Today, many youth will most likely know of Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) through covers of what is arguably his enduring claim to fame among Gen Zers and quite possibly his most famous song worldwide, “Hallelujah.” (Though as William Logan commented when writing for The New York Times in 2019, “At any moment of the day, [Cohen’s] ‘Suzanne’ is probably playing in an elevator somewhere.”)
However, the Westmount boy was so much more than just those two songs. Of course, he did write and perform music for the better part of six decades, but what many of his generation would probably say they remember him most for was his words. As someone once wrote for The Boston Globe after Cohen published his first novel, The Favourite Game, “James Joyce is not dead. He is living in Montreal under the name of Cohen.”
The truth is that terms like “poet” and “wordsmith” don’t really do justice to his ability to shape the written language. Perhaps something Walt Whitman, one of the iconic Canadian’s inspirations, wrote more than a century ago best sums up the person Leonard Cohen would eventually become, that is, someone whose “very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
Well, good news for all the Leonard Cohen fans out there. Michael Posner, author of the acclaimed The Last Honest Man, an oral biography of Mordecai Richler, has a new three-volume series out called Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories. In fact, Michael’s third instalment in the series, Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: That’s How the Light Gets In, Volume 3, came out today. Congratulations, good sir!
As an oral biography, readers are taken behind the scenes and into the life of Leonard Cohen in ways that most people will not be familiar with. In the books, Posner explores Cohen’s life through his many friends, enemies, lovers, associates, and colleagues that include, among the hundreds of people featured in the three volumes, a cast of Cohen relatives as well as other notable personalities like Robert Altman, Adrienne Clarkson, Allen Ginsberg, Pico Iyer, Robert Lantos, Janis Joplin, Irving Layton, Joni Mitchell, and Moses Znaimer.
On a personal note, I am very fortunate to call Michael a friend. His daughter, in fact, before she made the move to Tinseltown to conquer Mt. Filmdom, was a member of my book club, and is just as kind, sincere, and sharp as a tack as her (still playing tennis) father. Last week, Posner the Elder and I had coffee and a few laughs together. For example, we talked about Leonard and his difficult relationships with women and family members, the decline and fall of reading in modern society, aching body parts, a brief history of nuclear war threats (MacArthur/Truman, Khrushchev/Kennedy, Putin/NATO), and other similarly uplifting subjects to be featured in the next entry into the Chicken Soup for the Soul canon: Let the Good Times Roll (Like a Bagel)! Yakking It Up in Forest Hill. Like I said. A few laughs. Old school style.
For anyone who happens to be in Toronto between December 7, 2022, and April 10, 2023, drop by the Art Gallery of Ontario, as it is currently holding an exhibition on Leonard Cohen titled Everybody Knows. Per the AGO’s website, “The first museum exhibition to present the holdings of the Leonard Cohen Family Trust, Everybody Knows immerses visitors in the many facets of Cohen’s creative life. Rare concert footage and archival materials, including musical instruments, notebooks, lyrics and letters are featured alongside photographs, drawing, and digital art created by Cohen across several decades.”