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Lions Roar : May 2013
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2013 40 as the country’s leading young poet and a wild Joycean novelist. He’s only been comfortable, it’s tempting to think, when stuck in no set position, far from any fixed self. When recording in Nashville, Cohen used a Jew’s harp on more than half the cuts he made; touring with his backup group across Europe in 1979 and 1980, he would lead the others in a monastic chant in Latin— Pauper Sum Ego (“I Am a Poor Man”)—while Joshu Sasaki sat quietly reading in the back of the tour bus. The first time he met Sasaki Roshi, the small Zen master, now 105 years old, who set up the first Rinzai center in the U.S., Cohen was most impressed that the teacher spoke at a friend’s wedding about the ten vows of Buddhism, one of which forbids drugs and alcohol, and then devoted himself to drinking down one cup of sake after another. Recently, however, that same tendency has brought Sasaki more and more controversy and criticism as female students have came forward with stories of longstanding sexual misconduct. Yet underneath all the surfaces and gambits Cohen is someone rock solid at the core: after his then 18-year-old son, Adam, was involved in a serious car crash in 1990, Cohen spent the better part of four months at his boy’s bedside in a Montreal hospital, often reading aloud from the Bible. He’s “developed the tenacity and character to sit still within the suffering,” de Mornay says, and even though he’s never been shy of sex and drugs—extend- ing acid to one woman on the tip of his white handkerchief— he’s never seemed to kid himself that running from the truth will solve anything. His songs rarely give himself the benefit of the doubt, but also don’t spend too much time wondering where the arrow in his side came from. Simmons has worked heroically, for more than ten years, to unearth every detail and to evoke every Cohen setting from the Chelsea Hotel to his monastic cabin. But perhaps her greatest strength, as she clears the ground around Cohen, is to leave a space in the middle as rich and enigmatic as an empty chair. More than presuming to tell us who Cohen is, she often—and usefully—tells us who he isn’t, how far he lives from our projections and myths. He was never, for one thing, a rebel, even though he’s always gone his own way; he ignores revolutionaries as much as he ignores the status quo they’re reacting against. He never felt at home amid the looseness of the Beats nor what he saw as the naïveté of the hippies (he was more in his element, she suggests, amid the urban experi- ments of Warhol’s Factory). He has never been a pacifist or vegan or New Ager. Touring Europe in 1970, he named his supporting band the Army, and three years later, he went to Israel the day after the Yom Kippur War broke out. Hoping to enlist, he ended up perform- ing up to eight concerts a day for Israeli soldiers around the desert; he once—perhaps in part to provoke and evade those who would pin an idea on him—confessed to a “deep interest in violence.” At the same time, he’s never been the dour or humorless soul some imagine from the songs; everyone who knows him testi- fies to his being, as one backup singer says, “one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.” And a large part of his magnetism comes from his ability to efface himself. “He moves into leadership naturally,” a friend since boyhood, Nancy Bacal, points out, “except that he remains invisible at the same time. His intensity and power oper- ate from below the surface.” When asked to draw a portrait of his vital organs in a book in which many others had done the same, he simply wrote, “Let me be the shy one in your book.” Yet his songs strip him bare in public with a lack of shyness few other artists would dare. The confiding air, on record, in person, draws you in, but that closeness is best enjoyed so long as you remember the dis- tances that remain. Women have always been the ones to respond most intensely to Cohen’s seeming openness and vulner- ability, and not be distracted by his strat- egies and fine words. It was women who first gave his songs prominence—Judy Collins, Nico, Buffy Sainte-Marie—and it’s Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas who have cowritten many of his songs in recent years. His sound engineer for almost four decades, unusually for the profession, is a woman, Leanne Ungar. His gruff croak has always been decorated— made musical—by the high sweet chime of female voices in the background. More deeply, it is women who have always been wisest to the competing demands of the singer and the man, as he hungers for company and adventure even while needing to be alone, longs for surrender even as (in Simmons’ fine formulation) he always needs “freedom, control, and an escape hatch.” The biographer excavates some of his searching letters (often to say good-bye) to Marianne, and tracks down the Suzanne of his famous song (now living in a wooden caravan in Santa Monica and writing her autobiography by hand). She extracts beautiful sentences from Suzanne Elrod, the mother of Cohen’s son and daughter, and talks to his recent part- ner, Anjani Thomas, in part about the difficulties of such a soli- tary perfectionist being involved in such a collaborative exercise as music. From all of them she seems to have picked up a spirit of wry devotion, of being alert to his maneuvers and his needs and yet ready to forgive much, precisely because he remains such an honorable and often selfless character.