Books

Wine, women, song

VARIOUS POSITIONS: A LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN By Ira Nadel

MORTON RITTS December 2 1996
Books

Wine, women, song

VARIOUS POSITIONS: A LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN By Ira Nadel

MORTON RITTS December 2 1996

Wine, women, song

Books

VARIOUS POSITIONS: A LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN By Ira Nadel

(Random House, 325pages, $29.95)

Leonard Cohen buried one of the first things he ever wrote. After his father died, he cut open one of his bow ties, sewed a message into it and buried it in the snow. This snapshot of the nine-yearold poet is revealing, says Ira Nadel in his frankly admiring biography, Various Positions. Not only did the ceremony foreshadow Cohen’s lifelong devotion to what Nadel calls the fusion of “ritual and writing,” but it also “preserved a link with his father which was reenacted each time he composed.” The son of a clothing manufacturer, Cohen grew up in Montreal’s exclusive Westmount enclave. His maternal grandfather was a rabbinical scholar with whom he studied the Book of Isaiah. Its “combination of poetry and prose, punishment and redemption” had a lasting influence, writes Nadel. Later on, Cohen’s most important mentor

was poet Irving Layton. When Cohen’s second poetry book, The Spice Box of Earth, failed to win a 1961 Governor General’s Award, Layton complained: ‘What an arsehole of a country this is when this sort of crap [by Robert Finch] can win prizes, but Cohen’s genuine lyricism can’t and doesn’t.” Layton attributed Cohen’s brooding melancholy at least partly to his being Jewish. By the time he released his first record album in 1968, his credentials as what a U.S. reviewer called the “prince of bummers” were firmly established. According to Nadel, Cohen decided to pursue a serious singing career—despite the most monotonous voice this side of Bob Dylan—when he realized he would never be able to earn a wide audience or decent living as a writer. Not that music was a newfound interest. In his youth, Cohen had belonged to a country group and would show up at parties, guitar in hand, ready to

A Leonard Cohen biographer seems more a disciple

take requests from attractive women.

Rumors of Cohen’s death as a “ladies’ man” are greatly exaggerated, according to Various Positions. That title, taken from Cohen’s favorite album, not only has obvious sexual connotations, but reflects a dictum of Cohen’s Zen master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi: “A Zen man has no attachments.” Or, as Cohen puts it, “I have never loved a woman for herself alone, but because I was caught up in time with her, between train arrivals and train departures.” Of his numerous romances, only two have been long-term: one with Marianne Ihlen; the other with Suzanne Elrod, his former wife and mother of his two children.

In recent years, three tribute albums and Cohen’s own The Future (1992) and Cohen Live (1994) have attested to a widespread popularity that came while he was spending much of his time at Roshi’s California Zen centre. In Roshi, Cohen, now 62, has found perhaps his most important guru. In Nadel, who documents rather than analyzes, he has found less a biographer than a disciple.

MORTON RITTS