“I’m the Little Jew Who Wrote the Bible…”1

Written by Daniel Pettus.

Early Morning At Mt. Baldy

Alarm awakened me at 2:30 a.m.:
got into my robes
kimono and hakama
modeled after the 12th-century
archer’s costume:
on top of this the koroma
a heavy outer garment
with impossibly large sleeves:
on top of this the ruksu
a kind of patchwork bib
which incorporates an ivory disk:
and finally the four-foot
serpentine belt
that twists into a huge handsome knot
resembling a braided challah
and covers the bottom of the ruksu:
all in all
about 20 pounds of clothing
which I put on quickly
at 2:30 a.m.
over my enormous hard-on 2

Leonard Cohen’s life and work beckons an analysis echoing Roland Barthes treatment of fashion in The Fashion System. Cohen’s form of semiotic instantiation stretches words gently and evocatively inviting you to get cozy amongst the in-between of literacy. In his song “The Future” featured on the album with the same title Cohen writes:

You don’t know me from the wind
you never will, you never did
I’m the little jew
who wrote the bible
I’ve seen the nations rise and fall
I’ve heard the stories, heard them all
but love’s the only engine of survival.3

A poet, novelist, musician, practitioner of multiple religions and a man of love—Cohen enlivens the human imagination to journey down the roads of its most creative dreams: sleeping and waking. Similar to the comforting and priceless freedom one receives from a book of matches, Cohen strikes gently: a placeholder for the anomaly of paradox experienced as life unfolds.


                                       Leonard Cohen, Roshi and Roscoe Beck – 1979

In 1994, just after Cohen released his most successful album to date, The Future, and won the Governor General’s Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement in Canada he disappeared from the public eye for five years. During this time Cohen made his home with his long time friend and Buddhist mentor Roshi on Mt. Baldy in Claremont, California at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center. Cohen had been coming to Mt. Baldy for retreats for more than twenty years and Roshi even traveled with him on the Recent Songs tour in 1979.

“Mr Cool…”

According to Cohen what drew him to the monastery was “the sense of something unfinished, something that would keep me alive.”4 On a deeper level, though, Cohen is quoted as going to the monastery for love: “not so much love of Buddhism and the idea of living as a monk, but the love of Roshi, the old man with whom he could sit in silence on this broken hill.”5 Cohen poetically speaks of Roshi in his poem from 1996 entitled: Roshi at 89.

Roshi’s very tired,
he’s lying on his bed
He’s been living with the living
and dying with the dead
But now he wants another drink
(will wonders never cease?)
He’s making war on war
and he’s making war on peace
He’s sitting in the throne-room
on his great Original Face
and he’s making war on Nothing
that has Something in its place
His stomach’s very happy
The prunes are working well
There’s no one going to Heaven
and there’s no one left in Hell6


                   Cohen with Roshi (sitting..) and Roshi’s wife, Haruyo Saski at Mount Baldy.

Leonard Cohen was born September 21, 1934 in Westmount, a neighborhood of Montreal, Canada. Cohen was raised amongst an affluent family: his father owned a high-end clothing business focusing in formal wear. Even during informal gatherings Leonard’s father Nathan Cohen dressed formally. “From his father [Leonard] acquired his height, his tidiness, his decency and his love of suits.”7 Often described as a ladies man, Cohen was certainly not a playboy or at least according to a feminist and writer for the New York Times: Roz Warren. Her article for the times published July 18, 2013 entitled: “My Night with Leonard Cohen” details a night she spent, platonically, sleeping next to Cohen with her other feminist friend sandwiched on the opposite side of him. Even though Cohen happened to be staying at the Playboy Towers in Chicago the night of Warren’s platonic encounter she insists: “While you could associate plenty of singers with the term “playboy,” Leonard Cohen, surely, wasn’t among them.”8 Yet, at a young age Cohen was very much attracted to the female body, especially nude. Moreover, his oeuvre points to a life long curiosity pertaining to the relationship between the man and woman in all its complexity.


                                                 Photo of Cohen by Harry Hess.


When Cohen was a teenager he was very much interested in hypnosis and supposedly “had a natural talent for mesmerism. Finding instant success with domestic animals, he moved on to the domestic staff, recruiting as his first human subject the family maid.”9 Cohen “succeeded in putting her in a trance. Disregarding (or depending on one’s interpretation, following) the author’s directive that his teachings should be used only for educational purposes, Leonard instructed the maid to undress.”10 Later in life Cohen reflected on his experience of witnessing a female nude for the first time by saying: “I don’t think a man ever gets over that first sight of the naked woman. I think that’s Eve standing over him, that’s the morning and the dew on the skin. And I think that is the major content of every man’s imagination.”11


Cohen’s career includes over 20-recorded albums, live and studio, and twelve books. His genius lies in the way in which he articulates love, sex, politics and religion as multifaceted bedmates. He has managed to earn a fortune twice over, after his manager stole his initial earnings from him while he was living on Mt. Baldy with Roshi. His most recent album Old Ideas released January 12, 2012 has been his most successful, reaching the top five spot in twenty-six countries and the number one spot in seventeen of them. Many critics referred to Old Ideas as Cohen’s most spiritual work.

However Simmons writes: “Though the first single ‘Show Me the Place,’ does have churchlike qualities—the slow piano, the deep, solemn voice intoning, ‘Show me the place / Where you want your slave to go…For my head is bending low”—anyone in the least familiar with a Leonard Cohen album would recognize that the words might as easily be addressed to a naked woman as to an Old Testament God.”12


                        Cohen, 1979.. Action Press.

Greg Kot in his Chicago Tribune review of Old Ideas writes: “it is not another of the dreaded winter-of-my-years albums that have become a cottage industry in recent decades. The notion of staring into the abyss with a certain age-appropriate steeliness and poignance helped Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan revive their careers on pivotal ‘90s albums. But since then, albums about the ‘dying of the light’ by late-period icons have become a cliché. Not so with Cohen, who’s still feisty after all these years, his entanglements with love and aging documented with wicked wit and an attitude that is anything but sentimental.”13

Whether Old Ideas will be Cohen’s last album is difficult to determine. At the age of 79 he still tours and is known for ending shows kneeling on both knees imparting his gratitude to his dedicated fans. According to Simmons, Cohen doesn’t think too much about the future, “other than looking forward to the promise he made himself to take up smoking again on his eightieth birthday…One thing he does know is that he has ‘no sense of or appetite for retirement.’”14 For this the world should be eternally grateful.


                       Leonard Cohen Quote.

Daniel Pettus is a contributing Writer for by such and such.
Source Pictures: Lindy Asimus, Action Press, Harry Hess. Artist impression of Leonard Cohen by  Shayc.

1. The Future. Leonard Cohen. 1992.
2. Leonard Cohen. Book Of Longing. (Canada: McClelland and Stewart Ltd), 2006. 21.
3. Leonard Cohen. Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 371.
4. Sylvie Simmons. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012), 406.
5. Ibid.
6. Cohen. Book of Longing, 4.
7. Simmons, 5.
8. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/18/booming/my-night-with-leonard-cohen.html
9. Simmons, 16.
10.Ibid., 17.
12.Ibid., 521.
14.Simmons, 527.