Cohen tries to finish a lyric at his home in Los Angeles. The 1982 photo is by Dominique Isserman.

Havana, March 17, 1961. From his hotel window, the young author of two highly praised poetry books sees troops running through the streets and hears anti-aircraft artillery. He had grown a beard in the style of Che Guevara and dressed like a legitimate guerrilla. As biographer Sylvie Simmons says in the book I'm Your Man (BestSeller publisher), he was attracted to communist ideas in the same way that he was attracted to “the messianic ideas of the Bible”. The somewhat bizarre experience of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the nights he wandered through the alleys and alleys of the Cuban capital “with a notebook in one hand and a hunting knife in the other”, yielded some poems, at least one song, Field Commander Cohen (Our most important spy/Wounded in the battle/Dropping acid from parachutes at diplomatic parties”) and the attempt at romance, The Famous Havana Diary. But mainly it shows how Leonard Cohen, perhaps the most original seducer of the song, was always looking for something to assuage his restlessness and anguish.

“It can be anything that works, wine, Catholicism, Buddhism, LSD”, he once said, without mentioning the love of women, which is almost always reciprocated (that is, Joni Mitchell, Nico, Janis Joplin and, among many others, the actress Rebecca De Mornay). At age 13 he learned hypnotism from a book and experimented with his newfound knowledge with the beautiful housekeeper who worked in his house. The trick worked and she meekly took off her clothes. The magical revelation of that body had as great an effect on the aspiring writer as the teachings of his grandfather, a leading rabbi in Montreal, where Cohen was born. One would say that hypnosis has turned against the hypnotist. The scene was later described in his first novel, The Favorite Toy , 1963, published in Brazil by Cosac Naify. As if closing a cycle, in music because of, one of the best of DearHeather, album released when he was already 70, he sings the lines (in free translation): “Because of some songs / In which I spoke of their mysteries / Women have been / Exceptionally kind / to my old age. / They find a secret place /In their busy lives/And they take me there./So they get naked/Each in their own way/And say,/Look at me, Leonard/Look at me one last time./And leaning over the bed/Me cover/As if I were a cold baby.”

Hypnosis also worked well in live shows, where the audience entered a state of communion and adoration, singing each verse of So Long Marianne ou Hallelujah, two of his most famous songs, with his eyes closed or fixed on that elegant figure who moved slowly across the stage and seemed to address each one with special attention. After manager Kelly Lynch disappeared with all his money (about $5 million), taking advantage of the six years he spent meditating in a Buddhist monastery, he began a series of world tours, which lasted from 2008 to 2013. in this last year, already visibly tired and perhaps ill, emaciated in his striped suit and under the indefectible Fedora hat, the Captain Mandrax of yesteryear, when he spilled three bottles of Chatêau Latour in the dressing room, gave himself body and soul to the public, in shows that lasted three and a half hours. He even knelt on the floor, with his fist clenched, in a gesture of intensity that might have seemed theatrical were it not for the truth in his voice. Twenty years earlier, in Paris, he had returned six times for an encore. The French public mirrored his rare disposition and never tired of applauding, standing up, as if time had ceased to exist. No wonder, it was said, half jokingly, “that if a French woman had only one record, it would be one by Leonard Cohen”.

leonard cohen
Cohen performs at the Isle of Wight festival in front of 600 people. It was 1970, he had only released two records, but he was already adored in England. His band, The Army, was so named because the tour sometimes felt like a battle: in Germany someone in the audience pointed a gun at the singer. The fact that he greeted the crowd with the Nazi salute must not have helped. Photo: Reproduction of the booklet by Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970.

The first time

Interestingly, his first appearance on a show as a solo artist almost only lasted a few seconds. Invited by folk singer Judy Collins, who had recorded Suzanne successfully, he trembled so much, “like a stick”, that he apologized and left the stage, only returning after being encouraged by the beautiful friend. To his biographer Simmons he revealed, with the fine, self-derisive humor that was peculiar to him: “Somehow I managed to finish it and I thought I was going to commit suicide. Nobody knew what to do or say. I think someone took my hand and pulled me off the stage. Everyone backstage felt so sorry for me and couldn't believe how happy I was, how relieved I was that it went wrong. I had never been so free.”

Music came very early in his life. His father was the successful owner of a fine clothing factory ("I was born in a suit," he would later say) and his mother "a Russian Jew with a generous Chekkovian spirit." She took piano lessons as a child and, as a teenager, played the clarinet at school and in nightclubs, where she “lived singing and drinking”. At the same time, he was enchanted by the poetry of Yeats and Garcia Lorca - the latter, his great idol, alongside Ray Charles and Hank Williams -, and began to write his first verses. He also bought a guitar, with which he learned to play socialist songs ("Socialists were the only ones who played guitar back then"), Scottish ballads, flamenco, Woody Guthrie's folk and Leadbelly's folk-blues. In his sophomore year of college, he and two friends founded the cover band Buckskin Boys. They basically played well-behaved country, in churches and schools. Until they discovered the calypso in the small black neighborhood of Montreal and Cohen began to improvise to that rhythm, singing about the people who passed in the street.

However, music only became his main activity when he was 32 years old and recorded, between 1967 and 1968, his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen. Four months older than Elvis, he was an elder in the middle. Before that, he published six books, four of poetry and two novels, for which he received generally favorable reviews. In Canada he was already well known, as he read on tour with other poets, among them his friend and great mentor Irving Layton. He also performed with a jazz band of up to 12 instrumentalists, which was what he liked best. His somewhat shy way, with which he spoke seriously things that were sometimes surreal or ironic, disconcerted and seduced those who saw him. As in their songs, the poems and stories are full of nuances and ambiguities, at once sad and funny, metaphysical and erotic, engaging and hedonistic. Just look at the titles of some of his books to get an idea: Flowers for HitlerThe Energy of SlavesBeautiful Losers. Cohen liked to play with contrasts and invert expectations. Beautiful Losers, his second novel (in translation into Portuguese), from 1966, was the one that made the most noise. In general terms, it tells the story of a love triangle between an anthropologist, a separatist from Quebec and a descendant of the Iroquois Indians. One of the three kills himself, another, with syphilis, goes mad. The style is kaleidoscopic, ranging from surrealism to pornography, without, however, losing the thread. One reviewer said it was "a cross between James Joyce and Henry Miller". But it's a unique piece, like almost everything Cohen did.

Among the fans of the book was a certain Lou Reed, whom Leonard met when he decided to move to New York, precisely to try to become a musician, since literature earned him much praise but little money. Installed in the mythical Chelsea Hotel, which entitles another of his best-known songs, Chelsea Hotel #2 – In it are the famous lines recounting the case with Janis (sung with candor and affection, despite the crudeness of the description): “You sucked me in the unmade bed/while the limousine waited for you on the corner” –, he started to frequent Andy Warhol's Factory and exchange ideas with Patti Smith, whom she considered, with enthusiasm (and reason), “a genius, absolutely brilliant, is going to become a great power!”. On one of the nights, she jammed with Jimi Hendrix. played Suzanne, one of the guitarist's favorites: "He was a glorious figure, and he was very kind to me, playing without distortion so that my voice came through." The most important meeting, however, was with producer John Hammond, who had discovered Bob Dylan and Billie Holiday for Columbia Records. Alerted by the rumors, he went to Leonard's small room on the fourth floor of the Chelsea and, looking at the strange combination of books on the nightstand, where they lived side by side, Myra Breckinridge, by Gore Vidal, a satirical novel about a transsexual, and a tome by philosopher Martin Buber on Jewish enlightenment, sat on the edge of his bed and asked to hear some compositions. After three songs – among them, of course, Suzanne –, Hammond was categorical: “Let's sign a contract now. Bob Dylan watch out!”

From 2008 to 2013, Cohen played countless shows around the world to cover his manager's theft. It ended up being a pleasure for everyone.

the false rival

Dylan obviously never had to "take care of himself". But both have always been compared a lot. The basic profile is the same: Jews, literati, obsessed with biblical metaphors, both starting from the most engaged folk and then following their own paths. The differences, however, are also large, and there are even those who argue that Cohen deserved the Nobel Prize for literature. The truth is that Dylan has always been closer to Allen Ginsberg's beat poetry and Walt Whitman's proto-beat, with huge verses, many scattered images, in a tendency towards dizzying entropy, using more improvised or apparently misaligned forms, while while his Canadian friend, whom he greatly admired, sought exact carpentry, conciseness, more traditional forms of song, inspired not only by blues, country and folk, but also by the European ballads of storytellers such as Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf. , not to mention decisive flamenco, which he learned briefly from suicidal Spanish, and shaped his unorthodox fingering. Closer to rock, Dylan has always been more successful, especially in the US, where Cohen was never very well understood (which says a lot about Americans). There was even a producer who, upon hearing Various Positions, the 1984 album, in which you can find not only Hallelujah as Dance me to the End of Love, said: "Look Leonard, I know you're a genius, I just don't know if you're good enough", and did not release the record in Trump's land, leaving it to the Europeans, who were always much more faithful to Cohen, the pleasure to buy it and listen to it in their homes. A while later, when receiving one of the many awards in his life (which also includes a literary one, the Prince of Asturias), Cohen said in his speech: “I am always very moved by the modest interest of the record company in my records”.

Once, when they met in a café in Paris, in the 1980s, they had a conversation that revealed the way each one saw the job. Dylan loved Hallelujah, which he considered “beautiful as a prayer”, and asked Cohen how long it had taken him to compose it. Ashamed to admit it had been over five years, he dropped it to two. And he asked in turn how long Dylan had done I and I. “Fifteen minutes,” was the already traditionally immodest response from the Duluth genius. In another conversation between the two, delightfully retold by David Remnick in the last interview Cohen gave shortly before his death, to the The New Yorker, Dylan reportedly said, as he drove the car to show off a farm he'd bought: "To me, you're number one. I'm number zero." With his legendary kindness and chivalry, Cohen readily agreed.

In the same article, Dylan shows great knowledge of the work of the false rival, and makes a generous assessment: “When people talk about Leonard, they forget to mention his melodies, which, for me, are as brilliant as his lyrics. Even the counterpoint lines give the songs a heavenly feel. I don't think anyone comes close to that in modern music." And he makes a detailed analysis of Sisters of Mercy, from the first album, in addition to praising much more recent songs, such as Going Home e show me the place. “His songs are deep and true, always multidimensional, that make you feel but also think,” she says. He compares Cohen to Irving Berlin: “They both hear melodies that most of us can barely hear. He is an extremely sophisticated musician.” Remnick also spoke to Suzanne Vega, who came up with a good definition of secrecy in Leonard's songs, not far from what the husky singer of Like a Rolling Stone: "It's a combination of very realistic details and a sense of mystery." Cohen himself, who has always declared the difficulty of writing the lyrics, saying that it took years, and that he has found himself banging his head on the floor to close a verse, mentioned the importance of detail in his writings. (There are a thousand other “secrets”, of course, like the combination of female and angelic voices in the choir, and her cavernous voice, the result of millions of cigarettes smoked. Or the surprising use of a cheap synthesizer, in contrast to the subtlety and lyricism of the letters.)

Artificial and real paradises

This mystery comes a lot from his “connection with the spheres”, a spirituality that, mixed with sensual curiosity, resulted in a perfect hybrid of romanticism and irony, humor and despair, the most earthly carnality and the religious quest. Much of this mystery was forged on the island of Hydra, where he went in the late 1960s, fleeing the depressing London rain, basically carrying his Olivetti and the famous blue raincoat. The sun dismissed the coat, but Olivetti remained firm on the small wooden table placed on the porch of the whitewashed house she bought with an inheritance from a great-aunt. His life was frugal like that of a hedonistic monk. It also had two chairs, “like those painted by Van Gogh”, a bed, some books, candles, bottles of wine, a guitar and a turntable, on which records by Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson and Nina Simone were spinning until they melted. He also melted under the influence of acids, hashish or amphetamines, and literally talked to the daisies as he tried to write, hunched over the typewriter. “It was one trip after another trying to see God. It usually ended up with a horrible hangover.” Norwegian model Marianne Ihlen, his first and best-known muse, took care of the house. With something mythical and primitive, as Remnick noted, the island, where cars were forbidden and electricity a constant doubt, remembered by Henry Miller in his “naked and wild beauty”, brought together bohemians and artists, “lovers in all degrees of passion and anguish, and frustrated Platonists,” well to the taste of the young bard, who felt truly at home in the cradle of our mythological confusion.

It's impossible not to think about Hydra's sunny glow when he comes across the record he recorded very close to death, in the living room of his house, produced by his son Adam (he also left his daughter Lorca, both fruits of his marriage to Suzanne Elrod. still a granddaughter, daughter of singer Rufus Wainwright). The contrast is very strong. Entitled You want it darker, something like “you want it darker”, is an accountability to life and a serene acceptance of the end – certainly won in the severe discipline of the monastery in Monte Baldy, Los Angeles, under the baton of Roshi, the tiny Zen master who was his friend and spiritual guide for 40 years - not without some humor and even sarcasm. God, or Jesus, appears as both a gambler and a drug dealer or a healer. Hope, which once existed, even in a song as acidic as The Future ("There's a crack in everything / That's how the light comes in"), is null: "A million candles burn for the love that never comes." The chorus cries out “Hineni”, the Hebrew word used by Abraham when he accepted the sacrifice of his son (so well described by Cohen himself in the song The Story of Isaac), and then, in a determined way, he affirms: “I am ready, Lord”. Only those who have a heart of ice don't shiver. It also reminds me of a previous song, from the excellent old ideas, from 2012, The Darkness, in which he says: “'I caught' the darkness/Drinking from its cup/I have no future/I have few days left/The present is no longer pleasant/I have too many things to do”.

Death was already showing its hood and its scythe. Sensing her, the singer-songwriter told Remnick that he's not afraid of her: "I just hope it's not too uncomfortable." At the end of July of this year, Cohen received an email in which a close friend of Marianne's told her she was in very bad shape (she would die shortly afterwards). His heartbreaking response went viral: “Well, Marianne, the time has come when we are so old that our bodies are already falling apart. I think I'll be on your way soon. Know that I'm so close to you that if you reach out your hand, maybe you can touch mine. And I've always loved you for your beauty and wisdom, but I don't need to repeat that, because it's something you know very well. I just want to wish you a very good trip. Farewell, my dear friend. With infinite love, see you on the road.”

In this way, the dreaded road looks really beautiful.


Watch three videos about Leonard Cohen selected by Daniel de Mesquita Benevides:

Leonard recites some poetry in the documentary Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen

Cohen sings Suzanne and explains why he lost the rights to the song

A performance of the song Hallelujah on the 2013 tour

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