The death of Cohen was one of several iconic singer/song writers in the latter half of 2016. I will be drawing on a wonderful and huge biography of Leonard written by Sylvie Simmons and released in 2012. She does him great justice and no biography need ever be written again.
Why do I “get into Cohen’s head and works”? He had bouts of major depression, which he called his nemesis, throughout his life, and by virtue of his work, driven at times to twenty-one hours a day at a feverish pitch fueled by a mixture of Quaalude, suggests bouts of mania as well. Leonard’s father died when he was nine. His mother Masha was nineteen younger than her husband Nathan. She was of a “dramatic nature” who sang songs around the house as she did housework and encouraged Leonard in his poetry from the age of ten.
Arnold Steinberg a resident of his fraternity house at McGill noted “he never went anywhere without a notepad. He would draw sketches never went anywhere without a notepad. He would draw sketches endlessly, but mostly he wrote…mostly poems”.
Masha was from Russia. “She was a dramatic lady and she could be very, very dramatically unhappy about something and then break into laughter and send it all up. …there was no telling how she was going to react. Masha was very volatile.”
When Leonard was at Columbia Masha was admitted to a psychiatric hospital at the Allan Memorial Institute for major depression. True to the landed gentry it was a lavish place with “the best view in town”. Leonard, ever the doting son, left New York to be with her. “It is no surprise that Leonard would feel frustrated, helpless and angry—a multipurpose frustration, helplessness and anger that seemed to take in his own condition as well as Masha. He knew by now that he had inherited her depressive tendency, and he was no at his happiest himself.”
Irving Layton, part of the poetry scene in Montreal, Leonard’s birthplace was part of the poetry scene. Leonard led a “gold spoon” life growing up in a rich section, Belmont, a rich section of English-speaking Montreal thanks to businesses of his father and grandfather’s. Irving at twenty noted that Leonard, already part of the literary scene “was able to find this sadness in Westmount. That takes genius. He was able to see that not all rich people, not all comfortable people, not all plutocrats were happy: Genius is the ability—it’s a very rare ability—to see things at they actually are. You are not fooled.”
At Columbia University in New York City his poems presaged the themes of those to come as well as his novels and eventually at thirty-three his songs: “religion, myth, sex, inhumanity, humor, love, murder, sacrifice, Nazis and Jesus on the Cross, Joan of Arc, the Holocaust, naked women and wounded men…”
More evidence was impulsive and a need for role playing. In the spring of 1961 Leonard flew to Havana to examine his interest in socialism. He dressed as a revolutionary and grew a beard to look like Che Guevara. He spoke of a deep interest in violence and killing. At twenty-six he reveled at being there during the Bay of Pigs invasion. “I was behind everything. I couldn’t see the megalomania that made up my perspective at that time.” He was pulled out of line boarding one of the last flights back to Miami because in his baggage was a picture of him posing with the revolutionaries. Only because of an accidental and well-timed fracas on the runway he was able to slip through and board the plane.
Once finding his haven on the Greek island of Hydra he and Mort Rosengarner “would go to sleep about three in the morning but we’d get up very early, six A.M., and work till noon. I started drawing—in fact the first time I really started drawing was there; I’d studied sculpture but I’d never drawn or painted—and he also got me a bag of plaster so I made some sculptures. At noon we would go down to the beach and swim then come back, have lunch at the port, and then we would go up the the house, have a siesta for a couple of hours and then start happy hour. It was very good—a lot of and very productive. Leonard worked his ass off. But I couldn’t –I’m sure neither of us could –maintain that schedule. Leonard had the assistance, or at least the companionship, of a variety of drugs. This all occurred in 1961 when Leonard wrote “Flowers for Hitler” and funded by a 1000 dollar grant from the Canadian Council for poetry for “The Spice Box of Earth”.
A year later Simmons describes Leonard as pushing himself so hard on his first novel back in Hydra because he felt that time was running out at thirty years of age. He told Leonard Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice in 1967, “”that’s the age when you finally understand that the universe does not succumb to your command.”
After finishing his first novel “Beautiful Lovers” Cohen crashed and burned. He was hospitalized and put on a protein drip. Physicians could not decide if he was suffering from manic-depressive disorder or coming off amphetamines and LSD for long periods, non-stop working followed by a ten day fast.
In the summer of 1965 Cohen essentially destitute from lack of public interest in his poetry and novels decided to become a singer song-writer and at the beginning using his poetry as lyrics. He had already taught himself acoustic guitar as a teen with the help of a Spaniard. He moved to Greenwich Village and met Mary Martin, also Canadian and executive assistant to Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s manager. She then called her friend Judy Collins, the Queen of Greenwich Village at twenty-seven.
Guitar in hand Cohen sang Suzanne, Dress Hears a Rag and The Stranger Song. ‘Suzanne’ he had written in 1967.Next it was Collin’s radio show and the rest is the future! When it came to record Suzanne the disagreement revolved around the producers not happy with it being a good-bye song. Cohen said leave it alone or I’ll kill myself. At this point he was a resident of the iconic Chelsea hotel in Greenwich Village.
The sixties ended for Leonard by experimenting with Zen Buddhism with Joshua Sasaki Roshi on Baldy Mountain in Southern California. Cohen would visit here off and on the rest of his life and eventually become a Buddhist monk. He squared this with Judaism as both religions prayed to no other-worldly figure. He would take refuge there for months at a time exercising and meditating as a way to deal with depression without medications.
When his first album was released, Songs of Leonard Cohen, reviews began comparing him to Bob Dylan. This comparison was to continue all through their careers and they became friends each thinking the others lyrics were better.
On a concert tour in the spring of 1970 Europe with nine shows in eight European cities in two weeks and fueled by LSD and Quaaludes Leonard decided to role play a famous character from the past in each city. In the first city he dressed as Patton complete with whip leading his army. In Hamburg he started the show by clicking his heels twice and giving the NAZI salute. The crowd turned on a dime and turned against him throwing things. One German ran down towards the aisle with a gun and got very close before security tackled him. In Amsterdam he invited the entire crowd to come back to his hotel—result, police action. In Paris the police were called when he invited the audience to join him on stage. He returned to Hydra during a coup d’état in Greece. He rode up on stage on a horse while hecklers called him a fascist.
His next stop was to be on the Isle of Wight where he called himself the “Army” and was going to put down unrest by hundreds of thousands of young people. On August 28th he was committed to Henderson Hospital in south London. He had had a psychotic break during manic dysphoria. This is the only type of mania that does not feel good and that can lead to psychosis.
This hospital was unique as an asylum in not using drugs but rather talk therapy. In Leonard’s case his therapy was playing songs for the other patients. He and his band would go on to play concerts in other mental hospitals around England. Back in the States they played for Napa State mental hospital in the California wine country. This is a facility for the seriously mentally ill who had a one way ticket.
In 1971 having had a go at country western in Nashville, Cohen’s Songs from a Room and Songs of Love and Hate were described as too dark and full of pain. Suzanne described Leonard’s depression after this as follows: “…it can feel like a dark room with no doors. It’s a common experience of many people, especially with a creative nature, and the more spiritual the person, the closer to the tendency resembling what the church called acedia—a sin that encompassed apathy in the practice of virtue and the loss of grace”. His treatment was to swim in the YMCA pool twice a day and for five days straight he went to the studio.
The result of the above toil was released on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain it was a top 5 hit whereas in the U.S. an abject failure. Leonard received an honorary doctorate from the University of Halifax. “The citation read “For many young people on both sides of the Atlantic, Leonard Cohen has become a symbol of their own anguish, alienation and uncertainty.”
Leonard said “People were saying I was depressing a generation, and they should give away a razor blade with Leonard Cohen albums because it’s music to slit your wrists by.”
1973 war Syria and Egypt invaded Israel during Yom Kippur. Cohen chose to go there again to be a la Cuba in 1961 to be where the action was. It was the Hemingway in him. Turned down by the Army he toured the country singing his songs to the troops. He saw this as “fantasies of glorious escapades”.
Two sentinel songs rose from Cohen’s brilliant mind in 1984. He had started using a synthesizer for the first time. The album was to be called Various Positions. The second most memorable song is Dance Me to the End of Love. A cursory listening seems like a love song. It is actually about two lovers entering a NAZI death camp through the entrance where serenaded by an orchestra they separate to their respective gas chambers.
Cohen’s most famous song Hallelujah is in this album. It is about multiple romantic positions, conflict and surrender. The song took five years to write. It is arguably the most sung song of our time. The European leg of the promotional tour of the album included Poland under Communist control. Leonard’s name was known in Poland due to a popular radio personality. Lech Walesa wanted to appear on stage with Cohen but the latter declined not wanting to politicize the event or get the Polish promoter in trouble.
His next album I’m Your Man was named album of the year by the New York Times. He sold out Carnegie Hall. When he returned to L.A. for no reason at all and despite all his success his nemesis, depression, hit him again. He described it as coming in “cycles” perhaps rapid cycling. He stated that when depression occurs during success he feels ashamed. At the same time he knew that success or failure can bring on a depression. His Buddhist advisor, Roshi asked what he had tried to treat the depression. He named off Prozac, desipramine, MAO inhibitors, Zoloft, Wellbutrin. They all made him feel worse. He was quick to add that they killed his sex drive. Friends had suggested psychotherapy to which he responded, “I have no conviction that this model was workable.”
In 1999 Leonard felt Roshi and Baldy Mountain had outlived their usefulness and he flew to Mumbai to meet Ramesh S. Balsekar, 81, and a former president of the Bank of India. The latter had written a book, Consciousness Speaks published in 1992. Its precept is there is no “I” or “me” so that there is no free will.
The book ends in 2012 but in those twelve years Leonard released about an album a year and toured about as much. He did not talk of age or sickness. In fact in the book there is not any reference to any physical illnesses. In 2016 he produced his last album, You Want it Darker and hearing the song is hearing a description of major depression. Three weeks later he was dead. To me the cause of death is somewhat mysterious. He foresaw it. He was said to have died in his sleep after a fall in the middle of the night. The death was described as “sudden, unexpected and peaceful”.