As a long-time admirer of Leonard Cohen’s work, I was intrigued by this book, as it appeared to focus more on the work than the biography, and there is very little of this sort of thing out there. It starts off very promisingly, with a description of the Isle of Wight festival in 1970. This is gripping and well-written. It then moves on to Cohen’s background and heritage, and his discovery of his voice as a poet. The author has drawn on the Cohen papers at the University of Toronto, and this part of the book – the early years as an acclaimed poet, later novelist, and up until roughly the time Cohen switched to singing and songwriting- is very good indeed.
At this point it seemed as though the author ran out of steam. Instead of pursuing his original thesis of the relationship between art and theology/religion, he merely rehashes biographical information that has already been covered very thoroughly in Sylvie Simmons’ excellent biography. The influence of Buddhism on Cohen’s work is a case in point. Leibovitz does not explore this at all. Yet Buddhist ideas and insights pervade Cohen’s work, from the Ballad of the Absent Mare in the 1970s to Ten New Songs, Book of Longing, etc etc in the 2000s. Book of Longing, for instance, is dismissed as “line drawings and erotic musings”. Ten New Songs is an “album [that] offered… no answers”. Really? This would have been a very rich vein to mine.
All in all, a mixed bag. Excellent in parts, but poor in others. Worth reading if you are interested in the Canadian literary scene in the fifties and sixties, and in Cohen’s early years and work. The description of the Isle of Wight festival is very good. Otherwise, not so much.