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Leonard Cohen: A dark, brooding and loving genius

By ALAN SMASON, Special to the CCJN

Leonard Cohen (Photo courtesy of Old Ideas, LLC)

Two years ago the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal (MAC) organized an exhibit on Canada’s favorite son writer, composer, singer and cultural icon, Leonard Cohen. Titled “A Crack in Everything,” the immersive and interactive exhibit included a collection of commissioned works from artists who cite Cohen as a major influence on their own artistic endeavors.

Two months ago in mid-April, the Jewish Museum along historic museum row overlooking Central Park in New York, opened its doors to welcome visitors in the U.S. to view the same exhibit, the first stop on an extended tour that will eventually take the curated works to Copenhagen and then to San Francisco.

The title is a reference to Cohen’s 1992 song “Anthem” released on his dark album “The Future.” His lyrics read: 

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

A man with an incredibly loyal following, Leonard Cohen was an inspiration to so many other artists, many of whom contributed to the exhibit. Among the commissioned works on display at the Jewish Museum are those by contemporary artists Kara Blake, Candice Breitz, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Christophe Cassol, Daily tous les jours, Tacita Dean, Kota Ezawa, George Fok, Ari Folman, Jon Rafman and Tarkyn Simon.

A hallway in the Jewish Museum now showing “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything” till September 8, 2019. (Photo courtesy the Jewish Museum)

It wouldn’t be right to refer to visual arts without including some of the artist’s own renderings in the form of more than 240 self images culled from his own personal collection. These are also on display at the exhibit.

Leonard Norman Cohen was born into an affluent Jewish family in Montreal in September of 1934, the second child of Masha Klinitsky-Klein and Nathan Bernard Cohen. Leonard’s paternal grandfather, Lyon Cohen, was a well-known figure and philanthropist in the Jewish community there. He had founded the Freedman Company, one of the largest of clothing manufacturers in Canada.

As a result of his father’s early passing when Leonard was only nine years of age, his religious devotion to Judaism was strengthened and throughout his life – even during those times when he became a Buddhist priest – he never stopped identifying as a Jew. Cohen, whose first prowess was as a writer wrote in “Book of Mercy,” his 1984 book of poetry, and in his song “Lover Lover Lover” of the connection to his father and his embarrassed connection to the sons of Aaron, the priests of the ancient Temples.

The brooding Leonard Cohen. (Photo by Barry Marsden)

As a burgeoning poet, he was mentored by Louis Dudek and Hugh MacLennan at McGill University. In fact his first poetry collection (“Let Us Compare Mythologies”) was released in 1956 as part of the McGill Poetry Series established by Dudek.  

Following his graduation, he became an expatriate living in London for several years before finding a spot on Hydra, the Greek island that would become his base for five years. It was there that he met Marianne Ihien, his longtime companion and muse for whom he wrote several more volumes of poetry (“The Spice Box of Earth” and “Flowers for Hitler”) and two promising novels “The Favourite Game” in 1963 and “Beautiful Losers three years later.

Cohen was already in his thirties when John Hammond signed him to a contract at Columbia Records. Hammond, the man who had earlier signed Bob Dylan to the same company, was convinced that the poet was in reality a songwriter and the album “Songs of Leonard Cohen” was released in 1967 with two of his most popular pieces “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne,” written for his lover.

Cohen would often tell the story in concert of how he had been duped into signing away his artist’s royalties for the popular song “Suzanne” by an unnamed and unscrupulous recording industry figure. He reasoned to his audience that no one really deserved to make money off “such a perfect song.”

While many attempted to lump Cohen into the same category as folk singers like Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and Dylan, his was in reality a post-folk approach to music. His second album “Songs from a Room” was another critical success in 1969 with its noted song “Bird on a Wire.”

One of Cohen’s own self-portraits.

Cohen spent much of his time over the next several years at the Chelsea Hotel and wrote a famous song there (“Chelsea Hotel No. 2”) about his impromptu relationship with a young and up and coming Janis Joplin. Prior to his 1974 release of “New Skin for the Old Ceremony,” the singer-poet traveled to Europe and, for the first time, to Israel. 

His “Death of a Ladies’Man” in 1978 was accompanied by a book of poetry released under a similar title (“Death of a Lady’s Man”). Then, came a period of solitude for the artist, a period of introspection and isolation. His release of “Various Positions” in 1984 contained two of his most iconic hit songs “Hallelujah” and “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

With the release of “I’m Your Man,” a reinvigorated and readied performer was back on the music scene. The album garnered passionate critical reviews and engaged a new generation unfamiliar with his earlier works. Aside from the title song, two of his more noted works on the album were “First We Take Manhattan” and “Tower of Song.” It was a best seller in Europe and in the U.S.

When Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” was released, a number of Cohen’s songs went into the soundtrack and that increased his visibility and his musical outreach.

“Listening to Leonard” on the Jewish Museum’s third floor. (Photo by Frederick Charles)

In 1994, Cohen was in search of new meaning for his life and entered into a period where he became a full-time Buddhist monk. This was an offshoot of his exposure to Zen Buddhism in the early 1970s and an attempt on his part to clean up his life and free himself from the vagaries of alcohol, medications and his attachment to women.

Columbia Records continued to release a number of live albums during his five-year absence, which included “Cohen Live: Leonard Cohen Live in Concert,” “More Best of Leonard Cohen” and “Field Commander Cohen: The Tour of 1979.”

He returned to the stage in 2008 after 15 years and toured to make money to replace the funds that his manager had stolen while he was turning inward. In one year alone, he held 246 concerts.

“Passing Through,” a multichannel video by George Fok. (Photo by Frederick Charles)

He released “Old Ideas” in 2012 and in 2014 his thirteenth and studio album, “Popular Problems.” Two years later his final release of “You Want It Darker” predated his death by 19 days. The world mourned for Leonard Cohen on November 7, 2016.

The ground floor has the most impressive of immersive listening rooms showing several screens of Cohen at various ages in his life. Oftentimes, in “Passing Through” by George Fok, Cohen may be seen singing several of the same songs in his middle age and then in his latter age in a multichannel video experience. The connection of music to the videos is overpowering and not unlike a genuine concert experience. 

“I Heard There Was A Secret Chord” (after the 2017 work of the same title), 2018. Participatory audio installation, including an octagonal wooden structure, microphones, speakers, transducers, and digital display. Courtesy of Daily tous les jours.(Photo by Frederick Charles)

One of the interactive displays found on the museum’s third floor is “Listening to Leonard,” a multimedia environment with covers of his works by a number of artists and lighting designs that change with each selection by Jocelyn Labonté. 

Another work on the second floor by Kara Blake, a Montreal artist, also immerses visitors in videos and Cohen’s music. An installation by Jane Cardiff and George Bures Miller titled “The Poetry Machine” allows Cohen’s voice to be sampled by the depression of keys on a Wurlitzer organ connected to old speakers and a gramophone horn. Each key contains a different poem recited by the artist.

Another interactive work by Candice Breitz allows visitors to connect to a worldwide community of Cohen’s fans, where 18 participants sing selections from the album “I’m Your Man.”

With “I Heard There Was a Secret Chord,” participants hum into special microphones that connect to Cohen’s website and fans throughout the world, a reference to his song “Hallelujah.” The number of people around the world connected to the exhibit through the website flashes above, while the hum is reverberated through the octagonal structure upon which visitors can sit or place their hands.

In short, no matter whether one is a fan of his poetry, his novels, his music or his gravely voice, there is a world of his artistic vision to be experienced with this exhibit. 

“Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything” continues at the Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Avenue at E. 92nd St. in New York City now through September 8, 2019. For tickets click here.  For more information call 212.423.3200

Selected photos from the exhibit:




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