Music historian catalogues Leonard Cohen’s musical history
Like many of us, author Harvey Kubernik first heard Leonard Cohen through his interpreters. Judy Collins recorded Cohen’s cryptic “Suzanne” and the sardonic suicide ode “Dress Rehearsal Rag” on her 1966 “In My Life” album. The songs impressed Kubernik, but it wasn’t until Cohen’s first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen” (Columbia 1967), that Kubernik began to recognize the full impact of the novelist-turned-singer-songwriter.
Released to coincide with Cohen’s 80th birthday last month, Kubernik’s new book “Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows” (Backbeat) is a thorough examination of the elusive Canadian and his enigmatic work. Having spent his formative years in Greece, he made his first American impressions in Greenwich Village and at the Newport Folk Festival, and has also led a substantial L.A. life, which Kubernik illuminates for the first time. He is also an observant Jew with a strong spiritual investment in Zen Buddhism.
Kubernik’s enthusiasm is longstanding: “I went to Fairfax High,” Kubernik said, “and there were 32 people at my school named Cohen. I knew that Bob Zimmerman changed his name to Dylan for show-business reasons, but I’d never heard a name like Leonard Cohen on FM underground radio; which was where I heard [Cohen’s] songs.”
In that format, dominated at the time by the Beatles’ “White Album” and Cream’s “Wheels of Fire,” Cohen’s evenly modulated tones seemed more narration than singing. “It was slow and seductive,” Kubernik said. “He was an older guy with a distinguished voice who dressed immaculately — like someone I’d see at High Holy Days.”
Cohen brought a reservoir of literary weight to his lyrics, informed by diverse sources including Albert Camus, Federico Garcia Lorca, the I Ching and Hermann Hesse. Sufficiently impressed with lyrics like “Tea and oranges that come all the way from China” and “You’ve used up all your coupons, except the one that seems to be written on your wrist,” Kubernik dutifully wrote a term paper on the unlikely éminence grise of the local FM rock stations.
At West Los Angeles Junior College, Kubernik worked in the library, conscientiously ordering Cohen’s “Beautiful Losers” and “The Energy of Slaves” books and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” along with underground newspaper the Los Angeles Free Press and Ramparts magazine. At San Diego State University, he said he helped create the curriculum of the first rock-music course. “I screened ‘Feast of Friends’ by The Doors,” Kubernik noted, “brought singer Carolyn Hester into class, and passed out mimeographed sheets of Leonard’s lyrics.”
As a music journalist for Melody Maker, Phonograph Record and other publications, Kubernik interviewed Cohen several times between 1974 and ’78. “My favorite Jews were Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen,” Kubernik said. “Dylan was remote and cynical, but Leonard was a mensch,” he recalled of the interviews. Producer Kim Fowley, a longtime friend of Kubernik, identifies the appeal as “father-figure rock — something started by Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. It was ‘elder-cool.’ ” Of Cohen, Kubernik concedes, “I don’t know him well, but I’ve found him a very decent chap.”
Using religious imagery and terminology to explore emotional territory and matters of the heart, Cohen has forged a substantial body of recorded work over the years that wrestles with Judaism, love in all of its forms, economics, substance abuse, eroticism — all in a manner that’s personal yet universal. His work has been interpreted by other artists widely and obsessively dissected by fans of all ages. His “Hallelujah” has been performed by more than 300 artists.
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Kubernik is also well known for an authoritative spate of music books rooted in the Southern California experience. He creates multi-voice mosaics to form composite portraits of his subjects, among them “Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon” (2009), “A Perfect Haze: The Illustrated History of the Monterey International Pop Festival” (2011), “It Was 50 Years Ago Today: The Beatles Invade America and Hollywood” (2014) and the recent “Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll In Los Angeles, 1956-1972” (2014).
Of the Roshomon-like format, Kubernik considers his forthcoming Neil Young tome and observes: “I have two people who both claim they named the Buffalo Springfield. And that doesn’t bother me in the least.”
With his brother Kenneth, Kubernik’s “Big Shots: Rock Legends and Hollywood Icons, the Photography of Guy Webster” hits the market next month, and the Young book will be published in November 2015.
Kubernik claims the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin as part of his family tree. His grandfather served in Katherine the Great’s army, and Kubernik read Soviet Life magazine as a boy with him. His mother, though a Chicago native, was conceived in Kiev. “The Leonard Cohen book is being translated into several languages,” he notes with pride. “I love it that my mother’s still on the planet, and my publisher tells me we’ll have a Russian edition.”