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Sunday, July 16, 2017

VARIOUS POSITIONS - Ira Nadel

Various Positions: A Life of Leonard CohenVarious Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen by Ira B. Nadel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I am finally getting around to reading this biography which I was asked to review when it first came out in 1996. At the time I was distracted by several factual errors that jumped out at me when I started reading it -- and which caused me to doubt the value of the whole book. I felt it was a staid rehashing of the already well-known (at least to me) facts of Leonard's career and life, by someone who didn't really "get" him, i.e. Nadel did a workmanly job of presenting the material, often without comment, as if he neither particularly liked nor disliked his subject. This time around, I'm impressed mainly by the quantity of his research, e.g. his quoting from Cohen's letters during his the early part of his career when he was struggling to make a name for himself and carve out a position in Canadian literature. In retrospect, his efforts to be taken seriously as a novelist and poet seem almost futile, given the hidden background, and what he was up against. I still see Cohen as a serious writer, whose novels and poems can be read as a multi-faceted assault on the society he had grown up in - but were marred by a kind of narcissistic self-obsession that was probably a cover for some real wounds that few could have fathomed back then.

I've written my own memoir of Cohen: The Man Next Door (available at Lulu.com). It deals with some of my own experiences with Cohen, on the streets of Montreal as I was coming of age, and later on Hydra and Mount Baldy as I got drawn deeper into the mystery religion that he seemed to embody. Since it ends on a bizarre note, I'm now the process of adding more chapters that are based on later realizations, some of which I've been posting at my blog (http://lunamoth1.blogspot.ca) since Leonard's death last November.

Re: Various Positions: one thing that makes it stand out is the raw objectivity some readers complain about. In particular, the chapters about life on Hydra, and Cohen's letters to friends and publishers, reveal sides of him that would shock a lot of his current fans and devotees. I think they probably shocked even Ira Nadel, who serves them up without comment. In fact, the young Cohen was often an obnoxious, self-obsessed megalomaniac who took drugs to deal with his frustrated ambitions. Nadel's biography at least makes it clear why Cohen was both envied and disliked in Canada: he was a braggart addicted to self-aggrandizing hyperbole. Somehow, Europeans were able to overlook this and focus on his songs, some of which were major works of art.

A whole fetishistic cult has lately grown up around him that is often based on trivia, and borders on sanctification -- especially at sites like Cohencentric.com where you can waste hours browsing through old photos, napkins and witty remarks to visited journalists. No singer has ever been more interviewed in his lifetime, and since his death no detail about Cohen's life is too boring to share with his legions of would-be lovers who never had the opportunity in real life to get to know him. But the real Cohen was a puzzle.

He also left behind an unfinished career as a writer -- choosing to reinvent himself in New York, London and Paris, where he could hide behind his image as a sophisticated, likeable iconoclast.

It's the Canadian chapters that are painful to read. I believe Cohen had a message for Canada that he found too overwhelming - which is one reason he had to write Beautiful Losers while high on amphetamines. I don't think anyone ever really penetrated to the core of his fiction, what it was actually about, what it was a screen for - not even Cohen himself. Canadian critics like Northrop Frye liked to suppress the ugly truths in the early poems and novels, calling them 'mythopeic' when in fact they were often closer to straight reportage about a country that was harbouring Nazis and engaging in secret genocide. Those were the real, deep reasons Leonard Cohen felt driven to write -- but Canada didn't really want that kind of writer.

I have to thank Ira Nadel for bringing some of the guck to the surface. In a few years, Cohen's handlers will probably have managed to bury most of it - and with it, the true story of Canada.





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Wednesday, January 18, 2017


So Long, Marianne: A Love StorySo Long, Marianne: A Love Story by Kari Hesthamar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For all its studied naivete, Marianne Ihlen's book could be a cautionary tale about the dangers of swimming in unknown waters.

Follow the money, and the CIA-MKULTRA connection. It's 1961 and Leonard's true whereabouts -- the Bay of Pigs invasion -- is not even mentioned even though it's well documented elsewhere and Marianne had to know, even if only in retrospect. Fall of 1961: six months later, payment has materialized and she leaves her mother's house in Oslo to live with Leonard in Montreal, a short walk from the Allan Memorial Institute -- she doesn't mention Dr Cameron, just that the couple lived for a time in spacious luxury, along with baby Axel, son of Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen.

No explanation for where the money supporting this lifestyle came from, only that it wasn't from poetry, or even the alleged "television series" that Leonard was working on with Irving Layton. Also it didnt last long because soon they were back on Hydra scrounging for cast off clothes and furniture. So I think this 1961 windfall came courtesy of Allen Dulles and his ragtag Cuban brigade that took Leonard to Havana and probably served as the inspiration for one of his very first songs, "A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes."

Because I knew these people, years later, I find the artsy cover story trite - why do people buy the "flowers on the table" nonsense? It was not a stable or happy relationship even in 1960, before Leonard took off for America, and Marianne sent her 6 month old son to her mother in Norway on a SAS plane after meeting some pilots in the port of Hydra. After her baby departs for the north, Marianne stays on Hydra with Leonard, who was perfectly capable of putting his own flowers on the table. Maybe he needed a cook and bedmate -- although we're told that most of the housework was done by a neighbour, Kiria Sophia. What kept her and Leonard so occupied in their new life together, before their long drive up to Norway? As someone else has noted, everything about 1960 seems slightly iffy and dreamlike, at times cringe-worthy, as writing can be when it's avoiding some unmentionable truth. My guess is that Leonard was getting ready to go to America on a mission, which entailed a period of training before the CIA invasion brigade reached Cuba in the spring of 1961.

Significantly that same year, Marianne's estranged husband was spending much time with his new American girlfriend Patricia whose life revolved around the US base in Athens. Later he would write that he felt "banished" from Hydra (he had wrecked their house in a fit of rage one night, propelling Marianne into the arms of her Canadian poet admirer who lived up the hill.) We learn of Jensen mainly through his letters, usually angry in tone and content, however he never seems to have a bad word to say about the man who took his wife and child. "Leonard has the gift of making himself admired," writes Jensen, "which is why I will keep myself lurking in the background." It almost sounds, at times, as if the two men were cronies instead of rivals. Although broke (like Leonard, he never made real money from writing) the elder Jensen flies off to Mexico to be with his mysterious American friend (handler?) John Starr Cooke, over the winter of 1960- 1961. Cooke feeds him LSD and later Axel and Leonard get their novels reviewed and become famous writers overnight although reviews are just mixed--

(That same year LIFE magazine puts together a feature on the artists of Hydra, showcasing Leonard in particular, as a guitar-playing entertainer although at the time he had not yet written any song. The article is never published and Marianne doesn't mention it in her memoir, but many of her Hydra circle appear in the photos. LIFE Magazine was heavily CIA-controlled, of course, and Hydra writer, George Johnston, was one of its stringers, although by 1960 he was ill with tuberculosis.S0 1960 was some sort of turning point, not just for Leonard and Marianne, but for the island -- stars were rising, powerful people were taking notice -- or perhaps all this was being orchestrated from elsewhere? )

LSD played a bigger role on the island than one would expect in 1960 and also later on. Marianne notes that the wife of Hydra resident John Cassipides was the daughter of LSD guru Aldous Huxley. For anyone familiar with the history of the Tavistock Institute, and its role in promoting the "counter-culture", it should be clear that all this was happening a little early. Either these future cultural icons were amazingly prescient in their drug-taking habits, or someone was the handing them the blueprint for what would become Flower Power and the sixties "revolution". Like her fellow island-dwellers who were busy breaking up their marriages in an endless cycle of drinking and partying, Marianne went along with the trends before they were really trendy.

Later (ca 1967) the same "John Starr Cooke" character invites Marianne to his Oaxaca estate where he feeds her more LSD -- apparently the only form of therapy available at the time. You have to wonder about the presence of so many well-funded gurus whose only job is to encourage people to turn in, tune in and drop out. A daughter of Aldous Huxley marries into the Hydra art community - how could all this not be, somehow, outside the realm of coincidence? Rather it seems that Hydra was chosen as a floating human laboratory, a place to bring together a flock of "unstables" - a social engineering term for change-bringers, the kind of people who influence others to accept new ideas and ways of life.

Maybe what Leonard saw in Marianne, was not just a Muse -- I'm sure she was one -- but also a borrowed wife and child to serve as a foil for his secret activities? Am I being cynical for suspecting his motives in living with a woman he repeatedly cheated on and eventually abandoned?

In one letter he refers to Axel Jensen's son, baby Axel, as "Barnet" (?) What were they all thinking? Apparently nobody including Marianne really wanted this little boy. Not mentioned: When he was 11 baby Axel took LSD provided by wealthy Hydra resident and self-appointed guru George Lialios. The story of little Axel is one of the saddest chapters in the history of this famous couple - today he remains a casuality, permanently residing in a mental institution in Norway. How could Marianne not have realized their magical mystery tour would end tragically as she packed the boy off to private schools in Switzerland, then to Summerhill in the UK, ignoring his pleas to be rescued from this experiment? In the end Axel joined a lost generation that included Lilly Mack's son Sergei and Magda ' s Alexander, both drug takers and drug dealers. Although Sergei has survived, Alexander died young of complications from a sponge diving accident - I was on Hydra in 1981 when the accident happened.

When will these Hydra cover stories stop dipping into the same barrel of clich├ęs? Yes, the expatriates who flocked to the island were talented and young and ready to do anything to make it - but let's not pretend all this is only about the artistic life. Some were artists but others were mercenaries and intelligence operatives in search of a safe haven to do business. Art was present but - especially after the Greek junta (timed to coincide with the Flower Power revolution) -- the real money came from inherited fortunes, as well as drugs and weapons. When Leonard and Marianne arrived on Hydra, Operation Gladio was in full swing -- and western governments and their intelligence arms were intent on taking control of culture in order to engineer future generations. All this was part of the agenda that aimed to profit the wealthy - and Greece was a magnet for all kinds of offshore investments. Ambitious young writers seeking quick fame and fortune soon learned they needed to moonlight to get by - and the rewards for secret work in the service of the CIA could be impressive.

**********************************
TWO DAYS LATER
Now that I've finished, I'm giving it 3 stars instead of 2. Later chapters had more to offer - including inadvertent insights into the 'hidden hand' operating behind the curtain of Leonard and Marianne's lives, but I can't list them all right now. It seems more than odd that Axel Jensen just happened to check into R.D. Laing's private clinic in London for more LSD and therapy. There is a colourful chapter set in Mexico where Marianne goes seeking solace with Axel's American guru "John Smith" - whose teachings come straight out of Esalen and sensitivity training. A strange and compelling chapter about New York in the Chelsea Hotel days as Leonard was starting to make a career in music - while Marianne struggles with poverty and abandonment on Clinton Street -- reveals much sadness and desperation between the lines.

Marianne at times comes across as a lost creature -- not at all how I had imagined her. I met her once, on Hydra, in 1981 - she had recently remarried and seemed solid, sane, and matronly if shy and withdrawn. As she looks back, in her seventies, at her life as one half of a legendary couple, she seems incapable of seeing through the myths, the amazing deceptions, that made up the legend. But this is true of all the characters, even the hyper-critical novelist Axel Jensen whom she married, and his poetry-spewing rival Leonard Cohen who never really noticed other people.

So Long, Marianne is peopled by ghosts who gave themselves up to the poisoned zeitgeist, sacrificing heir own, ant others', lives in pursuit of fame and momentary 'enlightenment' --

When I closed the book last night, my overwhelming feeling was of pity for the players in this tragedy -- but I'll probably have more to say later. For another account of what Hydra and Leonard were like in the early 80s, read my self-published memoir The Man Next Door. There was more going on than Marianne Ihlen's ghost-written book merely hints at.


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