The Flame: Poems Notebooks Lyrics Drawings
By Leonard Cohen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2018
Leonard Cohen used to say of his talent as a poet or musician that he didn’t have any chops, plural, but rather a chop, one chop, and he played it over and over. Same kinds of songs with the same kinds of themes: sex and loss and death and God, his own ineptitude, women’s beauty. And then toward the end of his career the focus fell mostly upon his own smallness in the world: sagging looks, withering body, shortcomings and failures in romance and work.
He was often prompted by fans and reporters to tell the story of his meeting with Bob Dylan. The two singer-songwriters met for an hour in a Paris café in the 1980s to trade compliments and talk about work.
Cohen says to Dylan, “I love your song ‘I and I,’ how long did it take to write?”
Dylan tells him it took fifteen minutes. Then he returns the compliment, says he loves Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” (this was back in the fifteen years after its release, on 1984’s Various Positions, when nobody knew of it). “How long did it take to write?”
“Five years,” says Cohen. Recounting the story in later years with a big squinty grin, a breathy chuckle, he’d say that he’d lied about the “five years” thing. It actually took longer.
Cohen was slow about getting things done. Even wrote a song about it. (“All your moves are swift / all your turns are tight / let me catch my breath / I thought we had all night.”) He’d routinely allow several years to pass between albums, subject to a creative process that called for the writing of 80 verses before whittling it down to six, or re-writing a song countless times from scratch. The actress Rebecca De Mornay, Cohen’s ex-girlfriend, talks in Sylvie Simmons’s biography of Cohen, I’m Your Man, about hearing different versions of his song “A Thousand Kisses Deep” nearly a decade before it was recorded. It’s a song that Cohen went on editing for the rest of his life. A stroll through YouTube shows a slight change to the lyrics in every live performance.
His last two albums carried songs he’d been working on for a decade or longer, “Born in Chains” and “Treaty,” both of them elegiac, hopeful, and, like “Hallelujah,” colored with Cohen’s own brand of ever-more-muddled spirituality: a bit of the Jewish tradition to which he was born, the New Testament stories by which he was so enchanted, and the Buddhism he practiced up on that mountaintop California monastery, Mt. Baldy, where he lived in a small room for a few years in the 1990s. There, after waking at 4 a.m. to meditate with the other monks, Cohen cooked for the residents and tended simple chores. In his spare time he drew self-portraits on an old Macintosh and wrote poems. He had a car there and every now and then he’d drive down the mountain for a fish sandwich from McDonald’s, a glass of wine at home.
In 2005, after leaving Mt. Baldy, Cohen found that his financial manager, Kelly Lynch, had stolen and squandered the several million dollars he’d put away for retirement. “What can I do?” Cohen said at the time. “I [have] to go to work. I have no money left.”
So it was financial ruin that precipitated his career-defining comeback and, in time, a creative renaissance. At 74 he embarked, for the first time in a decade, on a two-year world tour, finishing in 2010. Performing his old songs gave life to new ones.
In 2012 he released Old Ideas, a beautifully meditative, brooding, and strangely happy album that laid off the synthesizer that he’d outgrown in the 1980s but wouldn’t stop using, and showcased a new gravelly depth to his trademark baritone – one that fell deeper still with 2014’s Popular Problems and finally came to resemble the murmurs of sea life with his final (and maybe greatest) album, You Want It Darker, released just a few weeks before his death in 2016.
Cohen was writing ‘til his final hour. Compression fractures in his spine had more or less confined him to a medical arm chair from which he recorded You Want it Darker, and jotted some final verse, and when he proved allergic to the pain medicine that might have eased the ache in his back he resorted to some of the meditative habits he’d practiced in Mt. Baldy fifteen years prior. And the meditation seemed to make him more pensive than usual. He spoke often of the curious comfort in putting his affairs in order: settling his will and saying goodbyes.
With a strict work regimen and the near-constant company of friends, collaborators, children and grandchildren (not to mention the streaming notices of critical rapture at his latest album), the portrait of Leonard Cohen’s final days makes for the closest thing to what – barring the pain – an artist might call a perfect ending.
But still, in a deathbed interview with New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick, Cohen gave voice to some regret, knowing he’d never be able to finish all the projects he had underway. There were more of them than usual, it seemed, and he was excited to see how they’d shape up.
“In a certain sense,” he told Remnick, “this particular predicament [i.e. working from his deathbed] is filled with many fewer distractions…and actually enables me to work with a little more concentration and continuity than when I had duties of making a living, being a husband, being a father.”
Some of these unfinished projects are contained in The Flame, Cohen’s new posthumous collection of poems and lyrics and drawings; which, if you remember it, looks and reads like a direct sequel to Book of Longing, another decades-in-the-making project that Cohen pushed into the world in 2006, perhaps prematurely, as the first step of his comeback. (Cohen won his lawsuit against Lynch, incidentally, but everybody basically shrugged at the $8 million award. There was no way he’d ever collect it.)
The Flame is beautiful in places, incoherent and repetitive and cringingly bad in others, but it’s a delight for longtime Cohen fans who might care to see, firsthand, the writing process he so often discussed: having to write something out before he knows if it’s any good, the unruly sprawl of the first draft, the self-counseling.
She phoned me from a long way off
just the other night
She’s working in a private Club
and she doesn’t mind the life
She meant to talk 3 minutes
while they showed a silent movie
but we weren’t very busy
so we spoke till it was bright
She asked if I was busy/happy
and what the weather’s like
we weren’t doing very much
so we spoke till it was light
so we whispered half the night
I wasn’t doing very much
& the weather’s right
& the weather’s been all right
Note the sloppiness of the verse but the clarity of the image, the way he starts frantically rhyming at the end as though talking himself through it, feeling around in the dark – it’s interesting because, if you know his style well enough, you can almost hear the song that would’ve eventually sprouted from this. It’s the kind of smoky, nostalgic, noir-ish latenight imagery we see in tracks like “I’m Your Man” and “Everybody Knows” and “Anyhow” and “Travelling Light”. Not so mesmerizing on the page, but to daydream about how lean and clean and clever the final draft would have been, and how beautifully he’d have growled it, makes for a moving and bittersweet experience.
So a fan will be delighted, for sure.
An average reader, not so much.
What’s cemented by reading The Flame, poring over Cohen’s words when they’re isolated from the music and his baritone, is that a lot of it is the same; and, worse yet, a lot of it isn’t very good. Some of it is terrible. He was the master of the lyrical verse that, meaning nothing, could also be argued to mean everything and anything. And sometimes that’s good! Even “Hallelujah” has some of it. “All I ever learned from love / is how to shoot at someone / who outdrew you.” What does that mean? Well, it depends on your mood. Probably nothing at 9 a.m. But have a couple drinks at midnight and suddenly it’s profound.
Sometimes, in the voice of his self-effacing stage character (a man named Leonard whom he details in “Going Home”, the first song on Old Ideas), we get a fun and self-aware kind of meaninglessness. Like when he recounts, suddenly, what appears to be a dream.
there was a narrow camp bed
close to the door
with fresh sheets
and a light blanket
I snuggled into
the bed and began to listen
intently to the confession
the young woman was
making to her therapist
I don’t remember what she was
saying but she stopped
abruptly and said:
“Leonard Cohen is listening to us”
Cohen, with his deep voice and fedora and his big smile and Zen-like demeanor of soft-spoken humility, is, ultimately, a character. Sex-obsessed and a little solipsistic, like Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski, he’s more charming than those guys. Sweeter. He was kind of unbearable as a young man but turned, in his 70s, into something avuncular. Carried on with a dignified and lyrical vulgarity. He was romantic, well-intentioned, tender.
And then there’s the simple charm of a skinny old man who tells you up front that he knows he’s no good, smiles and shrugs and tells you he knows he’s ugly and only marginally talented, but who persists, with total resignation to his limits, in doing what he does, doing it as best he can, celebrating his one simple chop and perfecting it.
Alex Sorondo is a writer and film critic living in Miami and the host of the Thousand Movie Project. His fiction has been published in First Inkling Magazine and Jai-Alai Magazine.