Paper of Record Knocks Beloved Bard Down a Peg
Can a dead man get too big for his britches?
You wouldn’t think so, as decomposition takes its toll, but someone at the New York Times Book Review must have thought it was about time to cut Leonard Cohen down to size. So it assigned a hit job, one that would not only attack the essence of his artistry, but also the taste of all those misguided dupes who had fallen for this charlatan.
Hence, “Hallelujah Chorus,” published January 6, which is ostensibly a review of his posthumous collection, The Flame: Poems, Notebooks, Lyrics, Drawings. Such collections are easy pickings for reviewers–clean-out-the-closet affairs, acknowledged and dismissed quickly enough, after picking through the gems amid the rubble. It may be Cohen’s last work, but by no means his best. It’s a memento in memoriam for fans, a handsome volume that humanizes the artist.
A reviewer might fairly take its measure and move on, but the Times had bigger game in sight. It apparently commissioned a piece that would not only dismiss a single volume, but would address Leonard Cohen’s entire existence as an affront to the hallowed halls of literature. And it had the right critic in mind for the task, William Logan, a poet and professor, but best-known within the insular circles of verse as “the most hated man in American poetry.” He was notorious for wielding an acid pen, and he took pride in this, reportedly embracing that sobriquet to blurb his own work.
So the Times knew what to expect, and Logan didn’t disappoint. In his full-page bodyslam of a review, Logan aims high and hits low. The actual volume under review is small potatoes, an insignificant bystander. He uses it as an excuse to excoriate not only Cohen’s career and legacy, his voice and his libido, but the popular culture that has inflated his reputation to the point where someone, a brave voice and inordinately perceptive critic, would need to puncture that balloon.
Of Cohen, he writes, “his heart-on-his-sleeve misery [is] no more appealing than plunging your hands into boiling tar.” His voice is a “painful growl, like a halibut with strep throat.” Logan writes of his subject’s “famous vanity and his equally famous lechery,” and dismisses his poems as “monotonous scribbles of the moody-undergraduate school.”
And he concludes that Cohen is one of those “artists who attract an adoration that seems such a colossal mistake we can only shake our heads in bewilderment. Those who love Cohen may find in this gallimaufry the answer to their prayers. For everyone else, the only proper reaction is to shutter the windows and wait for the fever to pass.”
What’s the point? Why such mean-spirited indignance? Why the full-scale assault on an artist whose work means so much to so many, who is renowned among those few at the very top tier of modern troubadours—Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and maybe a couple of others. If Cohen instead of Dylan had won that Nobel, it might even have sparked less controversy, particularly if he’d still been alive to accept it. Because he would have accepted it graciously. Everything he did, he did graciously. And he had the literary credentials beyond his songs to justify such a selection.
Yet here he rests, two years dead, charged with alleged vanity and celebrated lechery, as if artists were generally celibate saints and shrinking violets. Whatever any of this has to do with that one volume under review, it plainly represents so much more. You’d have to have been stewing about this for decades to erupt with such force. Logan had been gathering ammunition, and he attacked with all he had.
Such a review inevitably reveals a lot less about the subject than it does about the critic, a critic who appears to lack the generosity of spirit and self-deprecating humor that abound in the work of Cohen. The warmth of humanity, one might say. A critic who here seems so small and sounds so bitter. Who grinds his ax and then swings it so wildly, swinging and missing and swinging and missing. And to what purpose?
It’s hard to blame the scorpion for its sting, or the poisonous snake for the venom of its bite. You hire the most hated man in American poetry, and, as the kids say, “haters gonna hate.” Logan was just doing his job, upholding his own vaunted reputation by trashing the other’s. The question of “To what purpose?” might better be asked of the NYTBR, the ones that commissioned this to be the last word and perhaps final critical testament on a revered cultural figure. For this is the paper of record, or it once was, and for now that record says, “Cohen sucks.”
He doesn’t. And he wouldn’t, even if he had never signed a recording contract and set his rhymes to melody. Before he refashioned himself as a troubadour, a little late in the game that Dylan had changed so radically, he had achieved a measure of literary renown as a published poet and novelist. He wasn’t a songwriter whose lyrics wilted on the page; he was an accomplished writer who had to learn to present himself as a singer and performer.
“I was born like this, I had no choice,” Cohen drolly rasped in “Tower of Song.” “I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” He actually grew into it, deepened and matured, so that he was a far more mesmerizing vocalist through his 60s and beyond than he had been when he had started out and was half that age. He learned to approach song as incantation, to surround himself with other voices and instruments that would let those words take wing. His backing vocalists, his eclectic ensemble, his band that drew from everywhere to coalesce into a singular sound and vision, helped the depth of that vocal rumbling soar toward transcendence.
And, all along, he and his audience were in on the same joke, as if the joke were the human condition, with death as its punch line. “You Want It Darker” he asked in the song that would provide the title for the 2016 album he had pretty much recorded on his deathbed. Under the shadow cast by Trump’s election, Cohen breathed his last, and he snuck away. There was poetic justice in that, that he wasn’t around to face the future that he had predicted so darkly and prophetically in his 1992 album, The Future.
That album could stand as his midcareer masterwork, though the truer evidence of his mastery, even musical majesty, would come with the live recordings, both audio and visual, that documented concert performances in more recent years that were like no other. They were as much theater or performance art as musical concert, closer in spirit to something deeper than entertainment. His performances stretched past epic Springsteen lengths, so strenuous for a man of uncertain health, pushing 75, with no extended saxophone or keyboard breaks for interludes. And the material was so consistently transcendent that it collapsed time, left you wanting more.
They showed the depth of a catalogue unmatched in contemporary songwriting, making old and new sound all of a piece, a piece of chamber music. The performances breathed new life into the standards—“Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire,” the overly-recorded “Hallelujah”—while more recent fare such as “Waiting for the Miracle” and “Democracy” showed that his writing had become so much more pointed and provocative. He sang of the holy and the broken, the sacred and the profane, as they danced until the end of love.
If you witnessed one of those performances, of a man so filled with life while staring into the abyss of the inevitable, you will never forget it. You might even feel that it had changed you. You had become a part of what William Logan dismisses with a sneer as “the cult of Leonard Cohen, the thousands who flocked to concert after concert, leaving with a feeling of illumination or exaltation, the sort of things for which people usually receive get-well cards.”
People usually receive get-well cards to recover from exaltation?
Yes, Cohen’s fan base is a loyal lot, and the attack on their hero sparked predictable outrage. Maybe the sort of response the NYTBR had anticipated and desired, as it had reduced Cohen’s artistic legacy to the chum and churn of click-bait.
In response to a Facebook posting of the review, one veteran New York music critic wrote, “This isn’t a review, it’s an assassination of someone already dead.” A Chicago visual artist replied more heatedly, “What an asshole. . . William Logan…who the fuck is he?… he just made my list…I will wait in the tall weeds for this motherfucker…you’d be amazed at what a small world it actually is…I have a sack of Dimes…”
Other critics rose to the critic’s defense, one saying that he’d never quite gotten Cohen either. Which is fine, and valid. Most listeners didn’t “get” Dylan early on either, particularly his voice. And a lot of the most powerful art is also the most polarizing. Anyone whom everybody loves is probably not pushing the hot buttons, or probing the darkest recesses.
Some might even see Logan’s review as a refreshing antidote to the prevailing trend in criticism, criticism of popular music in particular, that “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Cohen is fair game, as is anyone who puts work out there for public consumption, and a posthumous collection of largely unpublished latter-day jottings is a prime target for potshots, if one wants to take them.
But Logan’s review doesn’t limit itself to that volume, or to Cohen’s poetry, or his writing for print, or even his life and legacy as a performing songwriter. Even if Logan had limited himself to addressing all of that and had decided, “I don’t get it. It’s not for me,” that would be fine. As he writes toward the conclusion, “There are artists we don’t understand whom we are happy for others to love.”
Cohen, he makes plain, is not one of them. He is a fraud, one who must be exposed, unmasked. And those who fell for him are simpletons, who must have their noses rubbed in the excrement of their bad taste. This is a prime example of the “emperor has no clothes” review, in which the masses are blind, and only the critic can see clearly. It’s the sort of smug elitism that gives criticism a bad rap.
Fortunately, the evidence remains. For anyone who wants to seek out the recordings, the videos of live performance, and, yes, the pages upon pages of poetry and fiction, the artistry of Leonard Cohen is amply clothed indeed, even when it cuts so close to the bone of naked truth. The work redeems itself.
It’s the critic who lies exposed.