from ever actually marrying Elrod.
Cohen and Elrod split up in 1979.

In the 1980s, Cohen was in a relationship with the French photographer Dominique Issermann. Cohen's 1988 record I'm Your Man is dedicated to Issermann with words: "All these songs are for you, D. I."

 

In the 1990s, Cohen was romantically linked to actress Rebecca De Mornay. De Mornay co-produced Cohen's 1992 album The Future.

"Everybody Knows" is about sexual relationships without any underlying love.

And then we move onto Anjani Thomas and Sharon Robinson….. just love ….

 

Cohen was associated, as mentioned above, with Buddhist monk and teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki roshi (venerable teacher), regularly visiting him at Mount Baldy Zen Center and serving him as personal assistant.

Cohen's 2001 album Ten New Songs is dedicated to Joshu Sasaki.

So maybe in his last years, he found a different kind of love, one associated with friendship and trust.

The New Yorker – October 17, 2016 Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker By David Remnick
In late July this year, Cohen received an e-mail from Jan Christian Mollestad, a close friend of Marianne’s, saying that she was suffering from cancer. In their last communication, Marianne had told Cohen that she had sold her beach house to help insure that Axel would be taken care of, but she never mentioned that she was sick. Now, it appeared, she had only a few days left. Cohen wrote back immediately:
Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.

see you down the road Leonard .............

Observations

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