"Every night and every morn," wrote William Blake one afternoon in 1803, "some to misery are born." Then he sucked his pen, admired the fearful symmetry of his wife's bottom, and added, "Every morn and every night/Some are born to sweet delight." Now Blake could be very progressive — he liked sitting in his garden in the nude, for example — but here we find him taking a nicely medieval view, an anti-modern position. Mental health? Fiddlesticks. Joy (or sadness) is your estate and inheritance; sadness (or joy) was appointed for you in a room at the back end of Time. So flush those meds, my melancholy baby. Maniac, fire your shrink. Lie down instead (or get up) with fate.

The Blakester would be delighted, I think, by the almost-simultaneous appearance in our bookstore windows of Rod: The Autobiography by Rod Stewart and I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons. Behold, he might say, the twin trajectories of the human soul. This man has a vocation for pleasure, for the lighter states of life; that man is a gifted depressive. This man loves the applause; that man is troubled by it. And both of them, in their way, are doing it on behalf of the species. There's Rod Stewart with his beautiful, fur-lined dustbin of a voice and his drowsed-with-excess eyes: you might not be able to date Britt Ekland, or stay up all night snorting cocaine with the Go-Go's, but rest assured that he can — and he'll make the most of it too. And there's Leonard Cohen, groaning like a cello in a burned-out bedchamber, his pain unassuaged by any number of beauties; but he's interceding for you with God, and his lines are plumbing depths you didn't know you had.

Speaking of plumbing, that's what Rod's dad used to do: he was a plumber in North London, a transplanted Scotsman who sired five children, the last and most attention-seeking of whom was little Rodney. Leonard was born into affluence in 1930s Montreal, of a stern and priestly caste: both his grandfathers were rabbis. Rod spent much of his adolescence perfecting, and then maintaining, his exquisite ragged bouffant, or "bouff": "Picture me if you will, then, carefully dressed and styled for the night, accompanied by my mates, and standing down in Archway Station as the train thunders in — and all of us cowering into the wall, with our arms up over our heads, trying to protect our bouffs from getting toppled by the wind." Leonard in his teens was reading Lorca, an encounter described by Simmons as "the Big Bang of Leonard, the moment when poetry, music, sex and spiritual longing collided and fused in him for the first time." Roaming through Lorca's gypsy dreamscape, Leonard engaged a young man to teach him Spanish guitar: the young man gave him four lessons and then committed suicide.

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  Topics: Books , Leonard Cohen, Rod Stewart, Books,  More more >
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