The Various Positions of Leonard Cohen

REVIEW: ‘Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: That’s How the Light Gets In’

Leonard Cohen, 2009, Getty Images
January 22, 2023

In the third volume of Michael Posner’s oral biography of Leonard Cohen, friends, lovers, spiritual kin, musicians, and business partners all tell stories of the besuited poet and singer-songwriter. This final segment begins in 1986 when the singer Jennifer Warnes, his sometime lover and collaborator, releases Famous Blue Raincoat, an album of Leonard Cohen songs that helps revive his reputation, and runs all the way through Cohen’s widely noted death in 2016. Cohen’s late-in-life resurgence as a recording and touring musician receives well-deserved attention but the most impressive episodes in this volume show us Cohen, in the 1990s, turning 60 and confronting the chaos inside himself while carrying on with his life’s work. It’s a crowdsourced redemption story with graying flecks and a dramatic soundtrack.

Cohen’s reputation owes quite a lot to other musicians who covered and championed his music, starting with Judy Collins who recorded "Suzanne" in 1966, then another three of his songs a year later on her next album. In 1991, the tribute album I’m Your Fan presented Cohen’s songwriting in recordings by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, R.E.M, and other heroes of alternative rock. This album also featured the seminal John Cale cover of "Hallelujah," but for which the song might not have been covered by Jeff Buckley, but for which the song might not have become a seemingly universal pop hymn.

The personal storms that roll through this volume are as momentous as any in the earlier books and yet more interesting and revealing. One almost pities Cohen as he spends ever more time at the Mount Baldy Zen Center near Claremont, Calif., enduring a demanding course in Zen Buddhism under Kyozan Joshu Sasaki. Old Leonard is a man in crisis: yanked by his own appetites toward dissipation and whoring; drowning in prescription-grade depression; seduced by fame and Hollywood, both personified by his latest girlfriend, Rebecca De Mornay; and, to his credit, unable to quit his vocation as a poet and a singer.

His practice as a Zen Buddhist seems to have been a way through the madness. It was not itself a path of sanity, though. Picture not a Zen garden, balanced, artful, and at peace. Picture New Age bedlam. "You do realize that we are on a hospital ship here, where all of us are broken, and none will ever get well and the ship is sinking," Cohen told fellow initiate James Truman.

The writer Pico Iyer appears as yet another friend and interpreter of the great Cohen koan. He offers a helpful gloss on the hospital comment: "Partly he’s saying, 'There are no answers here. This is not salvation, just the opposite. It’s about sitting still in a burning house, going up in flames.’"

Around this time Cohen gave a deeply interesting interview to Arthur Kurzweil of the Jewish Book Club, addressing the possible tension between Buddhism and Judaism. After he took up Zen Buddhism, Cohen said, he practiced Judaism with a passion for the Absolute that he hadn’t known before. Buddhist meditation was therefore not so much an alternative to his own religion but a re-initiation into the sacred. Cohen, who toyed with many other journalists and interviewers, seemed to be playing it straight as he described the Bible to Kurzweil as a "landscape," spiritual and historical, that we are invited to inhabit—part of a larger moral universe continuous with the lives of the original Kohenim, a world that is still in existence, still holy, and still broken.

"There is a crack in everything," as he famously wrote. "That’s how the light gets in."

These years of rock bottom followed by an upward ascent provide an extraordinary glimpse of an extraordinary person at an extraordinary time. One is reminded of Henry taking leave of Falstaff to assume the crown, of the prodigal son coming home. This very fallen character reaches for the divine and it is quite moving.

There are other major episodes, such as the revelation that Cohen’s accounts are unstable and he may be heading toward insolvency. In the usual telling, he is simply ripped off by his manager Kelley Lynch, who was interviewed at length for these volumes. She is unrepentant and blames much of the difficulty on Cohen’s own profligacy, but the evidence against her (to say nothing of the jail time she served for harassing Cohen) seems overwhelming. The setback, however, does encourage him to keep working, keep recording, and, at an age when most people are watching the ink dry on their final will and testament, embark on a world tour.

Posner’s volume offers a lot of chapter and verse on the financial scandal and a number of excellent anecdotes of Cohen on the road—he is so old and tired after performing that he can’t bear to hang out with even the likes of Paul Simon and Bono. His problems with girlfriends decline in number but never quite zero out, as we hear from his many friends and acquaintances.

Assembling a life story through so many individual stories raises important questions about what is finally the truth, but Posner's oral history does so intentionally, making a virtue of its own inconsistency. It may be less scholarly or deliberate than weighing every piece of evidence and forcing it all through the sieve of a well-considered thesis, but there is a lot to be said for its free-flowing method. For one thing, it foregrounds the evidence, in a playful way, respecting the reader’s right to make up their own mind. Secondly, it keeps the principle of uncertainty front and center, ever present amid the polyphony of multiple witnesses relaying different takes on the same events.

Just as earlier volumes offered contrary opinions on Cohen’s lovemaking, singing, and guitar playing, so volume three tells us he was, in truth, not political at all but also that he was an NRA-card-carrying, pro-Israel realist who was deeply versed in the problems of the Middle East. (It seems possible to write a convincing essay on his political positions that could very well upset some of his most liberal fans.) We also hear that he was a man of superlative integrity and yet an apologist for sexual assault. (When his Zen master was credibly accused of multiple counts of groping and far worse, Cohen, reportedly, was more embarrassed than angry and did not lift a finger to see his beloved Roshi punished.) That he was, at times, a no-show parent and deeply committed to his children’s well-being. (The voices of his two offspring are all but absent, which seems just as well—these three volumes, even when you’re enjoying them, which is most of the time, do not leave you wanting more.)

Leonard Cohen was, apparently, a fiend and a friend. A gentleman and a rake. A voluptuary and an ascetic. And why not all of these?

At its best, however, this Babel of voices is ultimately unifying, producing a multiplicity of impressions that stack into one larger meta portrait like a Chuck Close painting. What brings it all together is the unlikely triumph of this aging troubadour who, after seeking refuge from his own recklessness, continued to climb the tower of song.

Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: That’s How the Light Gets In
by Michael Posner
Simon and Schuster, 475 pp., $35

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

Published under: Book reviews