“I asked my father,
I said, ‘Father, change my name!’
The one I’m using now, it’s covered up
With fear, and filth, and cowardice and shame.”
– Lover Lover Lover
To look at Leonard Cohen’s music and poetry is to look at a tapestry of themes and recurrent preoccupations. Volumes upon volumes of articles have been written, interviews have been conducted, and statements have been offered by generations of inspired songwriters about Cohen’s treatment of religion, of love, of politics, of sexuality, and of a number of other issues that his lyric has often engaged with. One recurrent theme that has haunted this beautiful man since the first conceptions of his poetry, though, has been the image of his father. This article offers a brief discussion of that, in the hope that this would perhaps open up room for more enriching dialogue in this context.
Traditionally, the eldest son in the Cohen family would be given a name whose initial letter was ‘L.’ Leonard’s great-grandfather, who first emigrated to Canada when she was still a young country (only two years after the independence), was named Lazarus. His eldest son was likewise christened Lyon. Our own songwriter, being the firstborn son himself (preceded only by an elder sister, Esther), was of course named Leonard. However, in a peculiar breach of tradition, Lyon named his eldest son Nathan, while the ‘L’-name was graciously bestowed upon a younger child, Lawrence. As to why Lyon Cohen chose to break with family tradition, one can only guess. However, in the context of inheritance, or rather, a perceived denial of the same, this aberration in the tradition of naming was perhaps a strange foreshadowing.
Passionately Jewish and fiercely nationalistic, Lyon Cohen was one was the most important members of the early Jewish community in Montreal, Canada. He staunchly believed in the value of loyalty, and urged his sons Horace and Nathan to go fight in the war for “the land, the country, and the king” (Lawerence, too young at the time, was thankfully spared the experience). Horace came home in one piece, but Nathan was not so lucky. He returned to Montreal a cripple, and his ailment would haunt him, body and mind, for the rest of his life. Leonard’s cynical, somewhat disillusioned songs on war perhaps find some matter in this experience of his father’s.
“I fought in the old revolution
On the side of the ghost and the king.
Of course I was very young,
And I thought that we were winning.
I can’t pretend I still fell very much like singing
As they carry the bodies away,
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture,
You who I cannot betray.”
Nathan’s disability kept him bedridden for months at a time. As a result, most of the responsibility of running the Cohen family was taken up by his wife Masha Klinitsky-Klein. It was Masha that the two eldest children, Esther and Leonard, grew closest to in their early years. This does not mean, of course, that Leonard had nothing to do with his father. The two of them would sometimes speak; of history, of literature, of the Jewish identity. The first person our young songwriter witnessed playing a guitar and singing was a friend of Nathan’s; a gentleman who worked for a Canadian worker’s union. Many years later, Cohen would jokingly comment in an interview that in those days, only communists played the guitar.
Nathan had always been a quiet man, reticent and thoughtful despite the flourishing business his family owned. This unassuming nature of his, coupled with his disability, ensured that the immense responsibility of handling his family’s business was not handed to him. His brothers, Horace and Lawrence, were the social and public faces of the Cohen family business, to Nathan went the far less colourful duty of supervising the factory. It doesn’t seem, though, that Nathan was particularly unhappy about this arrangement, the workers at the factory were reasonably fond of the quiet, unassuming man, and they got along well.
Although Judaism is thankfully devoid of the disturbing caste system that certain faiths allow, traditionally the ‘Cohens’ are the priests of the community. They have the honour of the leading their peers into prayer, into songs of faith. Traditionally, the firstborn son of the Cohen family is the recipient of this honour, but Nathan, as I mentioned, was never really considered the eldest in the family despite his status as firstborn. Did this raise certain inescapable questions for Leonard, who had been brought up surrounded by the images, structures, and even rigours of Judaism? If the father is denied his role as firstborn, where does that leave the son, HIS own firstborn? Have the uncles, then, usurped the father’s designated role in their own personal history? And if they have, where does Leonard stand in the bewildering expanse of that history? His poetry, as his songs, has often shouldered the weight of such questions.
“Besides the brassworks my uncle grows sad,
Discharging men to meet the various crises.
He is disturbed by greatness
And may write a book.
My father died among old sewing machines,
Echo of bridges and water in his hand.
I have his leather books now,
And startle at each uncut page.”
– Spice Box of the Earth
Elsewhere in his poetry, Cohen has returned to this moment of loss, the particular instance of his father’s death, with even greater urgency.
“Bearing gifts of flowers and sweet nuts
The family came to watch the eldest son,
And stood about his bed
While he lay on a blood-sopped pillow,
His heart half-rotted,
And his throat dry with regret.
And it seemed so obvious, the smell so present,
Quiet so necessary,
But my uncles prophesied wildly,
Promising life like frantic oracles;
And they had only stopped in the morning,
After he had died,
And I had begun to shout.”
– Let Us Compare Mythologies
His uncles, of course, had become captains of the Cohen family ship even before Nathan’s death, and Leonard sees himself inheriting little more than his father’s “leather books” in his passing. Of course, neither of Leonard’s uncles resembled the archetypal evil, usurping Claudius of folk and romance literature. Lawrence, in particular, was gracious and very concerned about Leonard’s future. He decided to sponsor Leonard’s education at the MacGill University when the latter failed to secure a scholarship. And yet, a peculiar grief and anger has haunted Leonard throughout most of his life; why did his father not explain to him what role he was inheriting from him? Why did he leave him, above all, confused?
I believe Leonard could never quite put a finger on who his father really was. In the structured hierarchy of his Jewish family, his father’s position was always precarious, and this lack of coherence has offered Leonard question after question which he has often attempted to answer in his literature. In the first novel of his career, The Favourite Game, Leonard Cohen asks himself this question. Even in deeply personal questions of his own identity, his own position, he asks, “why was my father’s pain so involved?” In Leonard’s eyes, Nathan’s image was never quite clear. And this urged him, time and again, to try and reach out to his father through a variety of familiar images by which he sought to define him; the image of Jesus Christ, the image of the forsaken soldier, the image of Abraham.
“The door it opened slowly,
My father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
His blue eyes they were shining,
And his voice was very cold.
He said, “I’ve had a vision,
And you know I’m strong and holy,
I must do what I’ve been told.”
So he started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
And his axe was made of gold.”
– Story of Isaac
Nathan, the firstborn Cohen, was still denied of his traditional responsibility to be the priest of the community, as Leonard perceived it. And, as Clive Rawlins asks in a comprehensive biography of Leonard’s, “When the priest cannot function as a priest, is he bound to become prophet?