Thursday, April 4, 2013

I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard CohenI'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard CohenI'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This biography, like the earlier one by Ira Nadel, is the next instalment in the fairytale of Leonard Cohen's "life," and repeats some of the same errors, omissions and obfuscations. I hate to be unfan-like, but some of us read biographies to find out, err, the "truth" about famous people, not to wallow in their personal myth or worship in their cult of personality.

Leonard Cohen is one of those 20th century singers who made it to idol status after a long, sometimes bitter struggle.  It would be nice if someone, someday, actually peeked behind the curtain of stardom and exposed some of the more transparent fables.

Let's begin with his McGill undergraduate days, when he came close to flunking out with a 56.4 grade average at graduation. "He did much better in math" though, -- yes, perhaps because Leonard was infinitely more calculating than his naive schoolmates who actually studied. At age 17, he began supplementing his income by volunteering for Donald Hebb's notorious, CIA-funded, sensory isolation experiments, for which he got paid a lucrative $20/day. These led to days and weeks spent in flotation tanks on LSD. It's a miracle he managed to remain sane enough to write poetry -- but then, the CIA has long had a soft spot for poets and writers. They often make great spies.

Even in high school, Leonard had shown a tendency to embrace violence. His first short story, published in the Westmount HS yearbook, was titled "Kill or Be Killed."

At least Simmons asks the obvious question -- "How did Leonard get away with it?" -- while glossing over the answers. How does a 21-year-old McGill Law School dropout with barely passing grades get into graduate school at Columbia? Simmons admits "Enrolling at Columbia had really been a cover, something to keep Leonard's family happy."

Cohen friend Mort Rosengarten told Simmons that wealthy Montreal Jewish families did not want their sons becoming artists and intellectuals -- rather they were expected to enter the family business and churn out elegant suits and ties for the elite. Nevertheless, while rebelliously "floundering" in New York, Leonard founded a literary magazine called The Phoenix -- a perfect way to get close to the Greenwich Village poetry scene and its beatniks who ignored his formal, McGill-influenced verse.

Anyone who knows Leonard knows he's a sharp and disciplined thinker, not the kind of unfocussed dreamer who would imagine he could make a living off poetry. How did he survive in New York as he moved from failure to failure? That's the question that never seems to get answered.

We do know that in 1959 he moved to London to work on a novel. During that time, he met Jacob Rothschild -- heir to a banking empire -- who suggested Leonard visit his mother, Barbara Hutchison, on Hydra. Barbara Hutchison had divorced Jacob's father, and was planning to marry the painter Nikos Ghikas, who had a mansion overlooking the village of Kamini. Simmons doesn't say more about that visit, which found its way into Hydra legend. Following in Henry Miller's footsteps, Leonard knocked on Ghikas' door but, unlike Miller, who was welcomed, he was told to go away. As Leonard told it later to friends on Hydra, he shook his fist and shouted "Curse this house!" Soon after, the mansion burned to the ground and remains a spooky ruin to this day.

Maybe the Rothschilds had a bone to pick with Ghikas over Barbara's desertion? Maybe Leonard was their messenger? Simmons does not go there. She repeats the official story of how Leonard met Marianne and settled down on Hydra, in an ex-patriate community of artists that included Marianne's husband, Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen and Australian writers George and Charmian Johnston. (Late in 1959, Hydra's artists somehow figured in a photo-spread in LIFE magazine -- which Simmons doesn't mention, perhaps because the article was not only precious and tacky, it raises the question of why an obscure Canadian folksinger would appear in so many painfully posed photos depicting Bohemian life on a Greek island.)

LIFE magazine was a flagship of the CIA "MOCKINGBIRD" program -- but that's a conspiracy theory so let's move on. Next we come to the famous Cuban Missile Crisis adventure. This story gets more absurd with each repetition. Simmons delivers the standard version of how Leonard returned to Montreal in the fall of 1960, broke and separated from the woman and child he planned to support with the proceeds of his talent. After co-writing two unsuccessful TV scripts with Irving Layton, he learned his first novel had been rejected by McClelland and Stewart. On March 30, when he would normally have been going over the galleys for The Spicebox of Earth, and looking for paying work, the cash-strapped Leonard suddenly boarded a plane in Miami and flew to Cuba, just days ahead of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

"It is no great surprise that Leonard should have wanted to see Cuba," Simmons explains. "Lorca, his favourite poet, spent three months there when the country was America's playground, calling it a 'paradise' and extolling its virtues and vices."

Sure. Of course. She delivers a repeat of Leonard's carefully-honed account of days spent stumbling in and out of bars and hotels, and how he almost gets arrested as a CIA agent by Castro's over-zealous militia. But wait -- what if he really was a CIA agent? What if, in a desperate moment, he volunteered for the notorious failed mission, organized by CIA director Allen Dulles, the evil genius behind the MKULTRA program at McGill?

After all, the young Cohen and spymaster Dulles were only a degree or two of separation from each other. Dulles even employed some of Cohen's mentors and professors -- like Donald Hebb -- albeit covertly. Some of their secret LSD research involved the creation of Manchurian Candidates -- mind controlled agents and couriers who could be sent around the world on various missions in the name of anti-communism.

It stands to reason, in a way, doesn't it? That a hungry young poet with a "fascination for violence" might have signed up to go to Havana ahead of the military invasion with the group of spies who assigned to the hotels and bars. Exactly the kind of operation the MKULTRA program is now famous for.

Ten years later, on New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Cohen decided to spill the beans in a song: "Field Commander Cohen" -- "our most important spy/ wounded in the line of duty/ parachuting acid into diplomatic cocktail parties." However, Simmons dismisses this joking confession as having "no justification whatsoever."

Readers who are not totally brainwashed will gag on this nonsense, but in a way, it's just so interesting -- and there's more.

Like Nadel before her, Simmons doesn't seem to know Leonard was on Hydra from December 1980 through September 1981. How could she, if he didn't tell her? Others -- like me, for example -- could have filled her in on the aftermath of his dismal 1980 European tour, which ended in Tel Aviv on late November. I met Leonard and his musicians as they landed in Tel Aviv airport. I heard the complaints and arguments in the hotel over the next two days. Simmons says Leonard took them all on a jaunt to the Dead Sea -- I think someone is pulling our leg here. I recall Leonard, holed up at the hotel in a string of meetings with Israeli journalists and mysterious officials, ending with a painful meeting where he threatened to fire the band and replace them with "$300-a-week Armenian oud-players." Except for Sharon Robinson, who was cowriting a song with Leonard, Passenger band members seemed angry and demoralized as they boarded the plane back to Texas.

Simmons has him flying straight to New York from Tel Aviv, staying at the Algonquin Hotel, and buying Hannukah candles in preparation for celebrating the holiday with his children -- although Hannukah ended on December 10. (Nadel says he attended a religious ceremony on December 11). Neither biographer mentions John Lennon's assassination, two kilometers away on Central Park, which happened on the night of December 8, 1980. Leonard would have seen the streams of people in the streets, many holding candles and heading for the wake outside the Dakota where Lennon was shot.

In fact, though, Leonard flew Tel Avid -Athens on November 26. I arrived a day or two later and saw him at his house which he was preparing for his children's arrival, and several times over the following week. His Spanish translator, Alberto Manzano, also visited at Christmas for two weeks and took photos of Leonard in his kitchen, with Adam and Lorca, and around the port of Hydra. Those photos are displayed on Leonard's website.

If he was in New York on December 11, it had to have been a quick trip. He never mentioned it to me or anyone else. That's why when I reviewed Nadel's biography in 1995, I said the New York trip was one of many errors.

I have doubts about how biographies are constructed, especially when the subject is still alive and able to alter the facts of his own life. Both Simmons and Nadel shove the events of 1981 -- like Cohen's first meeting with Dominique Isserman -- to 1982. According to their account, which really sounds like Cohen's own summary, he spent 1981 somewhere in a state of creative limbo, penning "If It Be Thy Will" as a sort of prayer to his management.

I wonder why the year on Hydra, where he was ensconced from November 1980 to December, gets vaporized by these biographers? I think i know why. But if I told you, I'd have to kill you.

All right, I'll tell you. But you'll have to buy my memoir first, tentatively titled THE MAN NEXT DOOR, which is bound to get me in trouble but I don't really care anymore. And no, I'm not "objective" -- but neither are Simmons' sources.

I knew Leonard quite well from 1977 to 1983, when a strange coincidence brought me to his neighbourhood where I lived for the next 12 years. I studied with his Roshi during what I think was a decisive period for Cohen at least in terms of his relationship to Zen in America. I witnessed enough to notice the whitewashing (or should I say "chemtrailing"?) of Leonard's past that seems to be intensifying as he nears his 80s and near-sainthood.

I think the truth is way more interesting than the hagiographic PR we have been hearing for the past 30 years. Let's just say there has been more than one holocaust in Leonard's lifetime. There is much more to Leonard Cohen than his fans suspect, and therein lies a tale on the theme of "responsibility."

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