A Leonard Cohen Primer: The Not Too Big, Not Too Little Pyritic Book Of Leonard Cohen:1 From Adolescent To Artist
Today’s entry is the sequel to The Childhood Of Leonard Cohen, focusing on the period during which the end of Cohen’s adolescence overlapped with the beginnings of his life as an artist.
In the past, I’ve been puzzled by the seemingly cavalier treatment of these years in many of the articles about Cohen which offer highlights, apparently chosen at random and listed in haphazard, abbreviated fashion.
Given how impressive some of these early accomplishments were and how they foreshadowed his development as a songwriter, this seemed shabby treatment. It only recently occurred to me that for many years Cohen was known primarily as a poet and novelist and that his early efforts in these fields may have been, at least in the minds of some of the authors of these pieces, old news.
Those who have come to Cohen’s music only in the past few years,2 however, tend to view Leonard Cohen almost exclusively as a singer-songwriter. Even among those who are aware of Cohen’s writing career, its significance is often trivialized as little more than a historical factoid, Was a poet and novelist, that ranks somewhere above Had a role in an episode of Miami Vice but below Is a dapper dresser.
For those who are unaware or only vaguely cognizant of Cohen’s literary aspirations, an organized overview of this part of Cohen’s life – even without going into detail – can yield valuable insight to his work and a useful perspective on Cohen’s career.
Oh, and this chapter also covers the formation of Leonard Cohen’s first band and his first professional gigs.
So, as we say back in the Ozarks, grab your partner and promenade.
Leonard Cohen, Teenager – Scary Idea, Eh?
In 1949, when Cohen was 15, he purchased a guitar and started writing, playing, and singing folk songs.
That same year, Cohen also discovered Federico Garcia Lorca, pictured on the right. (Returning viewers may recall that in Field Guide To The Current Life Of Leonard Cohen, we were introduced to Lorca as the namesake of Cohen’s daughter, Lorca. At that time, I asked the reader to keep the name of Lorca (the poet), “in mind for future reference.” Well, this is that future reference.)
Lorca’s style, imagery, and vision were an epiphany to Cohen and were to remain a fixture in his own poetics and his life in general. As Cohen put it, “I loved him [Lorca] as a kid; I named my daughter Lorca, so you can see this is not a casual figure in my life.”
One direct result was to be Leonard Cohen’s painstaking translation of Lorca’s “Little Viennese Waltz” (Pequeno Vals Vienes) into English and its transformation into the song, Take This Waltz.
Cohen frequently introduced the song, first released in 1988 – 39 years after that first exposure to Lorca – at concerts with a tribute to the poet that described what happened in that Montreal bookstore when he was, remember, 15.
You know it was many years ago in the city of Montreal that I stumbled upon this volume. I opened it and I accepted the poet’s invitation to enter into this world where fistfuls of ants were thrown at the sun and crystals obscured the pine trees and there were the arches of Elvira to pass through and begin weeping and there were those thighs that slipped away like schools of silver minnows. That was the irresistible seductive invitation I could not resist. I slipped into that fist, I did, I lived among the ants and I learned their ways. I mastered the crystals. I healed many alcoholic gurus with my crystal powers. I passed through the arches of Elvira and I did, I began weeping. That’s nothing new. I saw those thighs glistening like hunting horns and I touched them, I did, I pulled my hand away and I slipped away like a school of silver minnows. I’ve never left that world. I stand here tonight and I invite you all to join me here. There’s lots of space, there’s no boundaries, there’s no politics, no language. All you have to do is celebrate the sunlight coming through the hair of your beloved. It’s a simple thing. And it’s my great honour and my great privilege and my tiny duty to render this homage to the great Spanish poet who invited me there, Federico Garcia Lorca. Take this waltz, take this waltz.
The connection between Cohen’s discovery of Lorca at 15 and his release of Take This Waltz in 1988 is extraordinary, compelling a break in our chronological exploration of Cohen’s life in order to take a virtual field trip to hear him perform the song. Of the several video versions of Take This Waltz available, I chose this one for two reasons:
- The song is prefaced by a introduction not unlike the one presented in print in the preceding paragraph. Listen to Cohen’s intonations when he talks about Lorca. One would be hard pressed to find a better example of words spoken in a “heartfelt” manner.
- The video features not only Cohen but also acknowledges the influence of Federico Lorca.
Federico Garcia Lorca and Leonard Cohen: Take This Waltz
Leonard Cohen – BMOC
At 17,3 Leonard Cohen entered McGill University.4 While not considered an excellent student with respect to his coursework, Cohen was considered a star in the English Department on the basis of his writing. He was also president of the debating union and ZBT fraternity.
Leonard Cohen’s First Steps Toward The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
It was a year or two after entering McGill University (accounts vary) when Leonard Cohen formed his first band, The Buckskin Boys, which featured himself on guitar, a friend, Mike Doddman, on harmonica, and a friend of Doddman’s who Cohen knew only as Terry playing bucket bass. This group is sometimes described as a “folk trio” but it seems to have been straightforwardly country western from the description Cohen gave an interviewer from Goldmine in 1993:
“Curiously enough, we found we all had buckskin jackets,” he recalls. “Then it was on the basis of that mutual discovery that we named the group [The Buckskin Boys]. Mine I inherited from my father. Pretty beautiful jacket, it must be over a hundred years old. There was a convention in Montreal in those days where a lot of barn-dancing — square dancing — was done as a social activity,” Cohen explains. “So, we played in church basements and high school auditoria, and we played conventional songs like ‘Turkey In The Straw’ that Terry would call to. You know, ‘do-se-do.’ I was playing rhythm guitar and Mike Doddman was playing harmonica, and we had these instruments amplified. So, we were doing just the appropriate square dance material.”
Leonard Cohen With His First Band: The Buckskin Boys5
Cohen also commented,
I guess [my attraction to music] comes from not being able to do anything else very well. I found I had some gift for it and, with these little songs I wrote, I could impress myself and others – including girls. That’s the hormonal rage that cannot be ignored.
During this period, however, poetry was Cohen’s central focus. He developed relationships with the most important Canadian poets of the day, Irving Layton, F.R. Scott, and Louis Dudek (who was also his professor at McGill and his mentor).
Cohen’s poetry was published in a Canadian literary magazine and he won the University’s MacNaughton Prize for creative writing, but even more striking was the episode in which Louis Dudek, poet, literary critic, founder of Contact Press, a publisher of poetry, McGill Professor of Modern Poetry, and the man Robin Blaser called “Canada’s most important—that is to say, consequential modern voice,” knighted a kneeling Leonard Cohen “Poet” with one of Cohen’s manuscripts rolled-up into a suitable dubbing sword.
In 1955, the year he would graduate from McGill, Cohen read some of his work at a regularly scheduled poetry gathering held at Layton’s home, following which Dudek agreed to publish a collection of Cohen’s poems – but only if they could come up with “a lively title” for the volume.
Cohen’s recall is that 400 copies of the first edition of Let Us Compare Mythologies6 were sold by subscription when it was published in 1956.7
Coming Attractions: Leonard Cohen’s first album, his (very short) career paths in law and academe, the bright lights of New York, and the idyll in Greece.
Previous Leonard Cohen Primer Post: The Childhood Of Leonard Cohen
Next Leonard Cohen Primer Post: Leonard Cohen – The Literary Years_____________________
- The Leonard Cohen Primer is a simple, easy to understand introduction to Leonard Cohen for anyone who has recently tuned in to his music and for fans who may have listened to the songs for some time and now want to learn something about the singer-songwriter who produced them. The goal of this series of posts is to avoid both (1) overwhelming readers with details and tangents, however interesting those channels might be, and (2) omitting fundamental elements of Cohen’s life. [↩]
- A group which includes me. [↩]
- Canadian secondary education stopped at the 11th grade so graduating high school at 16 and entering college at 17 as Cohen did was not unusual. [↩]
- For the reader unacquainted with McGill, I offer this quick description that is helpful in understanding the significance of Cohen’s status there: McGill is a formidable place; founded in 1821, its main campus comprises 80 acres located at the foot of Mount Royal in Montreal’s downtown. Currently, it has an undergraduate and postgraduate population of 30,000. It is certainly diverse, offering hundreds of academic programs including accounting, fine arts, religious studies, engineering, medicine, law, dentistry, education, agriculture, and much, much more. McGill has lots of Rhodes Scholars, Nobel Prize winners, awards, and famous alumni. It is not, in other words, a northern version of Joplin Junior College. It is rather prestigious. Whatever reputation Cohen achieved there was not the result of the Big fish in a small pond effect. [↩]
- Buckskin Boys photo by John Hand, published in Songs of Leonard Cohen, Herewith: Music, Words and Photographs, Amsco Music Publishing, New York, 1969. Thanks to Dick and Linda Straub for scan from their book [↩]
- “Lively titles” are clearly a matter of individual taste [↩]
- According to the reprinted edition ten years later, Cohen wrote most of the poems between the ages of fifteen and twenty. [↩]