Book Of Cohen
Steele Roberts, $30.00,
Book Of Cohen is a singular volume with multiple objectives: “This was always going to be a work by one Cohen (that would be me) on another Cohen (that would be Leonard)”. “I’ve always been Cohen-mad,” the author confides, “but there was another Cohen lurking in the picture as well.”
The title echoes Leonard’s biblical and liturgical inclination – Book Of Longing, The Song Of Isaac, Who By Fire – and rather than intending to be solemn, it invokes the same Leonard ironies. But we are also told in David Cohen’s elliptical introduction that, while this book explores Leonard Cohen’s music, it is not a work of analysis: “I’ve … tried to stay away from mining lyrics for meanings other than what they clearly seem to be about.” Nor is it a biographical study: “Sylvie Simmonds has already produced a definitive one.”
Cohen (David) suggests other descriptions. His book is “a collection of meditations” in which, “time can’t really be measured in tiny little boxes of past, present and future.” Elsewhere he says: “It’s a series of snapshots.” Then, before explaining the book has its origins in “a deeply strange dream”, he shrugs and says: “These fragments have been assembled in a way that’s relevant to me, including space near the start about my own background as a Cohen. It’s a memoir after all.”
I am dwelling on these tentative prefatory musings because I sense that the writer is not sure if this clutch bag of recollections, anecdotes, esoteric Jewish lore and liturgy, scriptural elucidations, fan gossip, and panegyrics to the Tower of Song, will actually fly. It’s a fair question. The answer, as far as this reader is concerned, is yes, it does; sometimes buffeting in a headwind of its own digressive making, but other times soaring in remarkable and memorable ways.
Using a sequence of Leonard’s song titles as chapter headings, David dives deep with his first selection, “You Want It Darker”. It is the title of the Master’s deathbed album. Completed by his son Adam when Leonard was too ill with cancer and depression to continue the project, like Bowie’s Blackstar it is a reminder that, these days, pop can take us to the edge of the grave. (It has, it must be said, always been able to take us beyond.)
David Cohen, the celebrated journalist and seasoned music critic, writes evocatively about his subject. He nods his cap to the veteran American commentator Robert Christgau, but you sense he also knows his Lester Bangs, and the gonzo Rolling Stone crew, when he gets into his stylistic stride. It is that post-1967 ragout of the personal, the political and the laconically poetic.
He parses the cover photo of the You Want It Darker CD which “has the 82-year old perched in a window somewhere high above Boogie Street. Double breasted suit. Hat tilted just so. Lighted cigarette in hand. Same as he ever was. Except that he isn’t.” The chapter concludes with David’s Radio New Zealand obituary for Leonard, written in the raw hours after his death is announced. He describes it as tremulous, but it is what makes for great music writing – navigating that treacherously narrow channel between pathos and the glug of bathos. When he says “It doesn’t get much darker than this”, we know what he means.
“Love Calls You By Your Name” which follows, is a briskly paced family history. The etymology (and DNA) of the Cohens are explored, as is the pattern of Jewish flight from religious persecution, and migration from Russia to Northern England, Wales – and then, as described in “The Favourite Game” section (the title of a Leonard novel) – the birth and early life of David in the Hutt Valley. These are fine examples of compressed memoir. The tensions of the family life of young émigré parents, in personal turmoil, against a background of alien Kiwi suburban drabness, are deftly described. Details are sparing but vivid. The father soon leaves the family, a discontinuous narrative picked up later in the book with intriguing but almost maddening brevity. Similarly, the reference to David’s time as a juvenile in state care, documented in detail in his 2016 publication, Little Criminals, is a fleeting and almost surreal aside.
“The Story Of Isaac” offers a brief history of Leonard. It describes his unlikely entry into the world of rock music (and the Chelsea Hotel!) – as a Canadian, as a pre-existing author and poet, and at an age older than Jesus. It is also about fathers (a David theme, of course). The close discussion of “The Story Of Isaac”, and the theme of sacrifice and war, pay lucid tribute to a peerless song.
A cluster of chapters, from “Avalanche”, the opening track from Songs Of Love And Hate, which was David’s first enveloping encounter with Leonard’s work, through “Ain’t No Cure For Love” to “Famous Blue Raincoat” are highlights in this collection. The Leonard exegesis is sharp; the digressions to the Go-Betweens, Nick Cave, Simone Weil and the singer’s affinity with the wry comedy of James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, are tantalising. David’s pilgrimages to Montreal and New York described in “Suzanne” and “Chelsea Hotel” are shrewdly drawn sketches of the author from the Hutt Valley exploring the stations of the Leonard criss-cross.
You don’t have to be a Leonard Cohen devotee to relish Book Of Cohen, although it definitely helps. It is a rich, discursive, bravely vulnerable essay on Old Ideas and Popular Problems and also, it’s as dark as you need; which is to say – just enough.
Murray Bramwell lives in Adelaide and is a regular theatre reviewer for The Australian.