Subject Commander Cohen: Ebook sheds mild on singer’s 1973 wartime go to to Israel

It’s a narrative that’s amazingly little-known given how examined the Montreal icon’s life has been.

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He was 39. His most up-to-date studio album, Songs of Love and Hate, had underperformed commercially, and for all his succès d’estime, his Columbia Data paymasters had been hinting at dropping him. Author’s block and despair had been rearing their heads; dwelling on the Greek island of Hydra with accomplice Suzanne Elrod and their new child son Adam, he felt a rising sense of nervous confinement.

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Then, in October, got here radio stories of what got here to be generally known as the Yom Kippur Struggle: Israel had been invaded on three fronts, its defences caught off-guard. Regardless of having spent his Montreal youth and peripatetic maturity conflicted about his Jewish religion and heritage, Cohen felt the decision. Trusting to destiny, barely taking the time to pack, he caught a ship for Tel Aviv.

“He desires to be there, and he additionally simply must get off that island,” stated Matti Friedman. “So he goes, with no clear thought of what he’s going to do.”

“It was a gathering between the 2 halves of my life and my mind, to listen to this Canadian voice singing to this Israeli crowd,” Friedman, on the cellphone from his Jerusalem residence final week, recalled of attending that 2009 live performance. “It turned out that folks completely adored him. I couldn’t fairly work out what was driving this. Individuals right here don’t love Bob Dylan in the identical manner, for instance. It appeared there was one thing else happening.”

His journalist’s antennae suitably activated, Friedman got down to study what that one thing was. Within the course of, digging into Israeli newspapers and periodicals and speaking to longtime followers, he saved coming throughout the 1973 battle and Cohen’s engagement with it.

It’s a narrative that’s amazingly little-known given how examined Cohen’s life has been. For anybody indirectly concerned, it’s a spectral episode at greatest, largely skimmed previous in accounts of Cohen’s life and mythos. Sylvie Simmons’s exemplary 2012 biography I’m Your Man, for instance, devotes a grand whole of two pages to it.

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“Even to the extent that it’s recognized amongst Cohen aficionados all over the world, I feel individuals thought he principally got here, performed a live performance and left,” Friedman stated. “The one purpose I caught on to it’s that it’s thought of essential in Israel. It made an enormous impression right here.”

The obscurity of that temporary journey (“tour” would most likely be a misleadingly grand phrase for a collection of makeshift performances, a few of them not amplified, a lot of them unannounced) was probably due in no small half to Cohen’s near-complete disinclination to speak about it within the ensuing a long time.

“It is likely to be that he thought he couldn’t with out showing self-aggrandizing,” stated Friedman. “And he usually expressed the concept that his work could be diminished by an excessive amount of direct connection to actual occasions. The poetry could be damage.”

The sheer improbability of what Cohen did in October 1973 retains compounding itself within the telling. Contemplate, for instance, that on leaving Hydra he didn’t even pack a guitar.

“That’s proper,” stated Friedman. “That element type of blew previous me till late in my analysis, and I discovered it astounding. At first individuals might need assumed he needed to volunteer on a kibbutz, assist choose oranges or one thing like that. However I feel he knew that if he simply put himself within the present, one thing would occur. And in fact, Israel is a spot the place that does occur. It’s a really small nation, and there’s a number of bizarre vitality right here. You get taken to attention-grabbing locations.”

Leonard Cohen performs for Israeli troops in Sinai in October 1973. From Who by Fire: War, Atonement, and the Resurrection of Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen performs for Israeli troops in Sinai in October 1973. From Who by Hearth: Struggle, Atonement, and the Resurrection of Leonard Cohen.Photograph by Isaac Shokal

“It’s unfiltered Cohen, unedited,” Friedman stated of the wartime manuscript. “He has simply come again and every little thing is contemporary (in his thoughts). He’s type of vomiting it out onto the paper with out crafting it. You’re seeing how the sausage is made. It’s not laborious to know why it wasn’t printed initially.”

One other windfall for Friedman got here with the securing of a cache of images taken on the warfront, vivid as time capsules, solely two of which had been extensively disseminated. Dovetailing seamlessly into the ebook’s textual content, the caption-free pictures present Cohen in a completely ego-free mild, on an equal footing with the endangered younger troopers round him.

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“I needed them to perform virtually as paragraphs in themselves,” Friedman stated of the pictures, they usually do pack an emotional narrative wallop. In two photographs, Cohen stands close to a vaguely familiar-looking man, a bit older than these round him, who seems to be future Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. On the time, Cohen was the extra outstanding determine; in any occasion, neither man knew who the opposite was. They had been merely two individuals amongst many, grabbing a second of respite within the desert, battles being fought inside earshot.

Ultimately, Friedman got here away with a deeper understanding of the emotional bond to which he bore witness in 2009.

“An enormous a part of it was this story of the battle — that at a second of disaster for Israel, Leonard Cohen confirmed up. He didn’t have to come back, and he actually didn’t must go to the very fringe of the entrance in Sinai. However he did, and nobody who noticed him forgot it.”

A theme that emerges organically within the ebook is that of the battle as a turning level — for Israel as a rustic, and for Cohen as an artist.

“Earlier than the battle, he feels that he has hit a wall creatively,” stated Friedman. “He’s indignant, he’s depressed. He might very simply have flared out that 12 months. However then one thing occurs, and shortly after the battle he releases New Pores and skin for the Outdated Ceremony. He’s again within the saddle.”

The remainder, it’s honest to say, is historical past — a historical past, already virtually past perception, that now has a significant new chapter. Who by Hearth is a exceptional act of historic reclamation, heroic in its personal proper.


Who by Hearth: Struggle, Atonement, and the Resurrection of Leonard Cohen is accessible now.

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