Leonard Cohen and how to come back

I have a friend who has recently had a serious financial setback. He is being brave about it, at least on the outside, with people who are no closer than friends, but it’s a fearful thing to be left with nothing when you were expecting something, at a time when it feels as though there’s nothing you can do about it.

I’ve wracked my brain for what to say to him by way of consolation or encouragement, and honestly, I have nothing. I could say, “If there’s anything I can do, please let me know”, but what if he says, “Well, you can give me some of your money”? I’m not giving him my money, or not enough to make a difference, and that simple truth exposes the hollowness of the gesture.

I also don’t want to tell him any inspiring tales. It’s exasperating when people tell you inspiring tales while you’re low and desperate. Inspiring tales tend to suggest that everything happens for a reason, and that the reason is a good one. None of this is true, but when he’s feeling better, I’d like to tell him about Leonard Cohen, not because the story is inspiring, but because it might be motivating.

In the mid 90s, when he himself was in his early 60s, lugubrious songster Leonard Cohen, the Nightingale of the Sinai, decided to quit music. He’d been very successful in Europe and Canada, although he was still virtually unknown in America, but he’d lost faith in art and himself, and he decamped to an austere Zen Monastery above the snowline on the amusingly named Mount Baldy in southern California. He dedicated himself to contemplation and service, rising at 3am every day, sitting for hours in cold and uncomfortable meditation with Master Roshi, cooking and cleaning. This is an unusual lifestyle for a pop star, although fairly common among South African writers.

Leonard left his finances in the hands of his trusted manager, Kelley Lynch. She was a former girlfriend (according to his biographer Sylvie Simmons, every woman in the West was a former girlfriend) and had been a safe steward of his affairs for more than a decade. Leonard stayed up Mount Baldy for several years. In 1996 he was ordained a Buddhist monk. 1996 was also the year that Kelley Lynch started stealing his money.

By the time Leonard came down the mountain she’d stolen it all – somewhere between 10 and 13 million dollars. Leonard was inclined to let it be, being now a monk with few material demands, but there was the matter of his children, and his old age, and the tax demands he had to pay with money he didn’t have. Leonard, despite being not having played in more than a decade, despite a crippling fear of public humiliation, went back on the road.

It was difficult getting financing for a major tour – Leonard was in his 70s and had never had even a gold album in America. He practiced and rehearsed for months. He overcame his fear by focusing on the work and doing all he could do. The tour started in Canada, moved to Europe, and by the time it came to America it was already a dizzy success, but it arrived at just the time – 2008 – when Jason Castro sang “Hallelujah” on American Idol in front of umpteen million viewers.

American interest in all things Cohen was at an all-time high, plus Len put on a pretty good show. By the time the tour ended Rolling Stone magazine declared it the best of the decade, Leonard had made back his money and then some, and he experienced unprecedented recognition in the country where he lived. His astonished American children watched their country fall in love with their father. They watched as he started writing again, making albums, joyfully embracing a second creative life.

It emerged later that if Kelly Lynch hadn’t stolen Leonard’s money, it would probably have been stolen by Neal Greenberg, the financier hired to manage his funds. In 2009 Greenberg was found to have pilfered hundreds of millions of dollars from accounts under his supervision. But if Leonard’s money had only been stolen in 2009, it would have been too late. Coming after the stockmarket crash, it would have been impossible to raise the financing for a risky tour by an aging retiree.

By stealing his money, Kelly Lynch saved Leonard from ruin. She also created the opportunity for him to choose to resurrect himself, and no one is ever resurrected they way they were before. They come back stronger, a light shines out through the cracks in them. Leonard Cohen never really meant much to me. As a kid I found his music limited, and his erotic religiosity was fine for seducing girls in university but dull thereafter. But the story of an elderly monk overcoming his dread, smiling gently at disaster then going back to work, transforming age into glory – now, that’s something. That’s inspiring.

Times, 19 February 2020