• Robert Birnbaum

How The Light Gets In


Leonard Cohen at home in Los Angeles in September, 2016 (Photograph by Graeme Mitchell)

The main thing that troubled me about the Nobel being awarded to Bob Dylan was not that his immense talent and momentous body of work were undeserving great recognition but my suspicion that it would never again be awarded to a musical poet/songwriter. And that, in the bazar that is the world of artistic accolades does not seem right. That Joni Mitchell and Warren Zevon and Leonard Cohen and others were not acknowledged as great practitioners of the same art as Dylan strikes me as the great flaw the awards game. But so it goes...dogs bark and the caravan rolls on...


Montreal, the lovely outpost of French civilization in North America, honored native son Leonard Cohen with an exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC). Happily, not being a selfish peoples, the Canadians are sharing that exhibition, entitled Leonard Cohen, A Crack in Everything,, with the world. It's currently at Manhattan's Jewish Museum until September 19 and then on to Copenhagen, Denmark, shown between two fine exhibition venues, Kunstforeningen GL STRAND and Nikolaj Kunsthal, (October 23, 2019 – March 8, 2020. And then returning to U.S. shores at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco (September 17, 2020 – January 3, 2021).




I met Leonard Cohen once, back in 1995, before I had developed an appreciation for his work and an understanding of the depth of his talents. At the time my grasp of Cohen was based on the only 3 of his songs I with which I was familiar — Suzanne. Bird on A Wire and Sisters of Mercy (which was well deployed in Robert Altman's masterpiece, McCabe and Mrs Miller. I was not impressed...


When his anthology Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, a selective mid-career anthology of Cohen's work,I availed myself of the opportunity to chat with Cohen . Despite my contemporaneous lack of devotion to Cohen's work, I did speak with him. An hour conversation that was well-recorded, on tape and that currently has me doing some personal archaeology (updates on this matter will be provided).




Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs by Leonard Cohen

My appreciation of Cohen changed upon the 2001 release of Ten New Songs. Lyrics from My Secret Life ,and That Don't Make It Junk sang to me


I smile when I'm angry I cheat and I lie I do what I have to do To get by But I know what is wrong And I know what is right And I'd die for the truth In My Secret Life


That Don't Make It Junk,


I fought against the bottle But I had to do it drunk - Took my diamond to the pawnshop - But that don't make it junk


I know that I'm forgiven But I don't know how I know I don't trust my inner feelings - Inner feelings come and go






Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything by John Zeppetelli, Victor Shiffman, Sylvie Simmons


An exhibit two years in the making, co-curators John Zeppetelli and Victor Shiffmam also assembled an ambitious and expansive exhibition monograph (which they regard as a "devotional exercise") featuring artist statements from each of the exhibition's 40 (visual artists , filmmakers, performers and musicians) participants.



A performer who suffered terribly from stage fright, you would never know it from Cohen's unceremonious stage presence at the rich, soothing and placid tones of his between song badinage, His description of the "Six Stages of Male Allure", for example—


Six Stages of Male Allure", Sydney Opera House, February 2 2013


Shortly before he passed on election day 2016, Leonard Cohen had engaged in lengthy conversations with David Remnick, who's day job for the the past 20 years has been to edit the New Yorker magazine (following the Tina Brown / Robert Gottieb Interregnum). The result is Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker )a spacious and illuminating profile of a non pareil creative titan. There are a number of useful books on Cohen (see below) —Remnick's précis (October 10, 2016) on Cohen may be sufficient for most of us... It does contain some gems



1. Cohen is quoted early in his 'career as reaching out to "“inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists"


2.Remnick observes, “Please, please, sit right there.” The depth of his voice makes Tom Waits sound like Eddie Kendricks"


3.Cohen remarks, "At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable."


4.Remnick reports on Cohen's relationship with Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, "Bob Dylan and Cohen saw each other from time to time. In the early eighties, Cohen went to see Dylan perform in Paris, and the next morning in a café they talked about their latest work. Dylan was especially interested in “Hallelujah.” Even before three hundred other performers made “Hallelujah” famous with their cover versions, long before the song was included on the soundtrack for “Shrek” and as a staple on “American Idol,” Dylan recognized the beauty of its marriage of the sacred and the profane. He asked Cohen how long it took him to write.“Two years,” Cohen lied.Actually, “Hallelujah” had taken him five years.


5. Cohen opines, " So in a certain sense you toughen up. Whether it has a spiritual aspect is debatable. It helps you endure, and it makes whining the least appropriate response to suffering. Just on that level it’s very valuable"



If further investigation into Leonard Cohen's life and canon is your desire, there a few books that are useful and more...

I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

Journalist Sylvie Simmons had nonpareil access to Cohen and when published stood as the definitive biography and has significant participation in A Crack in Everything



A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz

Laying claim to "extraordinary access" to a man he calls a prophet's personal papers, Liel Leibovitz takes an exegesistic approach to unraveling Leonard Cohen's long and fruitful creative life. Leibovitz argues that the one theme that has consistently preoccupied Cohen is redemption, which he describes as “a discretely Jewish affair.”


Matters of Vital Interest: A Forty-Year Friendship with Leonard Cohen by Eric Lerner


Longtime friend Eric Lerner offers a an intimate memoir of his 40 year friendship which began at a Zen retreat. Paul Larosa opines, "this [is a ] weird hybrid of memoir/biography ... one suspects it’s exactly the kind of retelling of the Leonard Cohen myth that the poet would have approved of without hesitation


.Lerner also recounts a well-traveled anecdote of when Cohen presented his latest recording to Sony president Walter Yetnikoff. “Leonard, we know you’re great but we don’t know if you’re any good,” Yetnikoff tells him.and sends Cohen’s LP off to international sales, refusing to release it in America — a recording that includes such iconic Leonard Cohen songs as ‘Dance Me to the End of Love,’ ‘If It Be Your Will,’ and his most covered song of all, the anthemic, ‘Hallelujah.’”




On Tour with Leonard Cohen by Sharon Robinson Larry "Ratso" Sloman (Foreword)

Longtime collaborator, classically trained musician Sharon Robinson documented * (mostly with an I phone) over 400 performances of the Leonard Cohen World Tour (2008 to 2013). As the story goes, Cohen's manager stole his life savings, leaving him financially broke, forcing him out of a planned retirement and on an epic global journey which Robinson's captures in an impressionist pastiche of intimate photographs.


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* Sharon Robinson photos

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