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Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan Calls Leonard Cohen 'Number 1'

Excerpted from the October 17, 2016 issue of The New Yorker
Volume 30, Issue 10,11 & 12, December 21, 2016
By

David Remnick

Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934 - November 7, 2016)

     Cohen came of age after the war. His Montreal, however, was nothing like American writers Philip Roth’s Newark or Alfred Kazin’s Brownsville. He was brought up in Westmount, a predominantly Anglophone neighborhood, where the city’s well-to-do Jews lived. The men in his family, particularly on his father’s side, were the “dons” of Jewish Montreal. 
     His grandfather, Cohen told me, “was probably the most significant Jew in Canada,” the founder of a range of Jewish institutions; in the wake of anti-Semitic pogroms in the Russian imperium, he saw to it that countless refugees made it to Canada. 
     Nathan Cohen, Leonard’s father, ran Freedman Company, the family clothing business. His mother, Masha, came from a family of more recent immigrants. She was loving, depressive, “Chekhovian” in her emotional range, according to Leonard: “She laughed and wept deeply.” 
     Masha’s father, Solomon Klonitzki-Kline, was a distinguished Talmudic scholar from Lithuania who completed a “Lexicon of Hebrew Homonyms.” Leonard went to fine schools, including McGill and, for a while, Columbia. He never resented the family’s comforts.
     “I have a deep tribal sense,” he said. “I grew up in a synagogue that my ancestors built. I sat in the third row. My family was decent. They were good people, they were handshake people. So I never had a sense of rebellion.”
     When Leonard was nine, his father died; this moment, a primal wound, was when he first used language as a kind of sacrament. “I have some memories of him,” Cohen said, and recounted the story of his father’s funeral, which was held at their house. “We came down the stairs, and the coffin was in the living room.” 
     Contrary to Jewish custom, the funeral workers had left the coffin open. It was winter, and Cohen thought of the gravediggers: it would be difficult to break the frozen ground. He watched his father lowered into the earth. 
     “Then I came back to the house and I went to his closet and I found a premade bow tie. I don’t know why I did this, I can’t even own it now, but I cut one of the wings of the bow tie off and I wrote something on a piece of paper—I think it was some kind of farewell to my father—and I buried it in a little hole in the back yard. And I put that curious note in there. . . . It was just some attraction to a ritual response to an impossible event.”
     Cohen’s uncles made sure that Masha and her two children, Leonard and his sister, Esther, did not suffer any financial decline after her husband’s death. Leonard studied; he worked in an uncle’s foundry, W. R. Cuthbert & Company, pouring metal for sinks and piping, and at the clothing factory, where he picked up a useful skill for his career as a touring musician: he learned to fold suits so they didn’t wrinkle. 
     But, as he wrote in a journal, he always imagined himself as a writer, “raincoated, battered hat pulled low above intense eyes, a history of injustice in his heart, a face too noble for revenge, walking the night along some wet boulevard, followed by the sympathy of countless audiences ... loved by two or three beautiful women who could never have him.”
     He set out to be an author. As Sylvie Simmons makes plain in her excellent biography “I’m Your Man,” Cohen’s apprenticeship was in letters. As a teen-ager, his idols were Yeats and Lorca (he named his daughter after Lorca). 
     At McGill, he read Tolstoy, Proust, Eliot, Joyce, and Pound, and he fell in with a circle of poets, particularly Irving Layton. Cohen, who published his first poem, “Satan in Westmount,” when he was nineteen, once said of Layton, “I taught him how to dress, he taught me how to live forever.” Cohen has never stopped writing verse; the poem “Steer Your Way” was published in this magazine in June.
     He took some informal guitar lessons in his twenties from a Spaniard he met next to a local tennis court. After a few weeks, he picked up a flamenco chord progression. When the man failed to appear for their fourth lesson, Cohen called his landlady and learned that the man had killed himself. 
     In a speech many years later, in Asturias, Cohen said, “I knew nothing about the man, why he came to Montreal ... why he appeared at that tennis court, why he took his life. ... It was those six chords, it was that guitar pattern, that has been the basis of all my songs, and all my music.”
     The same set of ears that first tuned in to Bob Dylan, in 1961, discovered Leonard Cohen, in 1966. This was John Hammond, a patrician related to the Vanderbilts, and by far the most perceptive scout and producer in the business. He was instrumental in the first recordings of Count Basie, Big Joe Turner, Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holiday. 
     Tipped off by friends who were following the folk scene downtown, Hammond called Cohen and asked if he would play for him.
     Cohen was thirty-two, a published poet and novelist, but, though a year older than Elvis Presley, a musical novice. He had turned to songwriting largely because he wasn’t making a living as a writer. He was staying on the fourth floor of the Chelsea Hotel, on West Twenty-third Street, and filled notebooks during the day. At night, he sang his songs in clubs and met people on the scene: Patti Smith, Lou Reed (who admired Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers), Jimi Hendrix (who jammed with him on, of all things, “Suzanne”).
     After taking Cohen to lunch one day, Hammond suggested that they go to Cohen’s room, and, sitting on his bed, Cohen played “Suzanne,” “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “The Stranger Song,” and a few others. When Cohen finished, Hammond grinned and said, “You’ve got it.”
     A few months after his audition, Cohen put on a suit and went to the Columbia recording studios in midtown to begin work on his first album. Hammond was encouraging after every take. And after one he said, “Watch out, Dylan!”
     Cohen’s links to Dylan were obvious—Jewish, literary, a penchant for Biblical imagery, Hammond’s tutelage—but the work was divergent. Dylan, even on his earliest records, was moving toward more surrealist, free-associative language and the furious abandon of rock and roll. 
     Cohen’s lyrics were no less imaginative or charged, no less ironic or self-investigating, but he was clearer, more economical and formal, more liturgical.
     Over the decades, Dylan and Cohen saw each other from time to time. In the early eighties, Cohen went to see Dylan perform in Paris, and the next morning in a café they talked about their latest work. Dylan was especially interested in “Hallelujah.” 
     Even before three hundred other performers made “Hallelujah” famous with their cover versions,  Dylan recognized the beauty of its marriage of the sacred and the profane. He asked Cohen how long it took him to write.
     “Two years,” Cohen lied.
     Actually, “Hallelujah” had taken him five years. He drafted dozens of verses and then it was years more before he settled on a final version. In several writing sessions, he found himself in his underwear, banging his head against a hotel-room floor.
     Cohen told Dylan, “I really like ‘I and I,’ ” a song that appeared on Dylan’s album “Infidels.” “How long did it take you to write that?”
     “About fifteen minutes,” Dylan said.
     When I asked Cohen about that exchange, he said, “That’s just the way the cards are dealt.” As for Dylan’s comment that Cohen’s songs at the time were “like prayers,” Cohen seemed dismissive of any attempt to plumb the mysteries of creation.
     “I have no idea what I am doing,” he said. “It’s hard to describe. As I approach the end of my life, I have even less and less interest in examining what have got to be very superficial evaluations or opinions about the significance of one’s life or one’s work. I was never given to it when I was healthy, and I am less given to it now.”
     Although Cohen was steeped more in the country tradition, he was swept up when he heard Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” One afternoon, years later, when the two had become friendly, Dylan called him in Los Angeles and said he wanted to show him a piece of property he’d bought. Dylan did the driving.
     “One of his songs came on the radio,” Cohen recalled. “I think it was ‘Just Like a Woman’ or something like that. It came to the bridge of the song, and he said, ‘A lot of eighteen-wheelers crossed that bridge.’ Meaning it was a powerful bridge.”
     Dylan went on driving. After a while, he told Cohen that a famous songwriter of the day had told him, “O.K., Bob, you’re Number 1, but I’m Number 2.”
     Cohen smiled. “Then Dylan says to me, ‘As far as I’m concerned, Leonard, you’re Number 1. I’m Number Zero.’ Meaning, as I understood it at the time—and I was not ready to dispute it—that his work was beyond measure and my work was pretty good.”
     Dylan, who is seventy-five, doesn’t often play the role of music critic, but he proved eager to discuss Leonard Cohen. I put a series of questions to him about Number 1, and he answered in a detailed, critical way—nothing cryptic or elusive.
     “When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius,” Dylan said.
     “His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres,” Dylan went on. “In the song ‘Sisters of Mercy,’ for instance, the verses are four elemental lines which change and move at predictable intervals . . . but the tune is anything but predictable. The song just comes in and states a fact. And after that anything can happen and it does, and Leonard allows it to happen. His tone is far from condescending or mocking. 
     In the late eighties, Dylan performed “Hallelujah” on the road as a roughshod blues with a sly, ascending chorus. His version sounds less like the prettified Jeff Buckley version than like a work by John Lee Hooker. “That song ‘Hallelujah’ has resonance for me,” Dylan said. “There again, it’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves, and slips back, all in quick time. But this song has a connective chorus, which when it comes in has a power all of its own. The ‘secret chord’ and the point-blank I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself aspect of the song has plenty of resonance for me.”
     ‘Dylan defended Cohen against the familiar critical reproach that his is music to slit your wrists by. He compared him to the Russian Jewish immigrant (Irving Berlin) who wrote “Easter Parade.” “I see no disenchantment in Leonard’s lyrics at all,” Dylan said.