Little Axel: The sad story of the boy who grew up with Leonard Cohen

Little Axel: The sad story of the boy who grew up with Leonard Cohen

For several years, Axel Joachim Jensen (Oslo, 1960) has been living in a small ocher wooden house with a veranda, where he likes to go out and smoke. Through the window, the view extends across a plain to a small coniferous forest. The house is integrated into a psychiatric hospital near Oslo, where only the birds can be heard. He lives there voluntarily.

Since the age of 19, this man has spent his life in various mental health centers. His mother was Marianne Ihlen, one of the great loves and muses of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, with whom Jensen lived as a child. He tells it himself in the documentary film Little Axel, directed by Fabien Greenberg and Bård Kjøge Rønning. “It’s hard to remember things that you want to forget, but I live in a beautiful place now,” he says.

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Filmed just before the outbreak of the pandemic, the documentary could only be released in Norway and the US at the time, but next season it will resume international distribution and be shown in new countries including Spain. On an autumn morning, right on the dates of the pre-Covid premiere, Jensen agreed to drive with his legal guardian and this journalist to Larkollen, the town where his mother was born.

During the game, Jensen remains serious most of the time. Sparing with words, he lives under the action of drugs. Yet there are few details that seem to escape his hard and scrutinizing gaze, which occasionally lights up with the tenderness and liveliness of a child. Corpulent, he has shaved hair, a gray and unkempt beard, and walks at a brisk pace. He’s sitting in a bar and seems distant and indifferent to the conversation. “Cohen had a dark side,” he blurts out. “But I miss being with him.”

He hardly opens his mouth again. Beneath his rough appearance are a foreshortened sensibility, a decrepit head, and the inner pain accumulated over a lifetime.

His father was Axel Jensen, who is considered the Jack Kerouac of Scandinavian literature. His other father, Leonard Cohen. Two prominent counterculture figures poised to set the world on fire through literature and poetry. Nonconformists, tormented, narcissistic, mystically attracted, adventurous and lustful, only the act of creation gave meaning to their existence.

Little Axel – as he was called – arrived at the age of four months on the Greek island of Hydra, where his parents lived and where Cohen had also settled. A few days later her father left her mother for another woman. It began one of the most romantic relationships of recent times, that of Leonard and Marianne, doomed from the start but sublimated by a song, So Long Marianne. A turbulent relationship full of ups and downs. During the eight years that it took, the artist was responsible for supporting the child financially and, most importantly, emotionally. And she would continue to help him many years after he separated from his mother and sporadically integrate him into his new family.

Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen, in another frame of the documentary.Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen, in another frame of the documentary.

Little Axel is a portrait composed of harsh testimonies, melancholic guitar chords and old photos mostly taken in Hydra. In this natural and archaic environment, a small colony of emigrants found their Arcadia, unleashing a life free of conventions but not contradictions. Axel himself says that he grew up in absolute freedom, smoked at the age of seven and came home drunk. When he was nine, he traveled to Crete with the sole companion of his friend Jeffery Brown, age 12 (“They wanted us [nuestras madres], but they also loved their own freedom. We had to be grown up very early,” Brown laments.) At 15, he was using hashish and tried LSD. At 16, he traveled alone to India. Upon his return, depression set in and he became aggressive. At 18, he moved to California, to visit Cohen. It was the last time they were in contact. He spent his 19th birthday in a mental hospital.

The boy’s tender letters from Summerhill – a British boarding school, bastion of anti-authoritarian upbringing – where he entered at the age of seven, and the desperate calls he sent to his mother and Cohen from a strict Swiss school are overwhelming. The worst part of the story falls on you. If anyone emerges gracefully from this sad document of abandonment, lost souls and open wounds, it is his protagonist. But there’s no hint of a possible genetic predisposition to the mental imbalance Axel suffers from. His paternal grandmother was committed to a mental institution, confirms Torgrim Eggen, author of Axel (Cappelen), a biography dedicated to the Scandinavian writer. Characterized by his frequent and aggressive outbursts, his own father, along with RD Laing, a friend of the writer, was treated by David Cooper, father of anti-psychiatry. In his first session he was given LSD. “You could say he was a borderline,” warns the biographer.

“Hydra certainly took a toll on many of the foreign children who lived there, it had to do with their way of life outside of any structure or boundary,” notes Helle V. Goldman, editor of When We Were Almost Young (Tipota Press), a compilation of texts about the island on which she herself grew up. “They were witnesses to the lives lived by adults; his infidelities, his parties and the use of alcohol and drugs. While it’s debatable that Marianne was too focused on her own life adventure, the truth is that she was a young and lonely mother. It’s very easy to blame the mothers. Today it may seem cruel, but in the context of that time it was common in some social circles to send children to boarding schools.

Judy Scott writes about those days of hallucinogenic distortions and the height of the sexual revolution in Leonard, Marianne, and Me (Backbeat Books), a candid yet succinct memoir of her Hydra days in the 1970s. This includes an episode in which little Axel and the author Mescaline share. Under its effects, the boy thinks he sees Cohen’s ghost. “Sadly, I came to the conclusion that big children should never have played with small children, but then we naively never thought there was anything wrong with that,” writes the author, who in turn refers to Ihlen as “such a neglected mother.” remembered as devoted. As time went on, towards the end of her life, she blamed only herself for her son’s suffering.

In August 1970, just before Cohen managed to calm an agitated crowd with his poetic calm at a disastrous festival on Britain’s Isle of Wight, the artist received a letter from an inmate at Henderson Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in south London , in which he was invited to give a concert at the residence. “I hope you like So Long Marianne,” he said as he entered. He played in front of around 50 young people for more than two hours. He told them how his relationship with his muse was slowly fading. How You Know Who I Am cost him 300 LSD trips and One of Us Cannot be Wrong he wrote in a broken room at the Chelsea Hotel while off amphetamines. He also let her know that he sometimes experienced inconsolable loneliness.

It was the first of a series of concerts organized in various institutions. The public reacted ecstatically, and he bonded with them, perhaps sensitized by the genetic makeup of his maternal family. “If someone agrees or is forced to enter a psychiatric hospital, they have already admitted an enormous defeat,” he later said. “You have already made a choice. And I felt that the elements of that election and the elements of that defeat paralleled certain elements that brought forth my songs and that there would be some empathy.

After the documentary’s premiere, Axel has returned to playing chess, a hobby he often shared with Leonard during their happier days on Hydra. He still listens to his songs today.

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