Book Review: The Flame by Leonard Cohen

There might not be another person that is as identifiable by a single word repeated four times over like the late Leonard Cohen with “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah”, but there is so much more to his life than his most recognizable song, Hallelujah, which he first recorded in 1984 and which peoples still listened to around the world.  The Flame featured Cohen’s final artistic efforts, combining poetry with visual art, and it offers a unique glimpse into Cohen’s mind, and it is almost impossible to read his work without being reminded of Hallelujah’s famous melody.

Surprisingly enough, The Flame features a speech that Cohen gave in 2011, where he explains the influence for his instrumental rhythms, stemming from an interaction that he had in Montreal in the early 1960s, and it is quite a tragic story.  The other unique aspect of The Flame is that it features a poem Cohen wrote about Kanye West and where he also mentions Jay-Z, titled “Kanye West is Not Picasso”.

The tragic story behind Cohen’s flamenco guitar.

The tragic story behind Cohen’s flamenco guitar is shared courtesy of a speech he gave in 2011 about an interaction while he was visiting his mother’s house in Montreal in the early 1960s.  Cohen recalls going to visit the park he would frequent as a child and how there was a young man playing the guitar.  Cohen described that there was something captivating about the way the man played.  Eventually Cohen would ask the man to teach him how to play.  During their discussions, communicating with one another in broken French, he found that the man was originally from Spain.  The following day Cohen and the man would meet at his mother’s house where the man showed him the flamenco way of playing the guitar.  This went on for three days, but on the fourth day, the man did not show up.  When Cohen called the man’s boarding house to find out why he had missed their appointment, the staff informed Cohen that he had taken his own life.  Cohen then goes on to discuss how he knew nothing about this man: what part of Spain he was from, why he came to Montreal, why he stayed where he did, why he was at the tennis court that day, and why he might take his life.

While giving that speech, Cohen shared a deep secret he had never shared with the public: it was that those six chords that the young man had showed him how to play that were the basis of all his songs and all his music.  Cohen finishes the speech by saying how he hopes that people will begin to understand the dimensions of gratitude he has for Canada, how everything favorable in his songs and poetry is inspired by our soil, and how he considers all his work as being a combination of all of us.

Kanye West is Not Picasso (March 15th, 2015)

The poem written about Kanye, and of Jay-Z to a lesser extent, is the only part of the book that sticks out like a sore thumb.  There is no explanation as to the influence behind it, but with lines like

I am the Kanye West of Kanye West
The Kanye West
Of the great bogus shift of bullshit culture
From one boutique to another,


I am the Kanye West Kanye West thinks he is
When he shoves your ass off the stage.

it does not take much to figure out why people might not be as big Kanye West fans as they once were.  But people seem to have forgotten why Kanye is so different than he once was.

Let us not forget that many of Kanye’s early songs discuss how his mother was in toxic relationships, physically mistreated by the men in her life, and how Kanye and his mom would hug and cry together over their struggles with food and housing insecurity. More importantly, Kanye was in a life-threating car crash that saw him suffer a traumatic brain injury and has struggled with substances including opiates.  So, while Kanye’s words and actions can be quite repulsive, and they set a bad example for those that look up to him, I would have preferred if Cohen had tried to write about how every one of us is a product of their environment and the sum of their experiences, and Kanye is no different.

Furthermore, all Jay-Z has ever done was make the best of the terrible cards that he was handed in his life, and he was able to turn his life around and today he pays it forward at every chance he gets.  All in all, this piece did not have that sense of Leonard Cohen to it, the Leonard Cohen that wrote Hallelujah.

The enigma of the mind

While The Flame is not the typical book that has academia in mind, getting a glimpse into an artist’s mind through their unpublished work is worth reading, even if it is for the sole purpose of trying to understand the enigma of their mind, and Cohen’s mind was quite the enigma.

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