Leonard Cohen wasn’t a relation, but that didn’t stop David Cohen writing about him in a new book that touches on his own family history. Here, he explains why.
The idea was hatched after the singer’s death, in November 2016. It was a subject that always felt like a great personal fit. I came of journalistic age in the late 1980s as a music writer. It was also my luck to have started tapping an Imperial 66 typewriter at a time when the dark-eyed seducer was pumping out some of his best gravel-on-velvet albums – the horribly underrated Various Positions, which yielded his best-known track, Hallelujah, and I’m Your Man and then, a bit later, The Future. I wrote about these a lot at the time.
My sense of connection with the Canadian artist went back a lot further. It went deeper, too. His books were in my family home. His songs popped up in many of my most important relationships. All my life, as well, he inevitably made a conversational appearance when I was asked to spell my name, which I would usually do with the standard jokey flourish, “As in Leonard”.
I even got married to a Cohen song, Who by Fire, and it’s probably a good thing I didn’t take that too much to heart since it’s a lamentation, based on the Jewish Yom Kippur day of atonement, that by rights ought to accompany divorce proceedings (we’re still hitched).
When I started travelling, and without really consciously thinking about it, I found myself drawn to a number of places with an obvious Cohen hook, several of which I riff on in the new book. The Chelsea Hotel, where Cohen immortalised a fling he had with Janis Joplin in a song of the same name, turned out to be my first port of cultural call in New York City. Earlier, I also spent so much money getting to Montreal that by the time I arrived for a weekend, I had completely run out of dosh and spent the weekend sleeping rough with just a bag of clothes, a cassette player and a copy of Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits. Experiencing real hunger wasn’t much fun, but at least I did it to the sound of the city’s most famous artistic son extolling the virtues of consuming tea and oranges that come all the way from China.
Later, travelling under more agreeable budgetary conditions, I spent periods in the Middle East, in Israel and the Palestinian territories. There, I was still listening to some of the same music, thinking a lot about the singer’s troubled but profound relationship with aspects of the region.
It couldn’t be any other way. Cohen’s family background had much to do with the great tragedies of European Jewry, its anguished dispersal before and after World War II, and the drama of a new Jewish state set amid the perfumes of Arabia. Having the most recognisable of Jewish family names forces you to confront some of the implications of this in a way you perhaps wouldn’t need to without it.
Avalanche, the strings-drenched opening track to Cohen’s third album, Songs of Love and Hate, in particular, became a kind of psychological connection. It would be the first of scores of his compositions that really entered my bloodstream – “like heroin”, as Nick Cave also put it of his similar experience when he first heard it as a youngster growing up in rural Australia.
What I didn’t get at the time, and probably Cave didn’t, either, was that the song may well have been about Cohen’s father, the desolation experienced after the elder Nathan Cohen died and left behind his nine-year-old son – the “flesh that you wear”, as the charcoal-black lyric puts it, devastatingly.
In any event, it became impossible for me to hear it over the years without a moment’s synonymous thought about my father. As was the case a few weeks ago, as I was wrapping the book up and wondering about its final few paragraphs, when I went to see Cave in concert in Wellington.
There, almost on cue, the lanky singer launched into a majestically terrible, beautiful rendition of the beloved song, played transcendentally well on just a piano. Seated a few rows away with my wife and youngest son in the New Zealand night, I found my heart stopped again, and I fleetingly wondered what Lionel might have been doing that British morning.
A couple of weeks later, I was surprised – putting it mildly – to be contacted by a younger sister I never knew existed to tell me that the father I barely knew had died a fortnight earlier in East Sussex. He had suffered a heart attack at more or less the same time as I had been caught in the drama of Cave’s performance.
The next day, I went into my publisher’s office and rewrote what had, until then, been the book’s tricky final paragraphs. Finally, it was ready to go.
Book of Cohen, by David Cohen (Steele Roberts Aotearoa, $29.99)
This article was first published in the April 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.