Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Hallelujah for the Genius of Cohen

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Hallelujah for the Genius of Cohen

Article excerpt

Byline: RICHARD GODWIN

I'M YOUR MAN: THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN by Sylvie Simmons (Cape, [pounds sterling]20) WHEN Leonard Cohen was a lust-filled teenager in Montreal in the chaste early 1950s, long before he picked up a guitar, he developed an interest in mind control. Learning from a cheap manual (25 Lessons in Hypnotism: How to Become an Expert Operator), he experimented with some success on the Cohen family pets, before attempting to mesmerise the maid.

Seating her on a Chesterfield sofa, speaking low and slow, he managed to put her in a deep trance.

When he asked her to strip naked, to his delight and horror, she obeyed. No one pronounces the word "naked" like Cohen, after all. "This is what he had been waiting so long to see," Cohen later wrote in his autobiographical novel, The Favourite Game. "He wasn't disappointed and he never has been."

It is tempting to see his art coming together in this moment. We have the deep longing; the surprising power of his voice; the co-mingling of the sacred, the sexual and the silly. (Even the classy leather sofa seems of a piece.) However, as Sylvie Simmons's delightful biography makes clear, with Cohen, things generally happened a lot more slowly and painfully.

Simmons situates her subject well both in the Jewish tradition (if not a singer he would have made a fantastic Rabbi) and in his generation, that bit older than the brash Babyboomers. He learned guitar from a Spanish flamenco player who -- d'oh! -- committed suicide shortly after teaching him that rippling finger style. But this was before the guitar had any claim to iconography. Cohen's first band, a country trio called The Buckskin Boys, had no higher ambition than "cornering the Montreal square-dance market". He was 33 before he made the transition to songwriting from poetry.

Even as a lifelong fan (I have a strange memory of hearing So Long, Marianne in the cot) I found much unfamiliar here. His lyrics are so resonant in themselves that there never seemed much need to find out who Marianne, Nancy and Suzanne were -- but it is a comfort to discover that they were all devastatingly beautiful and all speak of him kindly. …

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