Among the most-played songs in my iTunes library are four immortal (and often-covered) compositions by Leonard Cohen: “Sisters of Mercy,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Hallelujah” and, of course, “Suzanne.” Significantly, “Hallejujah” is a meditation on the “sweet singer of Israel,” King David, although Cohen himself is, famously, a Buddhist monk and, not so famously, a former student of Scientology with a “Senior Dianetic, Grade IV Release” to show for it.
Before he achieved his current stature as a celebrated songwriter and an éminence grise of (North) American popular culture, however, Cohen more closely resembled a character out of a Mordecai Richler novel. Young Leonard was born in the wealthy Jewish neighborhood of Westmount in Montreal, the son of a man who made his fortune in haberdashery and insurance, and he served as president of the Menorah Club at Westmount High School, but he reinvented himself as a faintly Byronic figure with poetry that he fully intended to win prizes and readers.
The story of Cohen’s life and work is told in “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” by Sylvie Simmons, a rock journalist and biographer. It is a sweeping and yet penetrating book that gives us the elusive Cohen in full light and intimate detail.
Simmons brings her flair for the arresting phrase to her work. “By inclination he is a private man, rather shy,” she writes, “but if probing is required he’ll put his feet in the stirrups with dignity and humor.” And she succeeds in capturing the alchemy by which Cohen turned his adolescent angst into gold: “The Big Bang of Leonard, the moment when poetry, music, sex and spiritual longing collided and fused in him for the first time, happened in 1950, between his fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays,” she explains, “when he happened upon ‘The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca.’ ” Young Leonard never looked back.
Leonard Cohen performs 8 p.m. Nov. 11 at HP Pavilion in San Jose.