In late December 1964 Leonard Cohen gave a memorable speech entitled "Loneliness and History" at the Jewish Library in Montreal.
Cohen spoke that night about his admiration for men in the ancient Hebrew tradition who were both priests and prophets at the same time. He concluded by defending the abstract idea of a Jewish community and its ancient traditions.
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In his new book "A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen," Liel Leibovitz says this was a seminal moment in Cohen's career: transforming a young experimental artist into a dedicated troubadour who spent his career hell-bent on telling the truth.
From the start Leibovitz makes it clear that this is not a biography but an insight into what gave direction to the singer's moral compass.
The author begins true to his word, tracing the trajectory of Cohen's early influences, including his grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, a well-known scholar in the Montreal Jewish community, and the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.
From his grandfather, Cohen inherited a vision of Judaism that looked at the darker side of the Old Testament, highlighting mankind's propensity for evil. This was rarely spoken about in the respectable, middle-class Jewish community Cohen came from. And it provided the aspiring young writer with a wealth of material to work with.
The sensual lines of Lorca, meanwhile, demonstrated to Cohen that the existential ennui he felt could be translated into something divine and spiritual.
Leibovitz sees the Canadian songwriter as a wandering nomad who travels in hope of one day finding the Promised Land, through a fictional story that is obsessed with redemption. This melancholic parable is very typical, says Leibovitz, of a Jewish tradition that has been around for over two millennia.
Initially this thesis seems to be building something of merit. But cracks begin to appear as the narrative moves forward. And pretty soon it falls apart.
For a start, much of this material has already been covered. In 2012, rock journalist Sylvie Simmons published a lengthy biography that was authorized by Cohen.
And, despite Leibovitz's insistence that his book is an analysis of Cohen's work, for the most part, the narrative flows in a linear, biographical mode.
We read about Cohen's travels to Cuba and Greece in the early 1960s, which supposedly informed his political beliefs for the rest of his career — although what these are exactly we are never told. Then there is the transition that Cohen made from writer to singer in the mid-1960s, when he took up residency in the Chelsea Hotel in New York.
In the 1970s, Cohen's antics became increasingly strange the more amphetamines and acid he consumed. He felt at home playing concerts in mental asylums and then felt equally uncomfortable playing conventional gigs in auditoriums, which he saw as almost sacrilegious in his role as an authentic artist. This led him to tears backstage on a number of occasions.
Other stories include Phil Spector holding a gun to Cohen's neck as he produced "Death of a Ladies' Man." Then there was the decade Cohen spent training to be a monk on Mount Baldy outside Los Angeles.
Coming down from his spiritual haven in 2004, Cohen faced bankruptcy, discovering that his former lover and manager, Kelley Lynch, had stolen millions of dollars from him.
To avoid simply repeating what Cohen's previous biographies have already told us, Leibovitz then attempts to weigh in with his own cultural commentary, hoping to finally understand Cohen the man and Cohen the artist.
But the experiment fails. What begins as a serious academic discussion — concentrating on theology and poetry — turns into lazy journalese, and Leibovitz begins making huge generalizations.
For example, he throws several insults — unfairly, I think — at The Doors, and refers to Jim Morrison as the "fat boy (who) swallowed acid," as if this swipe will somehow prove that Cohen is an artist with far more integrity.
He also states that Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were all part of a culture "seized by a death wish," when the truth — minus the mythmaking — is that they got addicted to drink and drugs and died tragically as a result.
Describing the backlash of the drug-induced free-love counterculture of the 1960s, the author says that "this was the sort of equipoise that Nietzsche had in mind when he described art balanced between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the former concerned with the sterile dictates of aesthetics and the latter with the lustful moans of arousal."
This amorphous language is filled with the kind of pomposity one might read in an abstract French anthropology essay from the 1970s, where empty rhetoric is dressed up with fancy words.
It gets worse, to the point where the prose becomes convoluted in parts. Speaking about Cohen's influence on U2's Bono, the author jokes that: "It's hard not to think of James Joyce, whom both Cohen and Bono revere, sitting in his study… laughing heartily through the night, night after night."
Before concluding, Leibovitz agrees with a journalist who refers to Cohen — in a culture now supposedly devoid of meaning — as the "ideal man for the job of 'post-financial-crisis elderly sage.'"
Thus the prophet has been proved right and arrived at the truth. We are all then invited to kneel at the altar of Leonard Cohen.
I would prefer, however, to simply retreat to my front room, where a large stash of Leonard Cohen LPs quietly resides; pick one up, stick it on the turntable, press play, turn up the volume, and get lost in that sensual pathos that cannot be described in words. Because, just sometimes, life's greatest mysteries are best left unsolved.
JP O'Malley is a freelance journalist based in London.
"A Broken Hallelujah"
By Liel Leibovitz, W.W. Norton, 281 pages, $25.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun