75 at 75: Pico Iyer on Leonard Cohen
A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Pico Iyer writes about a recording of Leonard Cohen, who reads from his novel Beautiful Losers and a few poems. He closes with a performance of “The Stranger Song.” It was recorded live at 92Y on February 14, 1966.
Posted on Feb 14, 2014
Leonard Cohen took the stage of the 92nd Street Y on February 14, 1966, as if he had been born to live there. He was preceded on the platform by his old friend and running-mate, the bon vivant Montreal poet Irving Layton, and both of them were introduced by the distinguished biographer (also educated in Montreal) Leon Edel. Edel described Layton as “Canada’s major poet of today” and Cohen, Layton’s junior by 22 years, as someone belonging “to the younger set, to the new avant-garde.” The audience might have expected to hear a literary lion, followed by his cub.
Yet as soon as Cohen took the mike he commanded it with a rising, effortless charisma that makes one’s heart go out to the seasoned Layton, who should have been the star. Cohen was only 31 on that winter night, almost 50 years ago, and was known in Canada as an up-and-coming poet who issued invitations from the stage to women to join him in his hotel room afterward and wasn’t afraid of speaking on such themes as “the distinction between the Prophet and the Priest”; he was reading from the novel he’d just completed, in his house (lacking electricity or plumbing) on the Greek island of Hydra, Beautiful Losers, which would come out a few weeks later. Within minutes, as you listen to him now, you hear the high diction he’d come to make his own—“penitential” and “austere,” “tormented” and “battalion”—delivered in a courtly, elegant, precise voice that gives away its Canadian origins only in its “Out’s.”
In one short section he is reading of “the kingly oil of election” and deploying words like “hero” and “saint” and “ordeal”; very quickly he’s ushering his audience into a landscape of ceremonial ironies, speaking of “secret cabals of vegetarians” and intoning, “I envied you the certainty that you would amount to nothing.” Layton had revealed something of the tradition from which Cohen hailed—switching from a poem about Odysseus to one addressed “To The Girls of My Graduating Class” and referring to himself as a “quiet madman, never far from tears.” But Cohen feels much more contemporary and rooted in the streets of Montreal, even as he is already sounding like a psalmist departing slowly from a love hotel.
There is nothing boyish or unformed, in short, about Cohen, even as he honors his debts to Montreal, his hieratic elder and the Mohawk virgin before whom, he said, he sometimes lays roses and “two white transistor radios”; what you hear today, on a scratchy recording, is the outline of the Zen monk of decades later, plumbing “the old laws of suffering and obscurity.” What you also hear is a maestro who can win you over and then disappear almost in the same breath; there’s a sense of art and rhythm about every moment of his performance that won’t let you go as he begins with what might seem a quiet religious offering and slowly mounts to ever more passionate and radical flights—“God is alive. Magic is afoot”—until finally he culminates in an extraordinary revolutionary act that few could have anticipated: the performance of a folk-song at an institution consecrated to high culture.
And the heart of what he read, as a young man before a literary audience, two years away from his first recording and birth as an international heart-throb, was uncannily close to what the world has come to cherish from him over the past forty-five years: passages of moist sex governed by the laws of religion, talk of God and ritual made physical by the sweat and pant of love. Already we’re hearing of King David and “an old scholar, wild with unspecific grief” (longing for a 13-year-old); already King Midas sits unexpectedly close to references to a young girl’s “hopeless nipples.”
The audience laughs as Cohen reads and breaks into spontaneous applause; the clapping at the end is instantaneous, deafening and prolonged. And with his characteristic gift for holding people by seeming not much to care, Cohen delivers damp rhapsodies to “bare-thighed cheerleaderettes,” a tingling description of a man’s hand running up a woman’s legs in a public place, the explosion of a four-letter word announcing the act of love as “holy, dirty and beautiful.” Layton in his expansive flights sounded like an irreverent poet, Cohen like one who has put all thoughts of reverence and irreverence aside to ground himself in some higher position.
“Where is grace today?” he reads, having noted that “Women love excess in a man because it separates him from his fellows and makes him lonely.” At one moment, he is saying, “All her flesh is like a mouth” and alluding to “Beethoven panties”; at another, he is murmuring, “I was your mystery and you were my mystery and we rejoiced to learn that mystery was our home,” as if about to draft his most celebrated song, “Hallelujah,” of eighteen years on.
In response to the Y’s invitation for him to read, the year before, Cohen had sent a short, typed letter from Hydra dated “April 16, 1956,” as if he was nine years out of sync (or didn’t have a calendar at all). He’d noted that he had just finished a novel and was eager to attend if he could scrape together the money to get over to New York from Greece. The money offered by the Unterberg Poetry Center was immaterial to him, he wrote, but his performance was not. At the end of the letter, addressed to “Mr. Galen Eberl,” a handwritten P.S. asks, “Are you a man?”
Cohen in his youth, in other words, was already the exact and rhythmical soul who holds the stage in concerts from Oberhausen to Hanging Rock forty-eight years on, unafraid of put-on or proclamation, halfway already to being robed acolyte, swain of movie-stars and inductee into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He’d found his voice when he was young, and in it his allegorical landscape of goddesses and G-d. Irving Layton, whom Cohen would call “our greatest poet, our greatest champion of poetry,” and for whom Cohen had served as quasi-best man, gets all but forgotten, as does his free verse, once the pages from Cohen’s coming novel are revealed as poetry traveling in mufti, using sound as incantation to pull his audience into the spell of worldly chant.
Cohen had promised in his letter that he would “certainly prepare myself” for his performance, and he seems to have meted out and paced his every utterance for maximum effect. There is a distinct structure to his most casual-seeming riffs. And when, out of nowhere, he picks up a guitar and, for the first time ever before a large audience, delivers a song—a thin, reedy version of “The Stranger Song,” accompanied by his own strumming, voice shaky as it never was in reading his prose—you realize that this is a man made to speak to millions. He knows how to draw you in with his uncertainty as much as with his authority.
Cohenites bow before the man’s appearance at the Y as the public birth of the singer, who had just begun listening to Dylan and thinking about how to bring his literary words to a larger audience. They love the references to juntas and the Middle East—here’s the man-about-town who would sing “I’m Your Man” and “First We Take Manhattan”—and they love the laureate of privacy who is already lingering on every detail of a “garter device” and warm flesh at the top of a nearby thigh. Eighteen months earlier, the National Film Board of Canada had filmed a documentary of four Canadian poets (Layton among them) touring six eastern Canadian universities. But one of the four proved so compelling that the filmmakers edited the other three out and released the film as Ladies and Gentlemen…Leonard Cohen.
Charisma can’t be taught or made; it is—as Cohen on Hydra surely knew—a “gift from the gods” in its original meaning. Cohen had it even then, and this meant that his presence and his performance would be something even more than his super-articulate words. Leon Edel keeps mentioning how “new” Cohen is, “one step beyond” and part of a “much more peripatetic” generation.
But he was ageless from the outset. “In our kisses,” he tells the audience at the Y, “we confessed our longing to be born again.”
Pico Iyer’s most recent book, on Graham Greene, is The Man Within My Head.