Skip to main content
bigger picture

Leonard Cohen performs at a concert in 1969. The songwriter's early years are the subject of a new oral history by Michael Posner.

I love to listen to Leonard Cohen – one song at a time. For three minutes, I can shiver at lyrics like, “I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch.” I can revel in the exquisite pain of the bird on the wire who has “torn everyone who reached out for me.” But if I listen to two or three in a row, the late troubadour’s carefully constructed, tortured romantic persona starts to crack, and the light that comes in is this: Maybe it’s not love that’s the problem, Leonard. Maybe it’s you.

Maybe it’s me, too. (As opposed to #MeToo, which I’ll get to in a minute.) How many of the songs that I ingested like food in the 1970s, that carved my febrile teenage neural pathways to believe that the most romantic love was the one who left – the So Long, Mariannes, the It Ain’t Me, Babes, the Already Gones – how many were in fact grooming me to behave a certain way?

I’m thinking about this because I just read Michael Posner’s oral history Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years, which came out Oct. 20, clocks in at 496 pages and only gets him to age 33, the same age Jesus Christ got to. (Two more volumes will follow.) Posner interviewed some 500 sources, and their recollections certainly set the scene for how Cohen became a hero to many – how the forces of the 1950s, Montreal, Jewishness, drugs and the sexual revolution got tangled together like bedsheets with Cohen’s charm, courtliness, magnetism, hypnotic voice (a mouthful of melting chocolate), curiosity, guilt and mother issues. (Mama looms large.)


It’s complicated. It’s also repetitive. Because Posner has chosen oral history, we get story without analysis, and the story is this: Cohen meets a beautiful (gorgeous, stunning, hot, cool, angel-faced, vulpine, slim, curvaceous) woman, experiences a night of aching passion, and never sees her again. That’s not some of the stories in the book. It’s most of the stories in the book.

I get that Cohen was born in 1934 (he died in 2016) and that his early exploits were intoxicating to a generation struggling to break free of repressive norms. I get that fans loved both the way he honoured women and the way he racked them up.

This book arrives in the age of #MeToo, however, and will be read through that lens. So when Cohen’s pals refer to his lovers as trollops, or brag about how they “gave their women” to one another, yes, they were men of their time. Yes, some women who relate how Cohen slipped his hand down their dresses while hugging them, or lay his open palm on the sofa as they sat down, seem to find him amusingly roguish.

But as Cohen ages to 27, 30, 33, while most of his lovers stay stuck between 19 and 22, it starts to feel creepy. Cohen’s advice to a female journalist who was sexually harassed by an interviewee – “You should have given him a bit” – lands with a clunk. And too many of Posner’s follow-up comments are woefully inadequate. For example, after one woman relates that when she was 18 and a virgin, Cohen removed her clothes and continued to touch her long after she asked him to stop, Posner writes, “There were few 18-year-old women that Cohen failed to seduce, even virgins.” Ugh.

Ditto for Posner’s follow-up after Cohen asks a 14-year-old to “get naked so I can see your beautiful body” – which is seriously problematic in any era. “This,” Posner writes, “may be the first reported evidence of Cohen’s interest in younger women, which was to become a continuing theme of his sexual life.” Not the point I’d make, Mr. Posner. (At the very least, “young woman” is a better term for the 17- and 18-year-olds, and “girl” is the one to use for those who are 16, 15 and 14.)

Volumes two and three lie ahead. And though Cohen never wrote about lasting love – no lyric like, “Suzanne forgot we needed butter, so I went back to the market, even though I had just been there,” no poem about the beauty of a man who makes you laugh even though you’ve awoken him again with your menopausal insomnia – he did in later life acknowledge the insincerity, the con artistry, of the persona he’d constructed. He took a lot of LSD and experimented with many philosophies, and finally grew into the empath he’d pretended to be.

But the power of those early poems and songs stays with us, because they are both true and not true. Cohen didn’t write about what a lark it was to screw beautiful strangers. He disguised it in language about the pain of love. You’ve heard the disparaging term for women (and some men, I suppose) who are a certain kind of tease? Cohen was a romance tease – and it worked. Women knew he was a rake, and they flocked to him anyway.

Why? Because even though it was a put-on, he also meant it. Cohen wooed them. He was curious about them. Their thighs, as his hero Lorca wrote, did make him weep. Perhaps from within his scam, he taught a few fans to really woo, and be curious and grateful.

What if Cohen and the troubadours of the 1960s and ’70s were indeed grooming young people, training them to believe that sex was beautiful even if impermanent, that romance often meant saying goodbye – was that 100-per-cent terrible? What if that generation needed to hear that to overcome their repression and guilt, so that they could transition from “Nice girls say no” to “Sex should be pleasing”? Maybe the world is daunting and cold, and maybe everyone should enjoy a buffet of mutual – mutual – exchanges of pleasure to warm it up, to gain life experience. Maybe we shouldn’t find “the one,” or start a family, until we know a little something about ourselves.

I can listen to only one Cohen song at a time because I see the falsehoods in them. But one at a time, I also hear the truths.

The Globe has five brand-new arts and lifestyle newsletters: Health & Wellness, Parenting & Relationships, Sightseer, Nestruck on Theatre and What to Watch. Sign up today.