Before Leonard Cohen became one of the preeminent songwriters of the modern era, penning such classics as “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah,” the Montreal-born pop star, who died on Thursday at the age of 82, had developed a promising literary career as a poet and novelist. He published nine books of poetry, and during a sojourn on the Greek island of Hydra, wrote two novels, The Favorite Game, released in 1963, and Beautiful Losers, published in 1966.
While Beautiful Losers became a cult classic, eventually selling over three million copies worldwide, the New York Times obituary reports that Cohen, discouraged by initial poor sales, turned to songwriting in the hopes of expanding the audience for his poetry: ” ‘I found it was very difficult to pay my grocery bill,’ Mr. Cohen said in 1971, looking back at his situation just a few years earlier. ‘I’ve got beautiful reviews for all my books, and I’m very well thought of in the tiny circles that know me, but I’m really starving.’ ” It was a risky move that paid off when Cohen placed two songs on Judy Colllin’s 1966 album In My Life.
While Cohen’s songs remain his main literary legacy, it’s worth considering his other works as noted in LJ‘s reviews below. For an appreciation of Cohen’s music, see Matthew Moyer’s Music for the Masses column, “I’m Your’ Man: Leonard Cohen” (LJ 2/1/12).
Cohen, Leonard. Beautiful Losers. Vintage. 1993. 256p. ISBN 9780679748250. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780307778574. F
Dubbed “an unstructured, free-form, irreverent novel” (LJ 4/1/66) by LJ‘s reviewer, Beautiful Losers seemed too strange even for the Sixties. Nevertheless, the book went on to become a cult hit, selling more than 400,000 copies before going out of print. The novel is now being reissued to coincide with the upcoming publication of Cohen’s Stranger Music. With its gay relationships, homages to Canadian Native Americans, and search for the meaning of life, this may now find wider acceptance in the mainstream. For public libraries. (Classic Returns, 10/15/93)
Cohen, Leonard. Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs. Pantheon. 1994. 432p. ISBN 9780679755418. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307794680. Poetry
To appreciate these poems, we must suspend any notions of poetry as an intellectual art form and approach this work as one would a rack of greeting cards. Rhyme abounds, frankly showing Cohen at his best because it holds his didactic nature in check. Although there are few surprises, such as the wonderful early poem “Beneath My Hands,” the songs from Cohen’s first album, written over 30 years ago, are still his finest displays of outrageous yet stunning imagery. The presence of woman as lover, prostitute, or slave, celebrated in these early songs, continues into his latest work, making over 400 pages seem remarkably flimsy. That these women never seem to exist as individuals will possibly offend readers with a feminist bent. Yet despite almost pornographic descriptions, this Jewish poet still will not write out G-d’s name. The Buddhist element in his 1984 poetry collection, Book of Mercy, is now scarcely evident. Despite its flaws, this book is recommended for popular collections.—Rochelle Ratner, formerly Poetry Editor, “Soho Weekly News,” New York (LJ 11/1/93)
Books about the music and the man
Hesthamar, Kari. So Long, Marianne: A Love Story. ECW. 2014. 224p. tr. by Helle V. Goldman. illus. notes. index. ISBN 9781770411289. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781770905016. BIOG/MUSIC
Marianne Ihlen was muse to poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen, whose well-known song is the title of this book. Using extensive interviews with both individuals, journalist Hesthamar skillfully traces Ihlen’s story, carefully translated here by Goldman. As a young woman in the 1950s, Ihlen left Oslo, Norway, with writer Axel Jensen, ultimately settling on the Greek island of Hydra. After Jensen left her and their infant son, she entered into a relationship with Cohen, with each finding the love and inspiration they sought, only to part with heartache as their lives developed and changed over time. Hesthamar honestly presents Ihlen’s life and continuing quest to define herself as an individual, set in the context of her sometimes complex relationships with family and friends as well as with Cohen and Jensen. Although Ihlen traveled to Canada, Europe, Mexico, and New York, Hydra was always special to her, and the descriptions of its contrasting world, from its international artists to its native population, provide a vivid background for this richly textured and revealing narrative. Verdict Readers will be drawn to Ihlen as representative of a young woman’s struggles in the changing society and artistic milieu of her time. Her story will provide an additional perspective for those familiar with Cohen’s work. Rare letters, poems, and photographs enhance the text. For large arts and humanities collections. (Xpress Reviews, 6/13/14)—Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ
Light, Alan. The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah.” Atria: S. & S. 2012. 272p. discog. ISBN 9781451657845. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781451657869. MUSIC
Light (The Skills To Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys) provides an in-depth analysis of the song Bono once said “might be the most perfect song in the world.” The song, acclaimed singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” originally appeared on his 1984 album Various Positions but only found mainstream success after it was covered by other artists, most notably Jeff Buckley in 1994 and Rufus Wainwright in 2001. How can a song that includes the lyrics “she tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne, she cut your hair” find its way to a Yom Kippur service, countless weddings, the opening ceremony of the 2010 Olympics, and American Idol? Versions have been recorded by hundreds of artists, from Justin Timberlake to k.d. lang to the Canadian Tenors. Light’s book is a fascinating analysis of a modern-day hymn and makes a fine companion to Sylvie Simmons’s excellent biography I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. Verdict A fascinating look at one of our most recorded—and revered—contemporary songs. (Xpress Reviews, 4/19/13)—Bill Baars, Lake Oswego P.L., OR
HAPPY BELATED, LENNY
Kubernik, Harvey. Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows. Hal Leonard. 2014. 226p. photos. discog. notes. ISBN 9781480386280. $34.99. MUSIC
Music journalist Kubernik (Turn up the Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles, 1956–1972) presents an 80th-birthday tribute to poet, author, and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen in a photo/interview format. He includes interview excerpts from Cohen’s biographers (Ira Nadel, Sylvie Simmons) and fellow musicians (e.g., Judy Collins and Charlie Daniels), along with his conversational take on the life and work of Cohen. The singer-songwriter aspired to be the Canadian Bob Dylan after frequenting the clubs in New York’s Greenwich Village. His poetry and music were inspired by his encounters with the Beat writers and the influence of rabbis on both sides of his family. Cohen’s work often includes themes of political and personal betrayal and Old Testament judgment. Cohen has influenced many musicians, most notably Nick Cave. A detailed discography is included.
Verdict This book will appeal to the growing number of Leonard Cohen fans. Readers interested in further exploration would enjoy Simmons’s I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen and Nadel’s Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen.—Elizabeth D. Eisen, Appleton P.L., WI
Sparschuh, Jens. Leonard Cohen: Almost Young. Schirmer/Mosel. 2014. 165p. photos. discog. bibliog. ISBN 9783829606646. $29.95. MUSIC
Sparschuh (Ende der Sommerzeit) presents a sumptuous photo tribute to the Canadian-born poet/author/musician Leonard Cohen, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, on September 21. Cohen aspired to be a “world famous orator,” according to the inscription in his high school yearbook. The basis of Cohen’s work came from his admiration of Federico García Lorca’s poetry and a chance meeting with a young Spanish guitarist who taught him six flamenco chords. Photos follow Cohen’s path of discovery in Hydra (Greece), his multiyear stay at a zen monastery on Mt. Baldy (near Los Angeles), and many of his tours. Cohen seemed “almost young” in comparison to his contemporaries because he got his start in the music industry at a later age and didn’t quite fit in with the bohemian or hippie scene. His masterpiece, “Hallelujah,” has been covered by more than 500 musicians. That song was instrumental in securing his popularity with a new generation of devotees. The book includes a biography/time line and discography.
Verdict This book will appeal to Leonard Cohen aficionados both young and old. (Xpress Reviews, 10/13/14)—Elizabeth D. Eisen, Appleton P.L., WI