Singer, songwriter, and poet Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) wanted to be remembered above all as a good father.
In an affectionate, closely observed memoir, novelist, screenwriter, and film producer Lerner (Pinkerton’s Secret, 2008, etc.) recounts a friendship that began in 1977 and lasted until Cohen’s death. At the time they met, Cohen “was already intent on keeping his private life as far removed from the limelight of his career as possible.” In fact, his career was not flourishing: He wanted to be acclaimed as a serious poet or literary novelist but instead performed as a singer to support himself, his ex-wife, and two children. Lerner describes Cohen as “an ethereal being” whose “vital energy resided above his shoulders.” The men shared a two-family house for many years, and despite decades of difference in their ages, became confidants. “Somehow,” Lerner writes, “he determined that I could understand him without explanation.” And Lerner felt equally understood: “he knew I was heading into the same difficult waters he was treading, fighting the riptide and the undertow.” Those difficult waters included professional obstacles (Cohen “tried to hold his life together with chewing gum and Scotch tape”), disappointments in love, and a deep spiritual quest. They both sought guidance from Japanese-born Rinzai Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi, engaging in ritualized practices and periods of meditation known as sesshin. A shared desire to understand their true natures, plumb the depths of their souls, and find enlightenment recurred in their ongoing conversations, which Lerner presents verbatim. They also discussed Cohen’s frustrated efforts to further his career; only after his manager embezzled all his money did he launch a tour that met with wild enthusiasm. More than performing, though, Lerner says that for Cohen, fatherhood “defined his life.” When he was with his children (who lived mostly with their mother), he didn’t try “to entertain, amuse, or distract” but instead “to enchant. That’s the kind of father Leonard was.” More than once, he told Lerner “on his gravestone they should just put: Father.”
A sensitive portrait of a sly, charming, complicated man.