Ann Diamond's Reviews > Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen

Various Positions by Ira B. Nadel
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I am finally getting around to reading this biography which I was asked to review when it first came out in 1996. At the time I was distracted by several factual errors that jumped out at me when I started reading it -- and which caused me to doubt the value of the whole book. I felt it was a staid rehashing of the already well-known (at least to me) facts of Leonard's career and life, by someone who didn't really "get" him, i.e. Nadel did a workmanly job of presenting the material, often without comment, as if he neither particularly liked nor disliked his subject. This time around, I'm impressed mainly by the quantity of his research, e.g. his quoting from Cohen's letters during his the early part of his career when he was struggling to make a name for himself and carve out a position in Canadian literature. In retrospect, his efforts to be taken seriously as a novelist and poet seem almost futile, given the hidden background, and what he was up against. I still see Cohen as a serious writer, whose novels and poems can be read as a multi-faceted assault on the society he had grown up in - but were marred by a kind of narcissistic self-obsession that was probably a cover for some real wounds that few could have fathomed back then.

I've written my own memoir of Cohen: The Man Next Door (available at It deals with some of my own experiences with Cohen, on the streets of Montreal as I was coming of age, and later on Hydra and Mount Baldy as I got drawn deeper into the mystery religion that he seemed to embody. Since it ends on a bizarre note, I'm now the process of adding more chapters that are based on later realizations, some of which I've been posting at my blog ( since Leonard's death last November.

Re: Various Positions: one thing that makes it stand out is the raw objectivity some readers complain about. In particular, the chapters about life on Hydra, and Cohen's letters to friends and publishers, reveal sides of him that would shock a lot of his current fans and devotees. I think they probably shocked even Ira Nadel, who serves them up without comment. In fact, the young Cohen was often an obnoxious, self-obsessed megalomaniac who took drugs to deal with his frustrated ambitions. Nadel's biography at least makes it clear why Cohen was both envied and disliked in Canada: he was a braggart addicted to self-aggrandizing hyperbole. Somehow, Europeans were able to overlook this and focus on his songs, some of which were major works of art.

A whole fetishistic cult has lately grown up around him that is often based on trivia, and borders on sanctification -- especially at sites like where you can waste hours browsing through old photos, napkins and witty remarks to visited journalists. No singer has ever been more interviewed in his lifetime, and since his death no detail about Cohen's life is too boring to share with his legions of would-be lovers who never had the opportunity in real life to get to know him. But the real Cohen was a puzzle.

He also left behind an unfinished career as a writer -- choosing to reinvent himself in New York, London and Paris, where he could hide behind his image as a sophisticated, likeable iconoclast.

It's the Canadian chapters that are painful to read. I believe Cohen had a message for Canada that he found too overwhelming - which is one reason he had to write Beautiful Losers while high on amphetamines. I don't think anyone ever really penetrated to the core of his fiction, what it was actually about, what it was a screen for - not even Cohen himself. Canadian critics like Northrop Frye liked to suppress the ugly truths in the early poems and novels, calling them 'mythopeic' when in fact they were often closer to straight reportage about a country that was harbouring Nazis and engaging in secret genocide. Those were the real, deep reasons Leonard Cohen felt driven to write -- but Canada didn't really want that kind of writer.

I have to thank Ira Nadel for bringing some of the guck to the surface. In a few years, Cohen's handlers will probably have managed to bury most of it - and with it, the true story of Canada.
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July 14, 2017 – Started Reading
July 14, 2017 – Shelved
July 15, 2017 –
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message 1: by Ann (last edited Jul 16, 2017 12:22AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ann Diamond 'Various Positions" always struck me as a weak, ambivalent title - of course it originated with Cohen, not Nadel. But it also resonates, because Cohen often struggled to find an authentic voice, and platform, to communicate what he knew. He tried all kinds of tricky disguises to get across his message, ranging from bitter irony to shameless posturing to deep metaphor to satire. Later in life, he traded his insufferable ego for the modest robes of a Buddhist sage who sometimes claimed to have amnesia for the events of the past. I never believed that, either, but I do understand his lifelong need to pretend.

I think he was up against some pretty powerful forces -- and that's what we should focus on, not his clever quips and kindly acts of mercy. His work needs to be studied as a reaction to a very drastic stage in history and culture: an age when governments and their military and scientific advisers turned against their own populations in a secret psychological war that began in the 1950s.

I also think Leonard Cohen had more than one career -- he had to, just to survive as a Canadian writer. That's where reality diverges from the official story, which Leonard fed to his biographers. So although swimming in facts and documents, Various Positions (like Sylvie Simmons' I'm Your Man) is really more like fictionalized autobiography -- because it's based on Cohen's own accounts, plus his writings. And the fact is, he often lied: to save his skin, to get ahead, to protect himself and other loved ones.

I should add that one of Cohen's "positions" was sincerity - hard to detect amid the irony. He could stun you with his honesty.

message 2: by Ann (last edited Jul 17, 2017 02:29AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ann Diamond How do you sort the true from the false? Back in 1996, when a Montreal editor sent me Various Positions to review, I found what I thought was a glaring error: -- in the section that describes Cohen's 1980 world tour, the second in two years, which ended in Israel, after which he flew to America and spent the next year there, 'at loose ends.'

In 1996, in my brief review, I self-importantly reported that the biographer was dead wrong -- Leonard could not have been in New York on December 11 because he was on Hydra. I saw him there often.

I was in Tel Aviv for both concerts, after which I flew to Hydra to spend the winter. So did Leonard. Except for a trip to France in April where he spent time with Dominique Isserman, he was on Hydra for all of 1981.

Nadel and Sylvie Simmons both mistakenly say he flew directly to New York after the Tel Aviv concerts. Both biographies reference a December 11 entry in a journal from Room 700 of the Algonquin Hotel in New York which describes him "with a chassidic prayer book, his grandfather’s tefillin and woolen tallit, a box of Barton’s Hanukkah candy, and a set of Hanukkah candles" -- all in preparation for celebrating the festival with his children. Four days later in the same journal the first draft of 'If It Be Your Will' appears."

None of this is accurate. It's an alibi.

(1) Hannukah was already over on the 11th when he seems to be preparing for it - the lunar holiday ended that year on December 10, and started on the 3rd, when he was still on Hydra.

(2) On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was shot at the Dakota Residence -- which is a kilometer from the Algonquin Hotel, across Central Park.

(3) On December 14, 1980 - the Sunday after Lennon was shot - I saw Leonard Cohen get off the Flying Dolphin in the port of Hydra, with his two children and their French nanny. Since I had last seen him, two weeks earlier, he had grown a beard and lost a lot of weight. He looked exhausted. When he saw me, he walked up to me and started up a conversation. He didn't mention any trip to New York. He kept it secret on an island where it would have become The Only Topic of Gossip all that winter: how Leonard went to New York and happened to be there the week John Lennon died. How would that have played out, I wonder?

(4) "If It Be Your Will" was started on Hydra. I remember him reciting parts of it to me there, in 1981. The line "From this broken hill" refers to the view outside his window looking up at the ruins on the far hillside above the port -- not Mount Baldy, where Sylvie Simmons says he wrote it.

I was an expert witness because on Hydra in late November I had helped him work on his floor, which he was repairing to get ready for his children's visit over Hannukah and Christmas.

I didn't mention the embarrassing detail that, when I tried to spend the night, Leonard told me he was waiting for an important phone call that could come at any moment, and "nobody can be here when it does." It seemed like a roundabout way to say "Fuck off" -- acting like James Bond, about to go on a mission. I laughed and went back to my little room at the pension. A day or two later I got involved with a young French painter whose house was struck by lightning. All these details of my first winter on Hydra remain very vivid, like my next attempted visit (on December 4th or 5th) one night when I found myself alone in my cold damp Hydra room at the pension, and decided I absolutely needed to talk to Leonard. I knocked on his door, and was answered by a shout from the darkened bedroom: "Leave me alone! I need my sleep!"

After that, I stayed away and worked on my novel. I always assumed Leonard also remained on Hydra over the next 10 days, working on his house.

On December 9, I heard the news John Lennon had been shot in New York the night before. And few days after that, I ran into Leonard in the port. So that's how I knew, beyond doubt, that he was still on Hydra.

The biographers got a few things wrong. The entire year on Hydra (1980-81) was wiped from Nadel's biography. Events from that year -- like Cohen's first meeting with Dominique Issermann -- were moved to 1982 when Leonard was back in Montreal.

"On Hydra in 1982, he met a woman who became important in his life: Dominique Issermann, a fashion photographer from Paris. Carole Laure, the Quebecois actor, and her husband Lewis Furey, had established careers in Paris, and they introduced Cohen to Issermann when she came to visit Laure on Hydra."

Wrong again, Nadel. Laure and Furey came to Hydra in the spring of 1981. I met them in the port one day, talking to Leonard, who later flew to Paris to meet Isserman.

Trivial nonsense, you say. It certainly was, and I didn't pursue it. But I questioned Nadel's sources, including Leonard.

I didn't think about it again until 2009. That's when it got a little crazy.

message 3: by Ann (last edited Jul 17, 2017 01:38AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ann Diamond Nadel never responded to my review which was based on having been there. It was my word against Leonard's journal entry, and since that whole year had been deleted from the record, my eye-witness account didn't count for much. Common sense told me he couldn't have been in Manhattan and Hydra at the same time. Or as Leonard would say, "One of us cannot be wrong."

Somehow in all those years it had never registered that the date of the entry -- December 11, 1980, at the Algonquin Hotel in New York -- was just three days, and a ten-minute jog, from John Lennon's assassination, when New York was in mourning for a murdered pop hero and longtime resident.

Overlooking this fateful coincidence seemed like a strange omission, but I had also missed it when I wrote my review. Like Leonard claiming he was there buying candles and putting on a prayer shawl to prepare for Hannukah on the day after it ended, it didn't add up.

Staying on Central Park, a short distance from the tragedy, he would have encountered shattered fans, or signs of the candlelight vigils going on in the park. Taxi drivers, bellboys, radio and television - everyone was talking about the shooting at the Dakota. Whatever his feelings about Lennon and the Beatles, how could he have been in New York that week and not mention it to friends when he got back to Hydra? Or to his biographer?

There had to be a reason why he would erase this traumatic event from his memory, while recording his presence in a journal, and then forget to tell his biographer about the ten lost months on Hydra that followed. It was more than fishy. It was disturbing.

I started going over my detailed memories, and realized there was a gap in early December when I actually lost track of Leonard's whereabouts, because I was intentionally avoiding him after December 5th, the night he shouted at me from his window to leave him alone. I knew him as a night-owl who would have been up at that hour - unless, perhaps, he intended to catch the early boat into Athens in the morning... en route to New York?

Our various meetings and conversations came back to me, in all their peculiarity. The fact that he had started growing a beard upon arrival from Tel Aviv in late November. His nervous overreaction to a stranger in a bar the first night - probably November 28 - when we went out to dinner on Hydra - as if he mistook the clueless man for an important contact waiting there to meet him. The fact he later told me he was waiting for a mysterious call that required him to be alone when the phone rang. The awkward encounter on December 14 when he arrived on the Flying Dolphin just as I was crossing the harbour on my walk to the village of Mandraki (where a few days before I'd had a premonition about John Lennon). How he'd seemed unusually concerned about what I'd been up to since we last talked -- in retrospect I realized he wanted to know if I had come looking for him and found his house empty (after he flew to New York). I remember apologising for not going to see him for 10 days, and his reaction, a look of relief as he realized I didn't know he had been away. All these tiny details remained sharp in my memory because of their peculiarity at the time.

In retrospect, I realized I could not be 100% certain he was Hydra and not Manhattan on December 11, 1980. I clearly recalled two occasions when I brought up John Lennon's death - and got a strange reaction: "I never liked the Beatles." And how the week after, he was carrying a copy of Newsweek, with the shocking headline "Reagan's IN, Lennon's OUT' --

Thirty years later, I finally understood: Room 700, Algonquin Hotel. Notebook. This was an Alibi. The alibi put him in New York celebrating Hannukah with his children -- and spending all of 1981 "at loose ends" somewhere in North America.

The truth was more complicated. The written record proved it.

Soon after arriving on Hydra and setting up house to spend the winter, he flew to New York. After coming back, he kept his trip secret and spent most of the following year in his house on Hydra, occasionally receiving visits from his children and their nanny, and his Spanish translator, Alberto Manzano, who took photographs of the little family clearly labeled "Hydra, December 1980"
Bruce Brown, an Arizona beekeeper, also visited, as did Cohen's old friend, Barrie Wexler. Bruce took a photo of Leonard in his kitchen -- he still had the beard but had regained some of the lost weight:

I remember seeing him in January at his house, where he was writing the libretto for Lewis Furey's rock opera Night Magic - he read me excerpts from it, including a nasty line he had thrown in about Carole Laure - he said he would delete it from the final draft. I remember him drinking in the bars and going to parties with his friends, people I considered "a bunch of fascists." I remember him complaining he was short of money, and me offering to lend him some from my Canada Council grant -- he turned me down with a funny look. I also remember him acting strangely on more than one occasion -- and I can back up my memories with plenty of awkward details, because it was a very stressful year, as I gained objectivity and realized my friend Leonard was not just unstable, but possibly, at times, dangerous to know. At times I sensed he was setting me up for some sort of psychological torture -- like a psychiatrist creating schizophrenia in his patient through use of a 'double bind' . I saw other women losing their minds over him. In all this, I learned to distance myself from gossip and the abuse that he seemed to bring out in people, and just observe events, sometimes recording them in journals.

Many of the things that happened on Hydra that year were too painful and confusing to write about, better forgotten, but I do remember much of that year in some excruciating detail, including names, dates, events. They are my evidence that I was there.

There's really only one logical explanation for the discrepancy between my story and the biographies: Flying to New York and back the week of the shooting was a red flag. Leonard Cohen needed an alibi to cover the fact that he left Hydra on a secret mission involving John Lennon.

It required him to disguise himself by growing a beard, just as he had done twenty years earlier when he went to Cuba for the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. That time, too, he had disappeared from Hydra in December, reappearing a few months later with a beard, in Havana, at the scene of a CIA-sponsored invasion. That time, too, there were many loose ends and unanswered questions that his then girlfriend Marianne Ihlen did her best to ignore.

Patterns have a way of repeating themselves. And even more interesting: the same man, Jose Perdomo aka Joachim Sanjenis Perdomo, was in charge at the scene of both events. The commander of the CIA-funded Brigade 40 that sent spies to Cuba ahead of the invasion, Perdomo resurfaced as the Doorman (employed by Wackenhut) providing security at the Dakota on the night Lennon was shot. He stepped forward as police arrived and identified the frozen Mark Chapman, who stood quietly reading Catcher in the Rye, as the assassin who had just shot John Lennon.

But some theories deny that Chapman could have been the shooter - not just because the entry wounds and angles don't add up - but because Chapman didn't really want to kill his idol. He served as the patsy. Another theory also says there was another shooter, known as "the handyman," who hid in the external elevator near the front entrance and fired the fatal shots, before escaping into the building where he waited until it was safe to come out.

I only know what I witnessed, later, on Hydra: the disintegration of one Leonard Cohen and his replacement by someone I felt I barely knew. And more than once, I saw a handgun that seemed to pop up out nowhere. Leonard told me that in the future, we would all have to know how to use one, which was why he was teaching his children to shoot.

message 5: by Ann (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ann Diamond More on Leonard Cohen in my memoir, The Man Next Door:

message 6: by Ann (last edited Jul 17, 2017 09:47AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ann Diamond One conclusion we can draw from all this: Leonard Cohen was more than a singer. He was an agent, who took orders from powerful people who had agendas most of us can barely guess at.

Had he not taken orders, he would not have survived. The same applied to John Lennon, and so many others. If you don't believe me, you haven't been paying attention.

It seems Leonard Cohen and others set out in 1980 to persuade the sixties generation that the Peace Movement was obsolete. Lennon's death was meant to drive that message home.

However, I'm not even completely convinced John Lennon is dead. Which makes this less a story about heroes and villains, than a lesson on how we have been led by the nose by pop culture, which is why it was created.

But the truth goes even deeper. Leonard Cohen was born into a family with connections to the darkest groups on the planet. There was no escaping them - not for him, and not for us.

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