by Judith Fitzgerald

The National Post, 24 March 2001

In the late seventies, the ill-timed release of Death of a Ladies' Man left Leonard Cohen with reduced appeal. A documentarian captures what he did to regain it ...

By Harry Rasky
Mosaic Press, 160 pp.

By David Sheppard
Thunder's Mouth Press, 136 pp.

In the late 1960s, Leonard Cohen had already established himself as a gifted poet -- Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), The Spice-Box of Earth (1961) -- and novelist -- The Favourite Game (1963), Beautiful Losers (1966) -- when he recorded The Songs Of Leonard Cohen and Songs From A Room.

That pair of critically and commercially successful albums turned Cohen into a household name; but, as the '70s wore on, his appeal wore off, primarily because of the ill-timed release of Death Of A Ladies' Man (1977), a manic-depressive folk-a-doo-wop collaboration with producer Phil Spector (the Beatles, Righteous Brothers, and Ramones) which, incidentally, Cohen has recently reclaimed as semi-virtuous (despite his initial regrets concerning its creation).

In 1979, in an effort to bolster his reputation and boost the reception of his newest release, Recent Songs, Cohen embarked upon an international concert tour with jazz-rockers Passenger performing backup duties and Toronto documentarian Harry Rasky (Arthur Miller on Home Ground, Homage to Chagall) preserving the proceedings on film.

Rasky's 90-minute documentary, The Song of Leonard Cohen, was screened the next year as a special presentation at Toronto's Film Festival before it hit the national airwaves of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; unfortunately, despite numerous requests, CBC has no plans to reschedule a repeat performance of Rasky's intimate profile in this country any time soon (the network will release the documentary in Europe this spring).

No matter. As a kind of pre-emptive strike, Rasky elected to write The Song of Leonard Cohen, that portion of his memoirs dealing specifically with the making of his cinematic portrait of our greatest artist. Besides, as Rasky enthusiastically explains at the outset, Cohen had recently rung him up to thank him again for taking the time and going to the trouble of creating The Song of Leonard Cohen. Galvanised by that conversation, Rasky immediately set to work pulling his manuscript together.

The result is an oddly riveting and generally uncritical account of the time Rasky spent on the road with Cohen capturing on- and off-stage moments on film during the 1979 tour. Riddled with typographic and grammatical errors -- Phil Oakes? (Ochs, presumably.) Westmont, PQ? People "siting" in chairs? -- The Song of Leonard Cohen nonetheless redeems itself simply because its opinionated author delivers an irresistible blend of insight and charm while revealing touching -- and salacious -- details concerning not only his reclusive subject and his magnificent obsessions, but also Cohen's circle of friends, including poet Irving Layton, photographer Hazel Field, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and, of course, the filmmaker himself.

For Rasky, Cohen is "truly the first great, vaginal poet. The women adored, even lusted after the balladeer of their bodies"; still, the filmmaker astutely observes, it's virtually impossible "to try and make Leonard and his appeal simple" because he's "as complex as a poem" or, as Cohen himself confides to Rasky between takes, "I have some work to do in the world and I try to do it the best I can; if I can find a public that is receptive to it, I'm happy. And if I can't, then I'll still continue doing it."

Early in the narrative, Rasky illustrates one aspect of LC's complexity when he reveals what Cohen confides to him concerning his distaste for the word poet: "It's due to the process of cultural advertising which has the same effect as commercial advertising. Certain words become devalued and, not only that, but many people rush to embrace the description and I just don't like the company." (Ah, shades of "all the lousy little poets coming round/ trying to sound like Charlie Manson" from perhaps Cohen's finest album, 1992's The Future.)

Later, one of the most affecting moments occurs when Rasky confides he "was not astonished" Cohen had told him that Trudeau, just prior to his death, had asked his longtime friend "to read a poem he had written about death, over and over." (Cohen served as honorary pallbearer at Trudeau's funeral.)

Despite the triumph of what came to be called the 1979 Field Commander Cohen Tour (not to mention the unqualified success of Rasky's film), the soldier of sorrow spent much of the '80s in near-oblivion till Jennifer Warnes's exquisite 1987 tribute, Famous Blue Raincoat, revitalised his career and smoothed the way for back-to-back sonic masterpieces -- 1988's I'm Your Man and The Future -- as well as M & S's hefty retrospective collection, Stranger Poems (which serves to continue to introduce a new generation to Cohen's inestimable talents).

In June 1999, Cohen returned to his downtown Los Angeles home and studio to commence work on several projects including his twelfth studio effort, a 100-plus collection of new poems (The Book of Longing) and the highly anticipated live CD, Field Commander Cohen: Tour Of 1979, recently released alongside Rasky's personal tribute to his hero's enduring substance and signature style.

If Rasky's book, despite its peccadilloes, provides readers with a unique perspective and several original insights, the same cannot be said of David Sheppard's Leonard Cohen, a mediocre effort in which both substance and style go missing. Provocative come-on notwithstanding (the book is part of a biography series called Kill Your Idols), the slim volume comes across as a crass and prefabricated overview, short on both accuracy and credibility.

Sheppard, a scribe for Q magazine, devotes a few snide swipes to Cohen's vocal assets and liabilities; but, for the most part, he bluffs his way through 67 years of the singer's life while blithely explaining various Cohen phenomena in the most superficial of terms. The ever-libidinous artist is blessed with charisma but cursed by his inability to form lasting attachments? (Yawn.)

Regrettably, the fact that Sheppard plunders the best of various biographical sources and studies further contributes to this curiously pneumatic effort, especially since the Brit recounts little more than the bare-bones basics. Instead, he arrogantly undertakes song-by-song and disc-by-disc interpretative analyses that recycle the received wisdom concerning all things Cohenesque.

It's difficult to imagine Jim Devlin (In His Own Words; In Every Style of Passion) or Ira B. Nadel (Leonard Cohen: A Life in Art; Various Positions) or even Harry Rasky referring to "Hallelujah" as "quasi-religious songwriting"; but, given that this self-styled idol-killer is convinced Cohen is still sequestered at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre -- when, in fact, he long ago returned to his LA digs with collaborator Sharon Robinson to produce and ready his long-awaited forthcoming Sony CD, Ten New Songs, for its 16 October 2001 release -- it's fairly easy to understand why B'Losers (Beautiful Losers) dismiss this trifle as Cohen for Dummies.

Contrary to what Sheppard would have readers believe vis--vis Cohen's "lyrical references to razor blades, ovens, and furnaces" and his supposedly self-centred brand of "bourgeois blues," everybody knows Cohen's singular ability to transform popular compositions into authentic and restorative contemporary illuminations is, in itself, something like a miracle of secular transubstantiation in our utterly post-human world.

© 2001 Judith Fitzgerald and The National Post
Links to other work by Judith Fitzgerald
Thank you, Jarkko, for all the great things you are and do - Judith