Friday, September 6, 2019

Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything

At the beginning of the Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything exhibit at the Jewish Museum (“There’s a crack in everything...That’s how the light gets in” is how the lyric runs), it’s pointed out that the songwriter and poet got his love of suits from his father, Nathan Bernard Cohen, who owned Freedman’s, a clothing store and his love of music from his Lithuanian-born mother, Martha Klonitsky-Kline, the daughter of a Talmudic scholar. His father died when Cohen was nine and it is one of the many reasons for this complex personality’s life-long battle with depression. Finding his muse as a writer of novels like Beautiful Heroes (1966), iconic songs like “Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire” and “Anthem,” and an extensive body of poems are some of his many self-interventions. Cohen recused himself for five years, living the cloistered existence of a Zen monk. A deep connection to his Jewish upbringing also provided spiritual sustenance. Sex, drugs and rock 'n roll were part of the picture but as Cohen once said, he didn't want "to create ashes instead of fire." On the subject of making gold out of dross Cohen commented: “If you can sell your anguish you are doing one the very best possible things you can do with anguish” and he talked of returning to his hometown of Montreal “to renew his neurotic affiliations.” How self-consciously imperfect and refreshingly human are these and other similarly off-color pronunciamentos in the videos that infuse the exhibit. In terms of self-promotion, Beautiful Heroes (1966), his second novel, was actually a succes de scandale and received a good drubbing in the press for its graphic sex. It’s interesting to note that another Montreal Jew, Mordecai Richler, reminiscent of Philip Roth in his mix of antic humor and groundbreaking sexuality was making his mark as a provocateur at about the same time. “You Want It Darker” Cohen’s last album was released on October 21, 2016 and he died 19 days later. The choir of the orthodox Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in Westmount (a suburb of Montreal), which Cohen attended when he was growing up, were part of the album which the curators describe as the singer’s recitation of his own kaddish.

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