Book Review: Rock & Roll Books

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Rock & Roll Books

Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen

by Ira B. Nadel
University of Texas Press, 336 pp., $24.95

Writing about a poet isn't an enviable task, but Leonard Cohen's life has been surreal enough that it's made Ira B. Nadel's job a lot easier. Various Positions is Cohen's "tolerated" biography, and this new edition of the original 1996 book tacks on an update of the past 10 years. Nadel paints the poet/musician/Zen Buddhist in tones of genius and torturer, making him the consummate poet. The death of Cohen's father is a major event for the upper-class family of Montreal Jews and, we get a sense, a catalyst for the budding poet's career. Nadel catalogs all the small details, too: In his college years on the debate team, Cohen is defeated by two convicts from Boston, solidifying the tragic comedy of his early career. The author veers between scholarly and spiritual interpretations of Cohen's life, letting the seedier rock-star bits seep out as well. The singer's struggles with substances and women are documented but not sensationalized; in a particular slump during the 1970s, Cohen remarks: "I'm too old to commit suicide. It would be unbecoming." We learn a little about the man's semicharmed life, but in the end, you know Cohen's still got a few more stories to tell.

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Leonard Cohen

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