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Friday, May 30, 2014

The Wisdom of Leonard Cohen

Two books on the poet, songwriter and performer

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One of the most articulate people in music, Leonard Cohen is a genuine rather than a pretend poet. And unlike most rock stars, he has no trouble being apt, interesting and wise. The triple threat makes Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters (Chicago Review Press) a considerably deeper read than most collections of musician interviews, which are usually interesting, often apt but seldom contain much wisdom.

Edited by veteran music writer Jeff Burger, Interviews and Encounters anthologizes journalism on Cohen from 1966 through 2012. The insights of the writers who encountered Cohen cross the spectrum from dim to lucid, but his responses unfailingly shine. And contrary to the reputation he earned from the elegant melancholy of his lyrics, Cohen has a mordant sense of humor. “I don’t think I have a dark cast of mind, by the way,” he tells one writer, “realistic is how I’d describe it.”

The painful reality of love, loss and acceptance has been integral to such memorable songs as “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire.” But Cohen isn’t simply bemoaning the women who got away. An almost Talmudic sensibility opens his words onto universes larger than usual among songwriters. A search for shards of truth amid the rubble of illusion sets his eyes on the far horizon.

Unlike many artists who emerged in the 1960s, Cohen’s songs seem outside that era, as if belonging to all time or no time at all. He told one interviewer that he never thought the decade “was so great” even before it ended. “With the amount of charlatanism and hustling that went on—there’s nothing really to regret about its passing.”

That Cohen was in but not of the ’60s is only one theme in Liel Leibovitz’s compact, illuminating critical biography, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen (W.W. Norton). Perhaps the best entry on the growing shelf of Cohen biographies, A Broken Hallelujah explores the life through the art with insights on every page and no wasted words. Leibovitz identifies the crucial formal influences—the poetry of Lorca and the convergence of his parents’ conventional midcentury Judaism with the prophetic, mystical stance of his grandfather, a respected rabbinical scholar. The pull between law and spirit was always apparent in Cohen, as was the easy harmony between the worldly and the transcendent. As Leibovitz points out, most covers of “Hallelujah” mistake it for merely a song of sexual passion. Cohen also had in mind the eros of desire for the sacred, an idea beyond the grasp of the boobs who bellow the tune on “American Idol.”