Leonard Cohen

Posted March 12, 2009 in

One of the gauges you can use to measure your true indie coolness is whether you own a Leonard Cohen album or not. Or a novel, or a book of poetry. Because while Bob Dylan is the everyman’s protest singer (and he knows it), Cohen appeals to a grittier niche and to the darker side of human emotions: solitude, suicide, and disenfranchisement—and he does it without Dylan’s superior attitude. Cohen never even wanted to be a singer-songwriter, in fact, and that’s what makes him even more enigmatic and enticing. He’d probably tell you that you’re a crazy bastard for thinking he’s interesting at all, of course. Which only makes him even more so.


Like his other conquered mediums, Cohen also never intended to be an artist—he just loved to draw and paint. And now, his notebooks filled with sketches and paintings have found their way into print in his long awaited book of poems Book of Longing as accompaniment to the verse, songs and prose, serving as simple representations of moments and milestones: a woman he’s left behind, a day he didn’t feel so good about, a glance in the mirror that reminded him he was old. The book is standard Cohen stoically ripping himself open and letting his guts fall out for you to trouble over, identify with and ultimately reconcile. And the images just reinforce the honesty with which he cuts to the bone.


Though Book of Longing was released in 2006, it was just recently turned into a performance piece, scored by Philip Glass and premiered at Claremont’s Garrison Theatre last month. In conjunction with the performance, Claremont McKenna College has put up an exhibit of over 50 prints of Cohen’s work from those notebooks and his private collection—and they’re magnificent. The numerous self-portraits with poignant remarks such as “they gave me a medal for dreaming of you” and “much hangs down from the ladder of love,” are a kick, and personal declarations like, “Just one little guy with an old tweed cap. Against the universe,” reaffirm Cohen’s trademark humility and self-deprecation. 


Besides the ink portraits, Cohen also immersed himself in vibrant color—while still clinging to the essentials of simplicity. Female nudes show his penchant for the backside of a woman, and lonely guitars in dingy hallways or on solitary chairs almost become personas in themselves, maybe even companions. Who really knows, because as with most of Cohen’s work, we can only guess at what he’s truly after, and what he truly means. But ah, there is such great pleasure in the trying! (Stacy Davies)


Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing at Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, Claremont McKenna College, 385 E. 8th Street, Claremont. (909) 621-8244; www.claremontmckenna.edu/gould. Open Mon.-Fri., 8:30AM–4PM


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