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


A documentary tells the life of the son of Marianne Ihlen, girlfriend and muse of the Canadian musician. It is the crude portrait of a victim of the excesses of a revolution, who has spent a large part of her life in psychiatric hospitals.

For a few years now, Axel Joachim Jensen (Oslo, 1960) has lived in a small ocher-painted wooden house with a porch, where he likes to go out and smoke.

Through the window the view extends over a plain to a small coniferous forest.

The house is integrated into a psychiatric hospital, near Oslo, where the only sound heard is that of the birds.

He lives there voluntarily.

Since he turned 19, this man's life has been spent in different mental health centers.

His mother was Marianne Ihlen, who was one of the great loves and muse of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, with whom Jensen lived as a child.

He tells it himself in the documentary

Little Axel

, directed by Fabien Greenberg and Bård Kjøge Rønning.

"It's hard to remember things you want to forget, but now I live in a nice place," he says.

More information

Marianne: The true and sad story of the woman who gave everything by Leonard Cohen

The documentary was shot shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic and could only be released then in Norway and the US, but next season it will resume its international distribution and will be screened in new countries, including Spain.

Right on the dates of the pre-covid premiere, one autumn morning, Jensen agreed to travel by car with his legal guardian and this journalist to Larkollen, the town where his mother was born.

During the match, Jensen remains serious most of the time.

Sparing in words, he lives under the effects of medication.

Even so, 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 cropped hair, a gray and unkempt beard and walks at a brisk pace.

Sitting in a bar, he appears absent and indifferent to the conversation.

"Cohen had a dark side," he blurts out.

"But I miss being with him."

He barely opens his mouth again.

Behind her rough appearance, a truncated sensitivity, a dilapidated head and the internal pain accumulated throughout a lifetime can be seen.

His father was Axel Jensen, considered the Jack Kerouac of Scandinavian literature.

His other father, Leonard Cohen.

Two prominent figures of the counterculture, ready to set the world on fire through literature and poetry.

Nonconformists, tormented, narcissistic, attracted by mysticism, thirsty for adventure and lust, only the act of creation gave meaning to their existence.

Little Axel —so he was nicknamed— arrived at the age of four months on the Greek island of Hydra, where his parents had established their residence and where Cohen had also settled.

A few days later, his father left his mother for another woman.

One of the most romanticized relationships of recent times began there, that of Leonard and Marianne, condemned to failure from the beginning but sublimated through a song,

So Long Marianne


A turbulent relationship, full of ups and downs.

Throughout the eight years that it lasted, the artist was in charge of offering financial and, above all, emotional support to the child.

And he would continue to help him, and sporadically integrate him into his new family, even many years after his breakup with his mother.

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

Little Axel

It is a portrait stitched together through harsh testimonies, melancholic guitar chords and old photos, taken mostly in Hydra.

In this natural and archaic environment, a small colony of expatriates found their arcadia to unleash a life free of conventions, but not of contradictions.

Axel himself tells that he grew up in absolute freedom, that at the age of seven he was already smoking and that he returned home drunk.

At the age of nine, he traveled to Crete with the sole company of his friend Jeffery Brown, 12 (“They loved us [our mothers], but they also loved their own freedom. We had to be adults 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 had contact.

His 19th birthday was spent in a mental hospital.

The tender letters written by the boy from Summerhill —a British boarding school, bastion of anti-authoritarian education—, 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 Ihlen.

If someone comes out dignified in this sad document of abandonment, lost souls and open wounds, it is its protagonist.

But there are no allusions to a possible genetic predisposition to the mental imbalance that Axel suffers.

His paternal grandmother was admitted to a mental institution, confirms Torgrim Eggen, author of


(Cappelen), a biography dedicated to the Scandinavian writer.

Characterized by his frequent and aggressive outbursts, his own father was in treatment with David Cooper, father of anti-psychiatry together with RD Laing, a friend of the writer.

In his first session he was given LSD.

“We could say that he was a


”, warns the biographer.

“Hydra certainly took its 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,” says Helle V. Goldman, editor of

When We Were Almost Young

(Tipota Press ), a compilation of texts about the island, where she herself grew up.

“They were witnesses of the life that adults led;

of his infidelities, his parties and the consumption of alcohol and drugs.

While it is debatable that Marianne was too focused on her own life adventure, the truth is that she was a young and lonely mother.

It is very easy to blame the mothers.

Today it might seem cruel, but within the context of those days, within some social circles, it was customary 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 memoir as honest as it is incisive about her days in Hydra during the seventies.

They include an episode in which little Axel and the author share mescaline.

Under its effects, the boy thinks he sees Cohen's ghost.

"Sadly, I concluded that big children should never have been allowed to play with little children, but then, naively, we never thought there was anything wrong with it," writes the author, who in turn remembers Ihlen as a mother "so neglected as devoted.

Over time, at the end of her life, she blamed only herself for her son's suffering”.

In August 1970, shortly before Cohen, with his poetic calm, managed to calm an agitated crowd at a disastrous festival on the British Isle of Wight, the artist received a letter from an inmate at Henderson Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in the south in London, in which he was invited to give a concert at the residence.

“I hope you like

So Long Marianne

”, he said as soon as he entered.

For more than two hours he played for about 50 young people.

He told them how his relationship with his muse was slowly fading away.


You Know Who I am

cost him 300 acid trips, and

One of Us Cannot be Wrong

he wrote it in a chipped room at the Chelsea Hotel, while weaning himself off amphetamines.

She also let them know that she sometimes experienced inconsolable loneliness.

That was the first of a series of concerts organized in different asylums.

The public responded ecstatically, and he connected with them, perhaps sensitized by the genetic predisposition of his maternal family.

"When one agrees or is forced to enter a psychiatric hospital, he has already recognized a tremendous defeat," he would say later.

“He has already made a choice.

And I had the feeling that the elements of that choice, and the elements of that defeat, corresponded to certain elements that produced my songs, and that there would be some empathy."

After the premiere of the documentary, Axel has returned to playing chess, a hobby he often shared with Leonard in their happy days on Hydra.

Today he continues to listen to his songs.

Source: elparis

All life articles on 2022-08-09

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