The songbooks of Leonard Cohen

The Wordless Leonard Cohen Songbook
George A. Walker.

Limited artist’s edition of 80 copies; Trade paperback, The Porcupine’s Quill.

Songbooks were once a plentiful commodity. An updated presentation of old-time sheet music, they were packaged with glossy covers, photographs of the artist, excerpts from interviews, and chord diagrams to help the beginning player.

In my suburban youth, the local mall boasted a music store where I could safely count on finding songbooks for all of Leonard Cohen’s records in the $5  to $10 range. Who else was on the prowl in southwest Calgary, circa 1980, for the tablature instructions to Chelsea Hotel #2, I cannot say. But Bob Ingles Music at Chinook Centre was happy to sell me a copy.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Cohen’s music publishers were savvy about how to cash in on his mystique. His songbooks included plenty of cinema-ready close-ups, and lyrics were laid out, as in poetry stanzas, separate from the music notation. This was accompanied by interviews from magazines and newspapers, full of Cohen’s pithy and at times oracular pronouncements (he was waiting, one insisted, for “women to take over the world.”)

George A. Walker’s Wordless Leonard Cohen Songbook is a print artist’s reimagining of what a Cohen songbook might be. Most notably, it contains images – 80 of them – one for each of Cohen’s 80 years. Each image is carved into the endgrain of a hardwood block, then printed on the Vandercook press in Walker’s west Toronto studio.

The Wordless Leonard Cohen Songbook is Walker’s third “wordless biography.” He first presented the life, artistic apprenticeship and mysterious death of Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson. After this, in 2013, Walker moved in an entirely different direction, as he created 100 images for The Life and Times of Conrad Black. Walker’s choice of his subject followed from his appraisal of Black as “one of the most outspoken and charismatic characters in the elusive one per cent of people who make up the establishment in Canada. He is a public person of international stature, at one time a media baron and still a man of great influence and wealth.” Black was not averse to Walker’s interpretation of his life, and agreed to sign a few copies.

Leonard Cohen, a celebrated figure in Canada and abroad, is a less provocative choice. Cohen’s career has included idiosyncratic periods when he faded from view, and released books of poetry and record albums that reached only a hard core audience of aficionados. Some of this work, arguably, is his best. It is in his later and less creatively exciting years that he has gained a mass audience. These days, Cohen’s songs are covered by the likes of Lana Del Ray, whose young fans are unlikely to know what he had in mind as he sang about the limousines waiting in the street outside the Chelsea Hotel.

Walker’s wordless narrative follows Cohen from his Westmount youth, through his McGill years under the influence of poet-teacher Louis Dudek, to his penchant for writing poems in $5 rooms on Montreal’s tenderloin, to iconic meetings on Canadian television with Pierre Berton. He then leaps into the late ’60s, when Cohen’s musical career put him in the company of the key makers of that period’s popular culture. Among these are Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix. For those interested in the finer details of Cohen’s doings, Walker includes portraits of Nico, Phil Spector and Cohen’s poetic hero Garcia Lorca.

Walker’s woodcut style is rich and varied. He sometimes cuts an image to mimic an actual photo, coming to terms with the challenge of how to carve the tiny typescript on an unspooling sheet of paper, or cigarette smoke blown casually upward.

Some of his prints are wholly imagined, and these are suggestive of his ideas about Cohen’s creative process, his status as a bard and a troubadour. In one case, he sets out the images from a song, the “tea and oranges that come all the way from China,” in Suzanne.

The careful viewer might wonder, beyond this, what is there of song in Walker’s wordless songbook? There are many images of Cohen performing his songs, and it’s fun to try to pin down the chords his fingers are forming. Walker has made his own version of an early photograph, which appeared in the 1969 songbook Songs of Leonard Cohen, showing Cohen’s teenage musical group, The Buckskin Boys. Alongside it he has set an imaginary portrait: a youthful Cohen in western hat, overseen by the real cowboy singer, Hank Williams, who is positioned, as Cohen says he must be, “a thousand floors” above him in the Tower of Song.

The Wordless Leonard Cohen Songbook demands close and careful viewing. In this, it is like cinema, or the photographic work of a Richard Avedon or Diane Arbus. Each image is full, suggestive and rich in context and style.  

The book’s creation is a complex process and follows the model set by Walker’s previous wordless biographies.  First he creates a limited edition of hand-printed copies. These arrive in a carefully detailed box, are composed of engravings printed on Walker’s press, are hand bound, signed and expensive.  When I visited a limited edition of The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson at McGill’s Rare Books Library, I felt as if I were turning the pages of a paper treasure, a piece of art I could hold, if only for a short while, in my own two hands. 

A trade paperback is due out at a modest price from Erin, Ont.-based Porcupine’s Quill. Just as I did in my teenage years, the Lana Del Ray fans may stumble upon Walker’s songbook in their local megastore and muse over his interpretation of Chelsea Hotel #2. The limousines are, of course, still waiting in the street.

Norman Ravvin is a writer and teacher in Montreal.