Musician, heal thyself. Over the course of his long career, the Canadian singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) honed a distinctive style that infused joy with melancholy and mixed outward calm with edgy bursts of rage at a universe unwilling to yield its meaning. He had a gift for hypnotic song lines and for sexy lyrics that flirted with the metaphysical. A constant seeker after spiritual solace and artistic inspiration, he was widely celebrated at his death as a wise prophet whose musical language could reach the soul.
But the 39-year-old Leonard Cohen to whom the acclaimed Canadian-Israeli author Matti Friedman introduces us in his latest book, “Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai,” has not yet become that idolized figure. He is, instead, an artist who at midlife feels stuck, stalled and riven by inner demons.
How Cohen finds his way through this personal impasse is an intriguing, parable-like tale of a pacifism-leaning troubadour who rediscovers his purpose in the Sinai desert during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. But it is more than that. As viewed through Friedman’s reportorial lens, Cohen’s journey also becomes part of the much broader historical saga of Israel and the Jewish diaspora. And as Cohen’s many fans can attest, the music that resulted from this uncanny intersection is almost revelatory.
Friedman sets the scene by reminding us that starting well before 1973, Cohen had a reputation for being gloomy and restless, prone to depression and drugs, and whether high or sober a seductive charmer of women. Even so, by 1973, the popularity of such songs as “Suzanne” and “Bird on the Wire” had brought him professional prestige and financial security. To outside observers, he also seemed to have achieved more than a measure of domestic stability, if not bliss, in the home he had made for himself and his romantic partner, the photographer Suzanne Elrod, and their infant son on the idyllic Greek island of Hydra.
For Cohen, though, the place was not paradise but purgatory. Publicly, he announced his decision to retire from music. Privately, he lashed out at Suzanne, declared that he felt trapped by fatherhood and railed against his own failings with savage self-loathing. In the brutally candid pages from an unpublished manuscript that Friedman was given permission to excerpt here, Cohen described himself as “gritting my teeth from looking at the wreck of beauty and living inside of hatred and keeping to my side of the bed and always screaming no this can’t be my life inside my head.”
He also wrote that as he listened, in October 1973, to reports of the outbreak of war between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria, “I wanted to go fight and die.” Enraged and distraught, he decided on an impulse — was it a suicidal one? — to catch the next flight to Tel Aviv.
Friedman does not pursue this possible hint at thoughts of self-harm, instead framing Cohen’s literal flight to Israel as his escape from the emotional and artistic dead end he believed he had reached. But even though Cohen never made any intention clear in his unpublished papers, his dark emotional state sounds uncomfortably close to what suicidal depression can feel like. When he left, he took nothing with him, not even a guitar. It was only by chance that after he arrived in Tel Aviv, as he sat at a cafe in numb exhaustion and unsure of what would come next, a group of Israeli musicians recognized him; and it was only their persistence that persuaded him to join them in performing for the besieged troops at the front. Whether you call that an intervention, an accident or a miracle, after the Israeli musicians located a spare guitar for him, Cohen began to sing again, and he never stopped.
Or perhaps Cohen’s almost instinctual urge to go to Israel was also driven by a different kind of compulsion. Friedman notes that Cohen’s previous visit, in 1972, was a fiasco. His concert performance in Jerusalem was a debacle, brought on by his taking acid backstage before he went on and then walking off mid-show. Cohen would later say that performing in Jerusalem had unnerved him, making him feel that his Jewishness was inauthentic. This despite the fact that he had grown up in a prominent Orthodox Jewish family in Montreal, was well versed in religious tradition as well as in Jewish mysticism, and felt connected to Israel as his “myth home.” He had also been taught to take seriously his heritage as a “Cohen,” a descendant of the ancient temple’s high priests. But in his own judgment he had felt unworthy, inadequate. Perhaps this visit would allow him to prove he was the real thing after all.
The first stop for Cohen and his colleagues was the Hatzor air base. A pilot who was resting there between bombing missions told Friedman that learning that Cohen would be playing at the base “was like news of an alien landing.” Yet sitting there in his flight suit, still going over the losses of the day, and despite not understanding all of the English words, he felt that Cohen’s music “spoke to me … it penetrated the heart.” This sentiment was echoed in Friedman’s interviews with the many other troops who heard Cohen as he went from one base or encampment to another. It touched them, they told Friedman, “to know that someone like Cohen had come all the way to Israel and traveled to Sinai and even crossed the Suez Canal to be with them.”
Even beyond that, Friedman writes, Cohen’s music moved his listeners on an emotional level, “like the best prayers. The melody served the function ascribed to music by the Hasidic rabbis, that is, to make feeling and meaning available to those unable or unwilling to understand the words, or even to suggest feelings and meanings for which words fall short.” This time around, Cohen seemed to be proving himself worthy indeed.
Among the songs Cohen sang was his newest, composed between shows at his very first stop. It was an early version of “Lover Lover Lover,” which would become one of his best-known songs. Already, in reviving the spirits of the soldiers, he was starting to revive his own. “I came to raise their spirits, and they raised mine,” Cohen said of his time in the Sinai.
That renewal would continue after the war ended. In 1974, still reflecting on the Yom Kippur War, he would compose “Who by Fire.” The phrase comes from the solemn prayer chanted every Yom Kippur, the Unetaneh Tokef, which gravely asks us to consider what fate the next year may hold for each of us, who will die and who will live. Cohen had been close to death, and had seen death, on the battlefield in the Sinai. But he did not die there; he was reborn. One might even say he chose life, afterward, by returning to his partner Suzanne and having a second child with her, and sitting down to compose song after song after song, including “Anthem” and “Hallelujah.” It’s a choice that continues to give us reason to sing along in thanks.
Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.”
Leonard Cohen in the Sinai
Spiegel and Grau. 206 pages. $27.