The Low Priest of Pop

REVIEW: ‘Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years’ and ‘Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: From This Broken Hill’

Canadian singer and poet Leonard Cohen is pictured on Jan. 16, 2012, in Paris. / Getty Images
November 7, 2021

Reading Michael Posner’s oral history of the life of the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is a little like witnessing one of those 360-degree performance reviews at the office. The approach is invasive, a bit plodding, and undeniably illuminating.

The man who gave us "Hallelujah," "Everybody Knows," and several other classics in a low unsinger-like voice is described from countless angles. Past lovers, drinking pals, rival poets, business partners, colleagues, student journalists, a possible stalker, and a former head summer camp counselor all step up to the mike. And some of them are brilliant. All legends should be blessed with someone like Cohen’s sympathetic and intelligent friend Barrie Wexler, a superb interpreter of the man’s character. Posner’s volumes owe much as well to less besotted witnesses, including the noted Yiddish literature scholar Ruth Wisse (herself the author of two superb essays on Cohen, the first in Commentary, the other in Mosaic) and Cohen’s friend Barbara Dodge.

If the oral history method here works, it is a credit to the intensity of the raconteurs. The interviewees include a large number of people for whom Leonard Cohen was the great subject of their lives. They have been telling these stories for years, and their reservoir of anecdote and opinion runs deep. But then comes a postmodern twist: You are not always sure who to believe. The chorus speaks but not in unison, and yet their many voices do work to conjure a thing almost magical: the feeling that you have all but met Leonard Cohen and know what he’s like.

Cohen was the son of a prosperous family in the Jewish community of Westmount, Montreal. His father, the owner of a garment company that made suits for men, died when Cohen was nine years old. The boy was notably charismatic and intelligent, a dabbler in hypnotism, ukulele-playing, and literature. Being a Cohen carried a special meaning: He was a descendant of Kohanim, the line of priests that began with Moses’s brother Aaron, as mentioned in the Torah.

At college, Leonard Cohen was the president of his fraternity and a prodigy among a circle of poets led by Irving Layton. Such was the vitality of poetry in English-speaking Canada, according to one interviewee, that it was featured on television, read before "packed rooms," and published in 30 or so volumes a year that sold well enough to justify their printing.

By his early 30s, Cohen was a bona fide success, with four volumes of poetry and two novels under his belt. Even his more dubious work received conflicted praise. The critic Leslie Fiedler described Cohen’s convoluted Beautiful Losers as either one of the best or one of the worst novels he had ever read.

The casual acquaintance of Cohen’s music can be forgiven for thinking he was a poet who one day, all of a sudden, began playing guitar and singing. The story has been told that way. In fact, Cohen had been playing music for years, in his bedroom, at summer camps, at the fraternity house. He was not well-regarded as a musician, but when he first began performing his poetry with a guitar, he had been playing and singing for many years.

Several of Cohen’s most memorable lyrics and images were plucked directly from real life. In a well-known story retold here, a woman named Suzanne (last name Verdal) literally fed him tea and oranges, just as he put it in the song, "Suzanne," which Judy Collins covered and which made his name as a singer-songwriter. In a less well-known story told here, a woman named Gabriela Valenzuela, a college student from Costa Rica, did something almost as remarkable for the history of pop music when she became a consort of this singer whose confessed preference for young women would test the rationalizations of his staunchest defenders.

Valenzuela seems to be a major find, even in this loosely sourced biography. She is absent from the index of a well-regarded 2012 biography of Cohen. Yet here she describes two scenes from the affair that sound like drafts of lyrics from Cohen’s biggest hit, "Hallelujah," the well-known song that had been around for years before it climbed into the very stratosphere of international fame after it was used at a climactic moment in the movie Shrek. In the first, Valenzuela (naked) ties Cohen (also naked) to a kitchen chair as she cuts his hair. The second instance keys to the line in "Hallelujah" about "bathing on the roof," before segueing into a description of sexual intercourse that begins while the young woman is still asleep.

As his musical fortunes rise and fall, Cohen’s record of sexual conquest increasingly takes over the narrative. So often is a new, presumably nontrivial, sexual partner introduced that the reader loses track. Cohen’s little black book threatens to stretch to the length of a three-volume oral history (indeed, Posner says volume three is underway) and the material is more bleak than hot: open marriages on the Greek island of Hydra where Cohen spends many a season, liaisons across North America and Europe, stories of Cohen’s halitosis, his sex with underaged women, lukewarm postcoital reviews, abortions, neglected children, bad-faith marriages, and drug abuse.

The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci recently drew an interesting distinction between sociological and psychological stories. The former reveal a place and time—and they allow the audience to identify with many characters. The latter construct heroes and villains to dominate the landscape and wow the audience. The oral history method here allows a good bit of both—the times and the man—to come to the fore.

We see not only the seducer, but the seduced as women line up at his stage door for an audition. We see a whole culture of success and character perverted, traditions picked up and cast aside or used as spiritual fast food for the religiously promiscuous. We see betrayal become a badge of honor in a generation of flesh-mad thrill-seekers. We also see, however, true inspiration and musical triumphs and something extraordinary taking shape.

To those who had hopes his talents would make him a great religious figure or a great poet, Cohen was a disappointment. And yet from the darkness of a broken culture come rays of light. To his many friends he was a generous and soulful person who treated many companions with great interest and respect. To his music fans, he was even something of a redeemer, raising the linguistic power of pop music to new heights. The great pleasure of Posner’s volumes is they make room for all of these notions and set them in opposition.

Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years
by Michael Posner
Simon & Schuster, 496 pp., $30

Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: From This Broken Hill
by Michael Posner
Simon & Schuster, 496 pp., $30

David Skinner is an editor and writer who writes about language and culture and lives in Alexandria, Va.

Published under: Book reviews