Leonard Cohen, Untold Sto­ries: That’s How the Light Gets In

  • Review
By – May 30, 2023

In some peo­ple, tal­ent and char­ac­ter are sep­a­rate. [Leonard Cohen] is a man [for whom] char­ac­ter was just as impres­sive as his out­put.… He embod­ied the word men­sch.… Only years lat­er did I ful­ly real­ize the depth, insight, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, and com­pas­sion of the per­son .… He spoke right to the heart of the mat­ter — and the heart of the person.” 

Such are the words of Cohen’s friend, the music broad­cast­er Elliot Majer­czyk. They allow author Michael Pos­ner to cap­ture a man who was elu­sive and guard­ed. Every­one was close to Leonard,” film-and-music pro­duc­er Steve Machat explains, but no one knew him.”

This third and final vol­ume cov­ers the last thir­ty years of Cohen’s life, from the mid-1980s to his death in 2016 at the age of eighty-two. It fol­lows his exten­sive tour­ing, his expe­ri­ences record­ing and writ­ing, his love affairs, his strug­gles with depres­sion and sub­stances, his trou­bled rela­tion­ship with his two chil­dren, and his ill­ness and death, among oth­er things. Unlike a con­ven­tion­al biog­ra­phy, which looks to writ­ten his­tor­i­cal sources, Posner’s oral biog­ra­phy relies on the mem­o­ries of oth­ers. Since mem­o­ries are fre­quent­ly unre­li­able — as Pos­ner read­i­ly acknowl­edges — the results can be con­tra­dic­to­ry, inex­act, impres­sion­is­tic, and/​or just plain mistaken. 

Because Pos­ner draws on so many voic­es, includ­ing Cohen’s Cana­di­an Jew­ish fam­i­ly, his friends, asso­ciates, and acquain­tances, it is pos­si­ble to expe­ri­ence some con­fu­sion while read­ing. That being said, we ulti­mate­ly ben­e­fit from hav­ing access to these var­i­ous points of view, which paint a mul­ti­di­men­sion­al pic­ture of Cohen.

Although he refrains from edit­ing con­ver­sa­tions out­right, Pos­ner inserts explana­to­ry notes where they are nec­es­sary for clar­i­fi­ca­tion. Also help­ful is a list of every­one he quotes, with brief descrip­tions of who each is in rela­tion to Cohen.

Cohen’s final con­cert tour was in 2013, when he was sev­en­ty-nine. He was then diag­nosed with ITP, a blood dis­or­der that pro­gressed to leukemia over the next few years. 

Asked about his work, Cohen on sev­er­al occa­sions answered in his typ­i­cal­ly mod­est man­ner: If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.”

He went there often enough to give his work what Bob Dylan called a celes­tial char­ac­ter and melod­ic lift … As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in mod­ern music.”

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

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