Category Archives: Leonard Cohen

Various Positions Onstage – The Shifting Locations Of Leonard Cohen Backup Singers 1970-2013

Backup Singers Charley Webb, Hattie Webb, & Sharon Robinson Stage Right at Leonard Cohen Concert - Toronto: Dec 4, 2012

Backup Singers Charley Webb, Hattie Webb, & Sharon Robinson Stage Right at Leonard Cohen Concert – Toronto: Dec 4, 2012

On The Side Of The Angels – But Which Side Is That?

The onstage arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s angels, aka backup singers, has been constant at the 2008-2013 concerts: Charley Webb on the audience’s far left, then Hattie Webb, and then, nearest Leonard Cohen’s center stage position, Sharon Robinson. It’s not unusual, in fact, for Cohen fans attending a concert to identify their seats as being on the “boys’ side” (the same side as the band members – on Cohen’s left) or the “girls’ side” (the same side as the backup singers – on Cohen’s right).

As Alan Mawhinney points out, however, this was not always the case.

When Anjani Thomas was in the band in 1985 she was to Leonard’s right, albeit on the keyboard. All the videos I can recall from earlier times show the lady singers to Leonard’s left.

When Perla and Julie were touring, they were on Leonard’s right, but usually with Julie closer to him. In Barcelona, Perla was closer to Leonard, in contrast to most other performances I have seen. Perla is also adjacent to LC in the San Sebastian 1988 concert. Could it be because he used her as an interpreter par excellence in the concerts in Spain? My guess is that Julie usually stood closer to Leonard due to her featuring in “Joan of Arc” and “Take This Waltz”. Also re Perla and Julie there are a number of occasions where Leonard stood between them, but I don’t recall seeing any vision of him standing adjacent to any of the others, with the occasional exception of being to Sharon’s left on the recent tour.

In the, unfortunately now ended 2008 – 2013 World Tour, Sharon, Hattie and Charlie were always on Leonard’s right.

As Alan and I exchanged  email about who stood where when during Leonard Cohen shows, this bit of stage business grew more and more interesting, resulting in this post and an associated gallery of photos illustrating the onstage positions of the backup singers for the various tours at Various Positions Onstage: The Gallery – DrHGuy.com.1

Help Complete This Project

This is by no means an exhaustive listing2. Nor is it intended as the last word on the subject. Beyond the speculations contained in Alan’s email, no reasons are offered explaining why the singers are on the right or left or why one backup singer stands further from Leonard Cohen (e.g., Sharon Robinson in 1979) or closer to Leonard Cohen (e.g., Sharon Robinson in 2013). I am, in fact, hopeful that readers will contribute other variations in the placement of Cohen’s singers as well as knowledge of or ideas about such stage positioning in general or specific to Leonard Cohen.

Stage Positions Of Leonard Cohen Backup Singers By Tour

In 1970 and 1972 the backup singers were stage right. In 1974, the angels moved across the stage to Leonard Cohen’s left and remained there in 1976, 1979, and 1980. In 1985, the backing vocals shifted back to stage right, where they have remained since.

The Leonard Cohen Slip & Slide Realignment Between Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla

One specific stage maneuver pertinent to the backup singers seems worthy of spotlighting.  Cohen has used this move, as far as I can determine, only with backup singers Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla. While singing, Cohen slips  back from his solo position center stage, loops around behind the backup singers on stage right, and slides between them where he continues the song.

Leonard Cohen Moves Between Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla
Austin: 1988

Various Positions Onstage: The Gallery

Click here: Various Positions Onstage: The Gallery – DrHGuy.com

Credit Due Department: Photo atop this post taken by -Astin-

  1. The photo gallery is located at DrHGuy.com because of technical issues. []
  2. I cannot find, for example, a single photo of Leonard Cohen and his backup singers  on stage in 1975 []

Lorri Zimmerman: 1975 Leonard Cohen Backup Singer

lori-zimmerman

Lorri Zimmerman sang backup along with Erin Dickens during the Leonard Cohen USA tour in late 1975.1 None of the standard books about Leonard Cohen or the websites focusing on Leonard Cohen offer a photo of or more information of this vocalist. There are several reasons that might explain Lorri Zimmerman’s obscurity in the Cohen literature, whether online or print:

  1. Lorri Zimmerman sang backup for Cohen only a few times. She, along with Erin Dickens, was a vocalist for only the seven2 US concerts Leonard Cohen played in November 1975 in support of The Best Of Leonard Cohen.3 (There were also 17 North American concerts from Jan 27-Mar 4, 1975 in support of New Skin For The Old Ceremony. The backup singers during this period were Emily Bindiger and Erin Dickens.)4
  2. There are currently few available photos of Leonard Cohen performing in 1975,5 and none showing him performing with any of his backup singers that year. Similarly, there are few reviews of the 1975 concerts, none of which address the November shows.
  3. Little is known about Lorri Zimmerman in general these days and that small amount is scattered hither and yon, in large part because she was known at various times as Lorri Zimmerman, Lorraine Nidgelski,  Lorraine Nied, Laurie Niedzielski, Lauri Nigelski, and a few other names. In addition, much of the information about her is available only in French.

Update 03 April 2014: I have just discovered a previously photo shows Leonard Cohen and Lorri Zimmerman working together in 1975 (kinda sorta). The image below is also included in Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life by Anthony Reynolds along with this pertinent information contained in the caption:

At the Sound Ideas Studio in New York during the aborted Songs For Rebecca sessions of 1975. Backing singer Lori Zimmerman can be seen behind Cohen. [Photo by] John Miller

lc-and-lorri

Regardless of the reasons for the obscurity, that ain’t how we treat Leonard Cohen backup singers in these parts.  This post comprises the organized bits and pieces about Lorri Zimmerman I have been able to unearth.

Lorri Zimmerman & The 1975 Leonard Cohen Tour

Erin Dickens, Cohen backup singer during the entire 1974-1975 tours, explains how Lorri Zimmerman was chosen for the late 1975 shows:6

She was a singer from Montreal with whom John Lissauer and I worked regularly. We toured with her in our own band in Japan in 1976. A wonderful girl and great singer. I think John simply chose her for those reasons.

Emily Bindiger, who sang backup for the 1974 Cohen tour and the early 1975 shows, offers her best guess that she was unable to take part in the Nov 1975 concerts because at that point she was performing in “Shenandoah” on Broadway.

Lorri Zimmerman Biography

lorri zimmerman

The only organized biography for “Lorri Zimmerman” is the following posted by Jason Lymangrover on AllMusic:

One of the lesser-known femme-psych singers, Lorri Zimmerman got her start when she auditioned for a TV talent show called The Like Young and was extended an invitation to participate in an album the show released featuring several of the performers. Two years later, in 1968, Lorri met up with a band called the Munks and the members performed under the moniker Sweet Loraine & the Munks for nearly a year before going their separate ways. She soon joined up with Life, a Montreal-based psychedelic band on Polydor that had some chart success with their single “Hands of the Clock.” In 1969, the group disbanded and Zimmerman began making some demos for music publishers Chappell & Co. Ltd, which led to the recording of her only solo album for Crescent City, an obscure underground pop/rock record (with elements of psych) that remained an underground gem until it was reissued by Fallout Records in 2007.

Best Of Like Young album with Lorraine Nied

Best Of Like Young album with Lorraine Nied

From 2 février 2014: Fluent dans toutes les langues!, posted Feb 3, 2014 by Sebastien at Mondo P.Q. [via Google Translate - bolding mine]:

The Munks – Long Time Waiting (Columbia, 1966)

The_Munks-258x3004 monks in robes of Montreal with Rick St-Jean René Boileau, Tagg Hindsgaul and Ed Kaye. Their first single was released in September 65 as The Exit 4. This will be their third 45s most popular Long waiting time moving up on some local English charts. Lorraine Nied aka Sweet Loraine aka Lorri Zimmerman will join the group in 1967 and the end of 1968, St. John Kaye and leave to form the Freedom group … soon renamed Freedom North.

From 19 February 2012: Hardrock Province (1968-1975)
Posted February 21, 2012 by Sebastien at Mondo P.Q. [via Google Translate]:

Lorri Zimmerman – ‘Cause the world is mine (Crescent Street, 1971)
She began her career under the name Sweet Loraine in the second version of the group of Verdun The Munks before joining the Montreal Life. Later, she would form a third bilingual and disco trio Toulouse. Along with Mari-Lou Gauthier (itself later Toulouse more), it would choirs on the single album Emerald City group.

From 9 mars 2014: Mondo P.Q. au féminin Posted March 11, 2014 by Sebastien at Mondo P.Q. [via Google Translate]:

The last simple Zimmerman solo voice already known at the time on the Montreal scene, always in demand for vocals on many albums. Pressed here and in England, with Vegetable Band (unknown member).

Lori Zimmerman Vegetable & the Band – 60 Minute Man (Pye / Sweet Plum, 1973)
lorriz-beget

From Nick Warburton & Life

Another addition to two of the album’s songs was Zimmerman’s wife Lorraine Nidgelski (aka Neid), who had been working with Montreal band, The Munks. As Simon recalls, Neid sang the chorus on “Ain’t I Told You Before” and contributed joint lead vocals on the band’s cover of The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”.

Life with Lorraine Nied - From La Patrie - Sep 7, 1969

Life with Lorraine Nied – From La Patrie – Sep 7, 1969

Lorri Zimmerman & Toulouse

toulouse

From Canadian Bands [boding mine]:

Canada’s disco scene was fronted in Montreal as much as it was in Toronto, full of world beats set to a danceable rhythm. When sisters Heather and Mary Lou Gauthier and Judi Richards decided that singing backup for various local groups wasn’t cutting it, they formed their own trio in 1975 called Toulouse.

They were signed by Steve Grossman at Magique Records, and were teamed up with producer/songwriter Peter Alves. With him helping write the material, they released their self-titled debut album in the fall of 1976. Although no singles were released, the album as a whole was a hit with the francophone dance market, warranting an English re-release of the album to cater to the rest of Canada and hopefully break out in the US. While they were in the studio, management teamed them up with another French group called Boule Noire, who together released POTION MAGIQUE, half one group and half the other. Tracks from their catalogue also began appearing on numerous K-Tel specials, helping the band get name recognition.

By this point Laurie Zimmerman had replaced the recently departed Mary Lou Gauthier. The revised version of Toulouse’s debut album was called EXPORT, released in ’77 with totally revamped lyrics, written largely by Richards while at Muscle Shoals Sound in Sheffield, Alabama. The lead single, “It Always Happens This Way” (“C’est toujours à recommencer”) was an instant hit in Quebec, and although it only contained two lines in English, it managed to crack Canada’s top 40 dance chart, and peaked at #29 in Toronto while also getting some airplay south of the border. “APB” (which made the American top 40 and #1 in several markets across Canada), “Funkysation,” and “What Would My Mama Say” followed it into the charts while the ladies rode the disco train. This trio of singles made Toulouse the first French Canadian group to have substantial airplay in the American disco market.

By the time TAXI POUR UNE NUIT BLANCHE was in the stores in the spring of 1978, Yves Lapierre was the new producer. Five singles found their way to the charts over the next year, starting with the instrumental “Lindbergh II,” followed by “Prends-moi Je Veux T’aimer,” “Don’t Play With My Heart,” “Je N’ai Jamais Pense,” and “Comme La Lumiere.” A series of mini-tours ensued, following which Heather Gauthier was gone and was replaced by Liette Lomez.

With the band now on CBS Records, Lapierre was brought back for DANGEROUS LADIES in 1980. For the first time the album featured a joint-writing process, but with everyone else leaving the disco train, only “Je N’ai Jamais Pense” and “Rock My Love” found their way to single, though both were re-worked a few times over as 7″ extended mixes for the clubs.

They recorded their final studio album a year later, and although TROIS DIMENSIONS attempted to bridge the gap between disco and ’80s pop, the singles “11 AM ‘n Rainin’,” “Tendre Doux,” and the duet with Robert Charlebois called “Que c’est, quest c’est?” all missed the mark. They carried on the scene for a few years doing special appearances and backing up other artists in the studio, making their final appearance together in 1985. Present and past members joined the one-off project called Foundation Quebec-Afrique, Quebec’s counterpart to their English counterpart Northern Lights’ African relief effort, recording the song “Les yeux de la faim” (“Eyes of the famine”).

Unidisc compiled enough predominantly English material for the BEST OF TOULOUSE album in 1993, including instrumental versions of “What Would My Mama Say” and “It Always Happens This Way.”

t3

Toulouse with Lorri Zimmerman (center) – 2008

From Judi Richards: Exclusive Interview – Le retour de Toulouse by Geo Giguère (Canoe: 05-03-2008) [via Google Translate; bolding mine]:

This is a surprise because it was not planned. It all began when the trio made ​​an appearance on the show was not all evening in tribute to Georges Thurston in 2007. It was he who wrote the bilingual song It’s always again, their greatest success. Toulouse was then temporarily reformed to sing this song.

Judi, we can say that it is partly thanks to Thurston you reformed Toulouse?

[Judi Richards] Absolutely. I then invited Liette and Laurie to join me for some shows that I gave after the release of my Cd From seventh heaven on. We found that we had a lot of fun together.

Yvon was found also and he said you are ripe for reform Toulouse. You will probably go on tour … And it is not true that I will stay at home. Find me a place in your show! (Laughter)

[Judi Richards] We will be together with Yvon. It will be special, because Liette and Laurie are friends since adolescence. Yvon and I met 17 years. It will be all my life to be on stage at the same time. It is unusual is not it!

Toulouse was formed in 1976. Judi was then teamed with sisters Gauthier. Laurie and Liette have replaced successively. The most famous of our Quebec trios ceased operations in 1986.

22 years after the end of Toulouse, Judi has never stopped practicing his art. Laurie Niedzielski became a teacher in English, but she found her voice without problem, 22 years after she stopped singing professionally.

Toulouse already has commitments until May 2009

Toulouse: Liette Lomez, Laurie Niedzielsk, & Judi Richards.  March 4, 2009 (Photo by Patrick Woodbury, Le Droit)

Toulouse: Liette Lomez, Laurie Niedzielski, & Judi Richards. March 4, 2009 (Photo by Patrick Woodbury, Le Droit)

This is the most recent reference I’ve found to Lorri Zimmerman/ Laurie Niedzielski.

Discography: Discogs

Lorri Zimmerman: Performances

Toulouse – Funkysation

Toulouse – Dreamin’ Laurie

Lorri Zimmerman – Don’t Twist My Mind & You’re The One
From  Lorri Zimmerman album

  1. Source: Is This What You Wanted by Jim Devlin []
  2. The actual number of concerts during this tour may differ. 1975 was apparently not a stellar year for record-keeping.  The most authoritative source, Cohen Live includes several shows with uncertain dates and excludes a relatively well known Feb 25, 1975 Milwaukee concert. It would not be surprising if other later 1975 concerts turn up as well. []
  3. In at least one of these November 1975 concerts (The Main Point in Bryn Mawr on November 23, 1975), Cohen played five of the songs he and John Lissauer had co-written for  Songs for Rebecca, an abandoned album. []
  4. Sources: Cohen tour information accessed at Cohen Live 02 April 2014. Identities of backup singers from Is This What You Wanted by Jim Devlin []
  5. I have thus far found only four 1975 Cohen performance photos []
  6. Erin also generously gave me one of the other names Lorri used professionally, a link to her discography, and other helpful information. []

“No, no, they’ll never get Cohen” – Letter From Redmond Wallis To Leonard Cohen: May 2, 1963

Rethinking Redmond Wallis As Correspondent

Initially, my only interest in Redmond Wallis (1933-2006), a novelist1 from New Zealand who formed a friendship with Leonard Cohen when they each lived on Hydra during the 1960s, was his role as a recipient of Cohen’s correspondence during that time. After posting “Hello People” – Leonard Cohen’s Oct 6, 1963 Handwritten Letter To Redmond Wallis, I realized it might be helpful to also post the letters Wallis wrote to Cohen as well in order to provide context for Cohen’s messages. On reviewing those letters more carefully, however, I was convinced that not only would they provide context but also that the letters are themselves a delight. Read this communication of Wallis (writing from London) to Leonard Cohen on Hydra and see if you agree. (click on image to enlarge)

wallismay 2 1963-1

wallismay-2-1963--2

Credit Due Department: This letter is archived at the National Library of New Zealand – Wellington

  1. His best known work is Point Of Origin []

A Letter From Leonard Cohen – Writing As DrHGuy

Dear Friends -

April Fool’s Day seems an auspicious date to let you all know that DrHGuy is – well, DrHGuy is a character I created.

You see, back when I first started thinking about going on Tour after my retirement fund vanished, I needed a way to communicate with folks unofficially. So, when I wanted, for example, fans to know about an impending tour but the organization wasn’t ready to issue a press release, DrHGuy would start posting “rumors” about those concerts. Does this ring a bell?

Unbelievably, no one seemed surprised that a blogger who rarely attended a show and continuously moaned that “no one tells me nothin’” was always on the mark about tour schedules. (Of course, I first thought I had gone too far by making this supposedly devoted Cohencentric blogger a red neck refugee from the Ozarks who somehow got through college as a literature major but then became a shrink in Chicago1 before moving for some reason to Durham NC – but everyone bought it. Go figure.)

Another example – when the press mistakenly reported that Lorca was a surrogate mother for Rufus, “DrHGuy” reported the inaccurate newspaper story, allowing me to send him an email correcting that error – which DrHGuy, of course, then posted.2

1HeckOfAGuy.com and DrHGuy.com also gave us a platform for launching trial balloons. I wasn’t convinced, for example, that the fedora thing was going to work until I saw the positive responses to photos I posted.

And, my DrHGuy persona proved useful in other ways. While I love all of you and appreciate all the support you’ve given me through the years, those who come to my shows, buy my records and books, and participate in special events tend to be serious sorts. I thought it might help you all lighten up if you saw me from another perspective.

lcgoodbobblr

Anyhow, I originally planned to end the DrHGuy character once I revealed his true origin, but on consideration, I realize there will be lots of readers who think this post is yet another DrHGuy put-on and, in any case, this is still a dandy way to connect with people so I’m going to continue the blog for now. I hope you continue to enjoy it even if you know who the real author is now.

See you down the road,

Leonard

  1. OK, I admit I lost track of the character’s back story somewhere between Missouri and Chicago []
  2. Lorca Cohen Is Mother, Not Surrogate Of Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen []

New & Improved: 2014 Modesty Cover For Leonard Cohen’s New Skin For The Old Ceremony

new-skin---2014-modesty-cove-postmerger

An Immediate Collector’s Item

Since posting The Cover Art Cover-Up, the definitive examination of the modesty covers used in various countries to protect the public from the area in which the nonexistent genitals of the angelic figures on the front of Leonard Cohen’s New Skin For The Old Ceremony, and several supplemental posts,1 this site has hosted covers with third wings, surgically adjusted limbs, and photos of Leonard Cohen where the nasty bits were located in the original image shown below.

DrHGuy, in his never-ending quest to bring New & Improved versions of Mr Cohen’s merchandise to market, now contributes an updated Cohenesque modesty cover for the next re-release of this album (click on images for best viewing).

You’re welcome.

For other New & Improved merchandise (shirts, caps, clocks, bobbleheads, & more), lyrics, concert formats … see Leonard Cohen – New & Improved

  1. []

Q&A With Liel Leibovitz, Author Of A Broken Hallelujah

liel

Liel Leibovitz, author of the just published A Broken Hallelujah,1 may be familiar to ongoing readers from references on this site to his essays on Leonard Cohen published in Tablet magazine where he is a Senior Writer.2  He also teaches at New York University and is the coauthor of Fortunate Sons, Lili Marlene, and The Chosen Peoples.

Liel Leibovitz Q&A

Ritual Questions:

1. How did you decide to write a book about Leonard Cohen?

When I first listened to Leonard Cohen’s music, I was fourteen and broken. My father had just been arrested for a string of bank robberies, shattering our family’s comfortable upper-middle-class life. Lacking, like all adolescent boys do, the vocabulary to inquire after my emotions and offer their support, my friends stopped by the house and brought me CDs they thought would comfort me. Most were terrible. One was Songs of Leonard Cohen. My English wasn’t good enough then to capture the immensity of his ideas and the beauty of his language—I was born in Israel and lived there until a decade ago—but snippets of songs stuck and gave me immense comfort. Thinking about what it meant to be almost young, or how to avoid reaching for the sky just to surrender, was more than a mere distraction; it was a spiritual awakening, and I remained faithful to Cohen ever since. Three years ago, then, when my friend and colleague Jonathan Rosen suggested I write a book about Cohen, the idea seemed both startling and immediately familiar. A few weeks later, sitting at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto and thumbing through Cohen’s hand-written high school notebooks, letters from Hydra, early stories, and other treasures, I knew that I would now put my own life on hold and slip into the life of another who I’d always admired.

2. How long have you been working on this project?

I started working on this book exactly four years ago this month.

3. Who do you see as the primary audience for A Broken Hallelujah?

While I think Cohen’s dedicated fans—the men and women who read your blog as faithfully as I do—will find the book of particular interest, I hope that its themes will appeal to a larger audience interested in the book’s seminal question, namely what is it about Cohen that propels him, at 80, to ever greater heights while his contemporaries are all either long gone or resigned to sad nostalgia tours. The answer, I think, has to do with Cohen’s spiritual preoccupations: almost alone in American popular culture—a marketplace that rewards audacious dreamers, utopians, and impatient visionaries—Cohen insisted on a spiritual message that was considerably more somber but infinitely more sustainable. While his peers took a lot of drugs and tried—to paraphrase one of them, Jim Morrison, who I discuss at length in the book—to break on through to the other side, Cohen preached a vision of subtle mindfulness, of working hard to be kind to one another, of embracing both the carnal and the divine. I think anyone curious about rock n’ roll and the vast changes it has experienced over the last six decades will find something in the book to like, as would anyone seriously interested in the intersections of religion and popular culture.

4. Would you describe the sort of research you did for this book?

The research I did for this book was threefold. First, I read everything I could find by or about Leonard Cohen. Fortunate enough to have his archive at my disposal, I pored over decades of correspondence, reams of unpublished poems and stories, and scores of journals, trying to capture not so much Cohen’s chronology but his emotional and spiritual preoccupations and his growth as an artist. I also read, watched, and listened to any interview I could get my hands on, although I wish I had the benefit of Jeff Burger’s excellent book [Leonard Cohen On Leonard Cohen by Jeff Burger - see review]. Secondly, I interviewed at length a few of Cohen’s collaborators and friends, from his close childhood companion Morton Rosengarten to his sometime producer John Lissauer, all of whom were extremely helpful in illuminating Cohen’s work. Finally, because my book’s focus is on Cohen’s ideas and their cultural resonance, I immersed myself in the intellectual background that forged his worldview. I read the works of the men who had been his mentors and friends and who had shaped his early writing—Irving Layton, A.M. Klein—and studied everything from the words of the Biblical prophets to the abstractions of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. I hope all three avenues of research inform the book and its insights.

5. A number of books about Leonard Cohen have been published in the past few years and more than a half dozen are scheduled for publication in 2014. How does your book differ from other books about Leonard Cohen?

First of all, let me tell you how happy I am to see so many new books about Cohen coming out. Because I consider him, like I know you do, a major artist, I look forward to the day when I can walk into a bookstore and browse as many books about Leonard Cohen as there currently are about Bob Dylan or the Beatles. As for my own book, it is interested primarily in Cohen’s ideas, particularly the ones informed by his religious and spiritual beliefs, and in the way these ideas—one is tempted to say these old ideas—have shaped so much of contemporary culture.

Book-specific Questions:

1. The first line in the Preface of A Broken Hallelujah is “This is not a biography of Leonard Cohen.” You go on to elaborate on that idea, but why is this point so important that you open your book with it?

I think anyone picking up a book with Leonard Cohen’s name and picture on the cover is going to have a reasonable expectation that the book would tell him something about Cohen’s life, and I wanted to make sure such a reader knows right away what kind of trip they’re getting into with A Broken Hallelujah. My book does contain bits of biography, but its main focus, again, is Cohen’s work, the ideas that inspired it, and the affect they’ve had on popular culture. For sheer biography, one can hardly ask for anything better than Sylvie Simmons’s tremendous I’m Your Man [see review].

2. What are the most common and most important fallacies about Leonard Cohen addressed, directly or indirectly, in your book?

I don’t know that I would call it a fallacy, but one misconception I’ve always held, and which my research proved absolutely wrong, was that Cohen, like Dylan, stumbled into his themes and preoccupations as he went along. Reading his unpublished work and his letters, I was amazed to discover a young man who had not only clarity of vision but the courage to pursue it. When he realized poetry was too inadequate a vessel with which to deliver his ideas, Cohen abandoned it, throwing away a successful and lucrative career. When novels failed to capture his range of beliefs, he abandoned them, too, and that despite being compared to James Joyce. From his own rabbi, Federico Garcia Lorca, he learned that the only art worth making was that devoted to the duende, or the deep soul; he was a mere teenager when he made that realization, but for that moment on, he resisted the temptations of technical mastery or earthly rewards or critical praise and went on looking for the one way he could be true to his own passions. He found it the moment he picked up a guitar and started writing songs, and he remained true to it even when the singer’s life took its toll.

3. A major theme in your book is the significance of Leonard Cohen’s Jewish heritage, an issue that has been frequently addressed in the popular press and scholarly articles. How would you summarize the role Cohen’s Jewishness played in the development of his art?

I believe Judaism played an immense part in shaping Cohen’s worldview. Having grown up listening to his grandfather, the rabbi, read passages from the prophets out loud, Cohen, I think, realized his core preoccupations early on. And they are very Jewish preoccupations: one of my book’s set pieces is a description, based on Cohen’s own notes, of a lecture he gave in the Jewish Library in Montreal in 1964. After decrying his community’s obsession with wealth and might, Cohen, sounding every bit like a modern-day Isaiah, makes a distinction between priests and prophets. While the former, he says, are here to serve the status quo and keep us all in check, the latter have no choice but to chase the truth, no matter what form it chooses to take or how wild it may seem. Cohen concludes his talk by saying that his role was to become a prophet, and that it was a duty he could undertake only by going into exile—only the lonely are free to pursue the spirit in its purest form, unencumbered by commitments to family and friends and employers. And a prophet he became, espousing, I believe, a very Jewish worldview. Unlike the Christian messiah, the redeemer by whose grace alone the faithful are delivered from their primal sin, the Jewish messiah is an odd cat: he will only come, the rabbis tell us, once all the Jews are pious and kind to each other; but once all the Jews are pious and kind to each other, we won’t, of course, need the messiah. This is the earthly vision that Leonard Cohen had always advanced, urging his listeners to forget the perfect offering and realize instead that the crack they’re eager to mend is actually how the light gets in. That’s a profoundly Jewish idea.

4. You examine Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre in the context of pop music. How does his music fit in or stand apart from rock & roll cultural history?

It doesn’t fit in at all. And that’s the amazing thing about it. Roughly speaking, the history of rock n’ roll is the history of artists seeking wilder, freer takes at transcendence. We see it in the polite equilibriums of the 1950s giving way to the psychedelic ecstasies of the 1960s, and then to the libidinal thrusts of glam rock and the primitive howling of punk in the 1970s. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that rock is one protracted effort to break free of society’s constraints, applying different artistic sensibilities at each turn. And then there’s Cohen. Much more old religion than new age, he has no illusions about what it is that humans can and cannot do. Our only hope, he realizes, is, as he so beautifully put it, the minor fall and the major lift, namely the realization that human life is as sacred as it is profane, as unbearable as it is precious, as somber as it is joyous. While his contemporaries kept pursuing the rapturous, Cohen offered a much more sober vision. Redemption, he told his listeners, would take much more than merely ingesting some drug and holding someone’s hand and believing in peace and love and happiness. It would take a lot of work, work that’s unglamorous as it is difficult: being kind to each other, being forgiving, learning how to treat love not as a sport or a vice but as the most profound of our undertakings. No measure or faith—in a savior or a rock star or a deity—could get us there quicker; we are the ones who have to learn to redeem ourselves. I think this message, and the unadorned yet gorgeous music that Cohen composed to deliver it, was very hard for most Americans to accept, accustomed as we are to more cheerful and sunny stuff. But after the dust settled on rock n’ roll, after all of its messiahs had died prematurely and all of its lights dimmed out, we noticed that one man’s words resonated more than ever. That, to me, is the magic of Leonard Cohen.

5. You also look at Cohen’s place in Canadian poetry and the influences other Canadian poets had on him – and his impact on other poets. What insight does this perspective offer to Cohen’s poetry and his work in general?

Cohen arrived on the scene when Canadian literature was still very much busy being born, and became one of its most radiant practitioners. I think that in contemplating Canada—a nation struggling, then as now, to come together—Cohen found many of the themes that would later apply to his view of humanity at large. Canada, he said in one interview, “has an experimental side to it. We are free from the blood myth, the soil myth, so we could start over somewhere else. We could purchase a set of uninhabited islands in the Caribbean. Or we could disperse throughout the cosmos and establish a mental Canada in which we communicate through fax machines.” He was joking, but not only: this idea of people eager to find common ground, to create shared mythologies (and compare them, as the title of his first book suggests), and to bridge physical and emotional divides is both deeply Canadian and wholly universal. It’s also the reason why Cohen threatened to punch the Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler when the latter suggested that Canada ought to become a part of the U.S.: to Cohen, giving up your national identity, however precarious, however uncertain, meant giving up the essence of who you were.

6. The Prelude to A Broken Hallelujah comprises a detailed account of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, culminating in Cohen’s appearance there. Why did you choose this opening?

As I was preparing to write the book, I knew I wanted it to begin with a scene that captured all of its themes and its emotions. The Isle of Wight episode couldn’t be more perfect: here, after all, is rock n’ roll literally on fire, with half-a-million hooligans setting the stage ablaze. And here are all of rock’s icons—Morrison, Hendrix, the Who—trying to calm the audience down and discovering that when you’ve spent an entire career being wild, breaking boundaries, and preaching the absolute abandonment of restraints and inhibitions, you’re inevitably going to end up with violence and very bad vibes. And then, as everything’s burning, as people are about to run for their lives, Cohen takes the stage. He’s a decade or so older than all the other performers, and with his unkempt hair and safari jacket he looks more like Jim Morrison’s accountant than his peer. But calmly and courageously, he talks not at the audience—as all the other rock stars had done throughout the festival—but to them. And within minutes, half-a-million rowdy fans sit down, huddle for warmth, and listen. To me, that is the perfect embodiment of Cohen’s gift: he is, as I write in the book, a man whose pores absorb the particles of beauty and grief and truth that float weightlessly all around us yet so few of us note. Back in the day, we called men like him prophets, meaning not that they could foresee the future but that they could better understand the present by seeing one more layer of meaning to life. This is what makes the Isle of Wight festival such a powerful scene, and what still turns every Cohen concert into something very close to a religious awakening for so many fans.

7. A Broken Hallelujah carries two different titles for different markets.

7A. The North American version is “A Broken Hallelujah: Rock ‘n’ Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen.” What does Leonard Cohen have to do with “Redemption” in the US and Canada?

7B. The UK edition is titled “A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord .” What is this “Secret Chord?” Is it something that only Brits can hear?

I love this question, and am greatly intrigued by its premise, but have no way of answering it intelligently. Both subtitles were composed and approved by my respective editors on either end of the Atlantic, and as I cannot even begin to divine their intentions—both are giants from whose wisdom I am fortunate enough to benefit—I can only accept the subtitles as they stand, and trust that us Americans will seize upon redemption while our friends in the UK will indeed hear the secret chord meant just for them.

8. A Broken Hallelujah ends with these lines from Going Home:

I want to make him certain

That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision
That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
Which is to say what I have told him
To repeat

Why did you choose these lines as your book’s finale?

It felt right to me to let Cohen have the last word, and “Going Home” struck me as appropriate: having followed him through decades of struggling to write and produce and records songs, to perform them in front of audiences, and to keep up with a music scene that was not always kind to him, we finally get to see Cohen find his stride and win not only earthly rewards but also the calm and confidence that had eluded him his entire life. It took him 80 years, but he finally learned how to live with Leonard Cohen. Hallelujah to that.

  1. See A Celebration Of Leonard Cohen’s Significance: A Review Of A Broken Hallelujah By Liel Leibovitz []
  2. See Wall of Crazy (Tablet: December 11, 2012) and St. Leonard’s Passion (Tablet: Jan 31, 201s) []