Now they’re coming for Leonard Cohen

 A Facebook friend who teaches at university recently received a cancel-culture email after he included Leonard Cohen in a syllabus. Yup. He spared us several “marvelous rhetorical peaks” but quoted the conclusion, which urged him to “please re-evaluate your life choices before spreading these opinions in the name of education.” When I read this, I chanced to be relishing LEONARD COHEN: Untold Stories/ The Early Years, a remarkable oral biography by Michael Posner. Once you get used to the approach, all these short fragments, different voices, diverse opinions, the book is a can’t-put-it-down page-turner. As an ex-Montrealer, I’ve been reading and listening to Cohen and his chroniclers since The Favorite Game. Even so, I learned a lot from this new book. I didn’t realize, for example, how close Cohen came to abandoning his incipient music career to become a television host. And, ridiculous as it sounds, I thrilled to discover that on February 20, 1966, when I caught Bob Dylan in concert at Montreal’s Place des Arts, Leonard and Irving Layton were somewhere in the audience. Sure, Cohen came from a privileged background — but he recognized that and was remarkably generous. OK, he lived an extreme life — lots of women, lots of drugs. But he came of age in the 1960s. The Sixties, people! You can’t rightly separate any individual from his or her times — not to moralize and judge.  Beautiful Losers? As Dennis Lee observes, “A non-Indigenous who wrote (Kateri Tekakwitha) as Leonard did would get torched today.” Right. And fair enough. But today is not the yesterday of fifty-five years ago. No Beautiful Losers, no Buffy Ste. Marie doing Magic is Alive. And Ste. Marie herself notes that in 1966, “Nobody knew who who Kateri was. Indigenous people didn’t know who she was . . . . So Leonard shone a light on her for a huge audience.”  With this first of three volumes, Posner has done Cohen aficionados a terrific service. While thinking about volume two, I find myself harking back to the night Leonard Cohen taught me that Magic Is Alive.


  1. Ross Klatte on December 5, 2020 at 5:17 am

    You've got me looking for the book in question, Ken. Great review. Ross

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