TORONTO — Canadian writer Michael Posner is on a mission to track down and speak with anyone who knew iconic troubadour Leonard Cohen. The first installment in the resultant trilogy of oral biographies was published October 20.
During this ongoing, mammoth project to shed new light on the Jewish songster through the recollections of others, Posner has interviewed 520 people from around the world, who together span all stages of Cohen’s life and career. The first interview was in 2016, with Canadian poet and essayist David Solway who befriended Cohen in the 1960s, and the most recent one was with Regine Cimber-Lorincz, who now lives in Antwerp and met Cohen in Israel in 1972. In the process, Posner has gained great insight into the man famously labeled “the poet laureate of pessimism,” and whose repertoire was termed “music to slit your wrists to.”
Additional interviews are in the cards as Posner continues his quest for more material for his collective portrait of the peripatetic performer who wrote and sang such classic songs as “Suzanne,” “Hallelujah,” “Bird on the Wire,” and “First, We Take Manhattan.”
When complete, Posner’s sleuthing will have generated a three-volume, chronological oral biography. The first just-published installment titled “Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years” begins with Cohen’s childhood and adolescence in Montreal, and concludes with his first major concert tour when he was 36.
The project has proven far more time-consuming than Posner expected when he embarked on it shortly after Cohen died in Los Angeles in November 2016, at the age of 82.
“The challenge and fun of the work has been trying to find people who are still alive, had some involvement with Leonard, knew about events or certain moments in his life and could comment on them knowledgeably,” Posner told The Times of Israel during a recent interview on the rooftop terrace of the seven-story apartment building where he lives in midtown Toronto. “Part of the challenge has been locating specific people who I knew were out there but I didn’t know where, or whether they would talk to me if I found them.”
Posner, who has long been fascinated by Cohen and his oeuvre, first saw him in concert in early 1967 at the University of Manitoba in Posner’s hometown of Winnipeg. It was one of Cohen’s early public performances at a time when he was known mostly as a poet and novelist, well before the release of his first album later that year.
In 1968, Posner moved to Toronto to pursue a master’s degree in English literature before starting his journalistic career, during which he has held senior editorial positions at Canada’s national weekly news magazine and two leading newspapers. He’s also a playwright and the author or co-author of seven books.
As he did in a previous oral biography of another Montreal Jewish cultural icon, the late Mordechai Richler, Posner interviews figures from his subject’s life — including friends, relatives, ex-lovers, writers, musicians, back-up singers, summer camp directors and rabbis — to reveal what was behind the public persona. To keep the book flowing, Posner inserts a narrative with informative tidbits that provides a better context and historical record. Though largely sympathetic to its subject, the book shows Cohen, warts and all, including his copious drug use and chronic philandering.
I don’t want to say he was a saint. I certainly don’t want to say he was a devil, but I think he was capable of encompassing aspects of both
Having interviewed so many people from Cohen’s world, Posner has himself become an authority on the writer and musician.
“What I’ve learned is that I don’t want to reduce Cohen to a simple, kind of binary character,” says 73-year-old Posner, who has been told by many people that he bears a resemblance to the gentlemanly songster. “I don’t want to say he was a saint. I certainly don’t want to say he was a devil, but I think he was capable of encompassing aspects of both.”
Cohen’s complexity was apparent in what people told Posner.
“He was a hugely complicated man, almost infallibly gracious, polite, civil, humorous and intelligent, but also had a dark side,” he adds. “He was depressive. He had this kind of — I don’t know if it was manic depression or bipolarism, I don’t know the proper psychiatric label, but he definitely could go into a very dark place. And you wouldn’t want to spend much time in his company when he was there.”
It clearly was no obstacle to the many women who spent time in Cohen’s company. A staggering number appear in the book, some merely cited, others speaking nostalgically of their trysts decades earlier with the man described as a “serial seducer” whose infidelity was well known to those around him.
“Although Leonard is justifiably regarded as one of the great lovers of modernity, a kind of Casanova of the late 20th century, I think his great love affair was his work,” says Posner, who has three children and eight grandchildren. “At some level, as soon as he became comfortable in a relationship with a woman, it became uncomfortable, and he had to get out.”
Another aspect that quickly emerged in interviews was the highly restless, nomadic side of Cohen, whose wanderlust was dizzying to others.
“One of the things that’s been forced upon me in seeking to reconstruct his life chronologically is to try to figure out where he was at any given time, whether it be a month or a year,” Posner explains. “The pace at which this guy moved around from place to place, I don’t think anybody could’ve collected more Air Miles than him. Two, three days here, gone, two, three days there, gone. A week here, a week there, he was constantly on the move, until quite late in his life when he became more sedentary. It’s true there was often a business reason, but also a psychic reason. He needed to change locations almost as if he felt trapped wherever he was, trapped emotionally, psychologically, romantically.”
Posner first conceived of the book in 2007. He sent Cohen an email, seeking his cooperation but the latter politely declined. After he died, Posner resurrected the project. For the first three years, he had no publisher and spent $35,000 from his own pocket covering travel costs to conduct in-person interviews with subjects. It was only last November that he finally secured a publisher, Simon and Schuster Canada.
The first volume consists of approximately 1,300 quotes of varying length, including many by Cohen that Posner extracted from previously published interviews or writings. Most of the people featured — some well-known, others not — are quoted multiple times throughout the book.
Among them are singer Judy Collins, who in late 1966, shortly after meeting Cohen in New York, was the first to record one of his songs and encouraged him to perform live; folksinger Eric Andersen to whom Cohen said that it was Andersen’s song “Violets of Dawn” that inspired him to write songs himself; and Kelly Lynch, Cohen’s former business manager who allegedly stole $5 million of his money.
In 1958, at age 23, Cohen worked as a counselor at a summer camp 90 minutes north of Montreal, where one of his friends was Moishe Pripstein.
“Leonard was very quiet, clever and had a great smile,” Pripstein told Posner six decades later for the book. “Somewhat reticent, he wasn’t one of the leaders, not forceful in his interactions, but very present. He didn’t distinguish himself in athletics. At that time, he was noted more for his poetry, though he had his guitar and played around with it.”
A few years earlier, Mark Bercuvitz spent time with Cohen in Montreal while both attended McGill University and were fraternity brothers.
“Leonard had his guitar and we’d sing,” Bercuvitz recalls in the book. “I remember singing ‘Tom Dooley’ with him. He was dating Freda Guttman then but was already searching, going off on different tangents. I always had the impression he wasn’t really a happy guy. He was always searching for something else. His quest for women was part of that searching. Many of us coming from less well-off families were driven to find financial success. Others, like Leonard, were free spirits.”
One late afternoon 15 years ago in Toronto, the only time their paths crossed, Posner chose not to speak to Cohen, a decision he regrets today. Although it was only a fleeting encounter, it made a lasting impact.
“I must’ve been going to do an interview at the Soho Metropolitan Hotel and he was outside in a raincoat waiting, pacing up and down,” Posner recalls. “Our eyes made contact and it was clear he knew I had recognized him as Leonard Cohen. He had this aura about him. He wasn’t a big guy, maybe 5’7”, 5’8”, yet he was larger than life. He just had that kind of presence. He was a magnetic, charismatic figure, even in those 20 seconds.”
Little did Posner know then that Cohen would become the central focus of his professional life many years later.
“Working on the book caused me to examine his work very closely, but less for pure analytical reasons than to seek connections between art and his life and who he might have been writing about,” says Posner. “Knowing better his songs and writing also allowed me to pose better questions to interviewees. As with other great writing, poetry, novels and song lyrics, when you spend time with them, you get a better sense of the enormous craft involved.”
Cohen’s spiritual longing emerged repeatedly in interviews.
“The Jewish identity is the essence of the man,” says Posner definitively. “It’s there from an early age and never really goes away. He dabbled in Scientology briefly in the 1960s and I think he basically thought there was some value in it but largely it was a scam.”
In 1973, Cohen met charismatic Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who ran an almost militaristic, disciplinarian form of Zen Buddhism in California. It led to a decades-long involvement with Roshi and Buddhism.
“There was a Buddhist dimension to the second half of Cohen’s life,” says Posner. “It was part of him but Buddhism is not really a religion and more a practice.”
His religious exploration took him to new places.
“Leonard also had a genuine interest in Christianity,” adds Posner. “The Christianity he was interested in though isn’t Pauline Christianity. It’s the original Jesus Christianity, Jesus the Jew Christianity, the sermon on the mount, that kind of stuff.
He was definitely a Jew but, like many of us, he had a problematic relationship with the deity
“Those early Christians were all Jews, and they articulated a way of living and way of thinking that Leonard related to. But none of that takes anything away from his Judaism. He went through phases, like we all do. He studied kabbalah and put on tefillin [phylacteries]. He was definitely a Jew but, like many of us, he had a problematic relationship with the deity,” says Posner.
Cohen had a positive relationship with Israel which he visited many times, usually to give concerts. Posner interviewed several Israelis who knew Cohen, including singer Oshik Levi, who he spoke with in Tel Aviv in 2018 about his experience 45 years earlier.
When the Yom Kippur War erupted in 1973, Cohen flew to Israel in solidarity with the beleaguered Jewish state. A chance meeting with Cohen in a Tel Aviv café led Levi to convince him to join him and other musicians to perform for Israeli troops in the Sinai. After his initial trepidation, Cohen agreed and famously gave several performances for soldiers during the war. Posner is still pursuing several people in Israel who knew Cohen.
Posner readily acknowledges that several key people in Cohen’s life refused to be interviewed for the book, including his son, Adam, his daughter, Lorca, his manager, Robert Kory, his lifelong close friend Morton Rosengarten, and Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his children. Likewise two of his other significant romantic partners – American actress Rebecca de Mornay and French photographer Dominique Issermann. Among fellow singer-songwriters who either declined or ignored Posner’s request was Bob Dylan, with whom Cohen was friendly and often compared.
The comparison came up in Posner’s interview with Malka Marom, an Israeli who moved to Toronto, where she found fame in the 1960s as half of a folksinging duo.
“She and Leonard were an item,” says Posner, who quotes Marom in the book on the work of Dylan and Cohen. “Dylan was the voice of his generation. You can’t take that away from him. But Leonard is the voice for all time.”
In 2003, Posner published his oral biography of Mordechai Richler, following the novelist’s death in 2001 and after interviewing 150 people who knew him. While Richler and Cohen both figured prominently in their native city, the former had a much more contentious relationship with Montreal’s Jewish community.
“Cohen was a much less abrasive figure than Richler,” says Posner. “He was really well bred with these Edwardian manners that were reflexive and infallible. He was always, as far as I know, courteous. Whereas Richler, either because he was half-drunk or fully-drunk, would just as soon insult you to your face. He didn’t stand on any kind of ceremony whereas for Leonard, ceremony was really important.”
As things stand now, the second book in Posner’s Cohen series will appear next fall, followed by the final installment a year later.
When asked what his next major project will be after he’s finished with Cohen, Posner answers laconically, “May I live so long.”
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