A poet of love and Zen
A poet of love and Zen

Leonard Cohen's fans surprised hell out of each other on that last world tour. For decades we'd sat in lonely rooms, quietly relishing an intimate connection rarely mentioned in polite company. Suddenly there we all were, blinking in our tens of thousands at rammed-earth wineries and entertainment centres as a small grey man blinked back with hat over heart.

How did that happen?

The longest stealth campaign in music biz history is one explanation. In pop culture's terms of reference, the 78 years covered by this latest and largest biography begin in a world of antiquity. Cohen's earliest published poems predate Ginsberg's Howl and Kerouac's On the Road, let alone Heartbreak Hotel.

In his own mind he was a romantic hero by the end of World War II. As a 13-year-old boy he would walk the lonely streets of Montreal in the wee hours with his impeccably tailored collar (his wealthy family's business) turned up against the sleet, "a history of injustice in his heart, a face too noble for revenge", as he wrote not too long after, "loved by two or three beautiful women who could never have him".

Sylvie Simmons' access to such brilliantly self-mocking words - spoken, written, published and otherwise - is a boon and a gauntlet to her as biographer. Self-knowledge is Cohen's stock in trade and the unflinching truth, hard won and lightly given, his raison d'etre as an artist. His letters and interviews are so charming and insightful that knowing when to stop quoting them may have been her hardest task.

Her skill is in adapting such sources - Cohen's poetic peers and lovers naturally share degrees of his clarity and eloquence - to place us in vivid scenes from his extraordinary life.

The sheer breadth of these, from the early 60s' hash-smoking, partner-swapping literary enclave of his Greek island home, to his quiet farewell to lifelong depression at the feet of a Hindu mystic early in the new century, might make any 78-year-old sigh with envy.

Seemingly within a breath of his decision to pursue the singer's vocation as a relatively old man of 33, we are plunged loins-deep into the Chelsea Hotel orgy of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, where Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin are instant equals, if not exactly friends for the lone, drifting foreigner with his sharp suit and cheap typewriter.

At various points of departure - from countries, from relationships, into LSD binges and war zones and crises of confidence - Simmons' core suggestion is that "Leonard seemed to thrive on this paradox of distance and intimacy"; that the tension between his romantic distance from the world and his consuming passion to engage and inspire it is the engine driving his life and work.

Her subject beats her to that revelation, too. In his debut novel of 1963, The Favourite Game, Cohen's alter-ego writes to a lover: "If you let me I'd always keep you 400 miles away and write you pretty poems and letters . . . I'm afraid to live any place but in expectation."

It's a place ripe for God, Simmons observes. Her story gives equal weight to Cohen's artistic pursuits and his spiritual quest, from the intellectual Judaic discourse of his upbringing to the Zen Buddhist retreat on Mt Baldy, California, where he was ordained a monk in 1996. Even there, the exquisite tragicomedy of his life's work is reflected back at him: "You can't live in God's world," says his ancient Japanese master, Roshi. "There are no restaurants or toilets."

Simmons' portrait of Leonard Cohen endorses what most of his fans know, from his crippling perfectionism as a writer and recording artist, to a devotion to beautiful women which is religious in its own right. It's telling that lucid input from a wealth of collaborators and long-term lovers, from Marianne and Suzanne (not the one in the song, as it happened) to Rebecca de Mornay and Anjani, is almost unanimously affectionate, without ignoring passing stains on his perceived sainthood.

Ultimately it's the artist's sheer dedication, over so many years, to reconciling such extremes that leads us to gasp over skeletally produced CDs and slim volumes in lonely rooms, and to stand in rapt ovations in wineries and entertainment centres. Simmons' best news for them is that even after all those prayers, he's not done yet.

The West Australian

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