This profile was initially published on Saturday, September 1, 2001.
Leonard Cohen, age 82, died on Nov. 10, 2016. Read his obituary here.
During his five years atop Mount Baldy, his fellow monks named him Jikan, the silent one, although in lighter moments he became known as Bad Monk. Today, almost 30 months after his descent back into the heat and hustle of Los Angeles, he is Leonard Cohen once again.
Still, the patterns of monastic life remain intact. On this summer day, as always, he has risen hours before dawn, before the birds and cars and helicopters have filled the air with sound; he has stepped out the back door of the humble house he shares with his daughter Lorca in a struggling downtown neighbourhood, and he has strolled into the back-yard studio. Here he maintains the one constant in his peripatetic life: the clean, white room almost devoid of ornamentation, like the one in the Zen monastery, like the one on the Greek island of Hydra, like the rooms where it all began in Montreal, five decades ago.
At midday, after eight hours of work and meditation and songs from a room, he greets his two visitors as if they were the oldest comrades. “Welcome, friends, welcome,” he says, in the oak-aged baritone that has won the hearts of countless listeners, thousands of drinking companions, hundreds of lovers. As always, he is immaculately groomed, in a tailored dark-blue suit and a necktie. Over the next hours, he will show us the quiet corners where he laboriously crafts and recrafts his verses, the files where he stores dozens, sometimes hundreds of drafts of every one of his works. He will make us chopped-egg sandwiches, and he will share a bottle of very good riesling. And, most of all, he will talk about the 10 new songs, and the 250 new poems, and the years of self-imposed isolation that have led to this autumnal renaissance.
Leonard Cohen is once again a songwriter, eight years after he swore he’d given up the craft for good. Ten New Songs, the title of the recording he will release next month, is possibly his most poised, hypnotic work yet, a set of secular and holy incantations whose pared-down lyrics refract contradictory waves of meaning and myth. His monotone growl seems to have dropped another octave, if possible, and added an appealing, resined buzz, like a bowed string-bass. He is producing poetry with the same agonizing, methodical approach as always, but at a greater pace and a greater artistic restraint. His songs are co-written, a concept almost unthinkable for a man who has devoted his life to the first person, with Sharon Robinson, a musician who seems better at writing Leonard Cohen songs than Leonard Cohen is.
“Collaborations happen so rarely in my case,” he says. Robinson, herself a sometime follower of the Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi, Cohen’s guru, had written the music for two of his best songs, Everybody Knows and Waiting for the Miracle, and she was waiting for him when he came down from the mountain. “We didn’t have an idea that there would be a record. We just wanted to get together and write some songs together, because the process has always been very peaceful, so we wrote one and then two and then three. She has an extraordinary penetration of my lyrics.”
And, most extraordinary, Leonard Cohen is no longer wracked with bouts of depression. Though he has devoted every moment of his adult life to expressing the agonies of the human condition, and has frequently fallen completely to pieces himself, in his seventh decade Cohen seems to have found a genuine state of grace. Something must have happened, something profound, up there on Mount Baldy. However, it will take time, and careful listening, to learn exactly what.
Most surprising is that Cohen’s sudden lack of angst hasn’t rendered him artistically impotent. In fact, it appears to have done the opposite.
On this visit, he talks enthusiastically about the prospect of a concert tour, another custom he’d forsworn in 1993; he devotes even more enthusiasm to the prospect of writing a third novel.
“I think people, perhaps legitimately sometimes, feel that anguish or suffering is the engine of creativity. It’s a very popular notion . . . I think most people live their lives in an emergency, and I’m certainly not unique in this respect. I have certainly battled depression over the years, and my time on Mount Baldy was one of the remedies. And I found that my depression might have been the background of my work, but not the spur, not the trigger.
“Although,” he says with a chuckle, “without that background, the work isn’t easier. You know, lifting boulders isn’t easier when you’re in a good mood.”
And keep in mind that this is a very Leonard Cohen kind of good mood.
In other words, it is powered by the deepest kind of pessimism about the human project. His album’s most immediately telling tune, Boogie Street, seems to mark his reappearance on the scene: “O Crown of Light, O Darkened One,/ I never thought we’d meet./ You kiss my lips, and then it’s done:/ I’m back on Boogie Street.”
Tellingly, it is a lament, the saddest song on the album.
It is 1964, and Leonard Cohen is predicting the future. He is 30, and he has just to begun to write his second novel, Beautiful Losers, in a swirl of barbiturates and acid under the Mediterranean sun of Hydra, where he has bought a house for $1,500. “I am an old scholar,” he types, as a Ray Charles record spins on the turntable beside him, “better-looking now than when I was young.” And then he adds a note of bathos: “That’s what sitting on your ass does to your face.”
Half a lifetime later, Leonard Cohen is himself an old scholar, four years from his 70th birthday, and he may well be better-looking now than when he was young. He has traded the laconic, smouldering appeal of the rebellious poet and folksinger for a chiselled Bogart cool, a look of gravity unburdened by ponderous affectation. He carries it off very well. But this has not been achieved by sitting on his ass. Those years at California’s Mount Baldy Zen Center were constant, intense physical labour, at high altitude and low temperature, a highly disciplined and ordered regime of menial tasks and strenuous meditation. He quotes a Zen saying: “ ‘Like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish one another.’ You’re working shoulder to shoulder with one another, there’s intensive labour to keep the facility going. So the notion of spiritual aspiration as an objective is somewhat discouraged in this particular expression.”
It is a spiritual practice that seems to have been tailor-made for Cohen: Enlightenment through household chores. Ten years older than most of the baby-boom guitar slingers, Cohen has also stood apart from them in his asceticism, his obsessive rigour. “I’ve always had an aesthetic interest in austerity – I prefer a bare room to a cluttered room,” he says. “And, as one of Gandhi’s aides once said, it costs a lot of money to keep Mahatma Gandhi in poverty. I liked the life on Mount Baldy for that reason: It’s not an easy life but it’s a simple life.”
It is autumn of 2000, and Leonard Cohen is in Montreal for the funeral of Pierre Trudeau, with whom he had shared a mutual admiration and a few common traits. He visits the hospital bed of Irving Layton, his dear friend and poetic inspiration, who has been in frail health. They share an illegal smoke in the hospital lobby, and talk turns to their favourite game.
Irving: Leonard, have you noticed any decline in your sexual interest?
Leonard: As a matter of fact I have, Irving.
Irving: I’m relieved to hear that, brother.
Leonard: So I take it, Irving, that you yourself have experienced some decline in your sexual interest.
Irving: I have.
Leonard: When did you first notice this decline?
Irving: Oh, about the age of 16 or 17.
Leonard Cohen has had the rare luxury of complete self-absorption almost all his life. From his first moment of success in the late 1960s, he has given himself plenty of time, creating an album every four or five years and a book less frequently; since then, he has been financially and, in most cases, sexually independent. His one near-marriage in the 1970s produced his two beloved children (Lorca and Adam, both adults who live near him now, she a furniture-store owner and he a promising musician) but never had any pretence of exclusivity. His lovers have been many, but his commitments have never lasted, his last major relationship fading in the late 1980s. His only real marriage has been to himself, and to his ideals. By his own account, it has been a fractious and abusive marriage.
In the midst of this self-absorption, more than any other artist of his generation, Cohen has gone out of his way to make his life as difficult as possible. Physically, emotionally and intellectually, he has been relentlessly hard on himself his whole life. As he describes it, he is caught on the horns of a paradox: a man who depends on the self for his livelihood, yet who strives for the deepest kind of self-abnegation.
“I recently read a conversation by Isaac B. Singer – he said every creator knows the painful chasm between his inner vision and the final expression.” Cohen cocks an eyebrow. “I don’t know that painful chasm. I know other painful chasms, but that’s one I don’t know, because I don’t have a sense of a compelling inner vision I can locate, and that’s why it takes me a long time to write: I have to go beneath my opinions, which long ago I ceased to have any great interest in.
“My own opinions are predictable; I can dredge them up in a conversation over a drink to keep the talk flowing. And I feel the same way about beliefs: My beliefs are predictable, and I find them kind of tiresome. So I need to write a lot to avoid the opinion, the belief or the slogan, and to come up with the freshness that determines the living quality of a piece of work.”
If these seem like rabbinical labours, his new songs like complex prayers to someone who may or may not be a deity, it is because Cohen’s life has been taken over by the most complicated and indescribable kind of spirituality. He has always embraced the responsibility of the cohenim, the Jewish priestly class who kept the fires burning; his practice of Zen has only enhanced this. Even on Mount Baldy, he observed the Sabbath. “I certainly wasn’t looking for a new religion – I was very happy with my own and old religion. I wasn’t interested in a new set of religious principles.”
It is a cold mid-winter evening in the middle of the 1990s, and the monks of Mount Baldy are pacing around an empty fire pit in the snow, in a tough kind of walking meditation. Through the mountain air, they are surprised to hear loud voices speaking Yiddish in the distance. Cohen thinks: This must have something to do with me. He leaves the meditation line, and encounters two Lubavitcher Rabbis, the most orthodox of the Orthodox, who had been serving the community at the foot of the hill. One says: “We heard there was a Jew on the mountain.” They have come to rescue Cohen, he realizes. He brings them back to his cabin, where the last flames of the Hanukkah menorah are still burning. He finds a half-full bottle of scotch in the cabin, and some Turkish cigarettes, and they spend the evening singing and dancing. “After that,” Cohen says, “they visited us quite often up there.”
“The ponies run, the girls are young,/ The odds are there to beat./You win a while, and then it’s done –/ Your little winning streak./ And summoned now to deal/ With your invincible defeat,/ You live your life as if it’s real,/ A Thousand Kisses Deep.”
So begins Ten New Songs, with a statement of its most salient theme: an acceptance of the notion that we have no control over our fates.
As we discuss this song, Cohen is surveying the objects on the big oak desk in the front room of his house. These objects include a half-dozen mockup album covers, all of them designed by Leonard Cohen. The final cover will feature a digital photo of Cohen and Robinson, taken by Cohen. He has designed the covers of most of his 14 recordings, often with his own photos. Since his first poetry collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies in 1956, he has controlled cover art, paper stock and typography in his books. His next collection, likely to be published by McClelland and Stewart next year, will be no exception. On this album, Cohen and Robinson sing all the parts and play all the instruments; it was recorded in their home studios, often by exchanging music files over the Internet. Also on the desk are several recently recorded CDs; these contain different mixes of the album with varying tonal balances. Cohen will choose which mix to use – in every step of the recording and production process, he is intensely involved.
So here we have another paradox of Leonard Cohen: A man who is obsessively in control of every element of his art, yet who devotes that art to telling us that we have absolutely no control.
“We don’t write the play, we don’t produce it, we don’t direct it and we’re not even actors in it,” he says, speaking of A Thousand Kisses Deep in particular and his world view in general. “Everybody eventually comes to the conclusion that things are not unfolding exactly the way they wanted, and that the whole enterprise has a basis that you can’t penetrate. Nevertheless, you live your life as if it’s real. But with the understanding: It’s only a thousand kisses deep, that is, with that deep intuitive understanding that this is unfolding according to a pattern that you simply cannot discern.”
It is the Zen of country and western, of rhythm and blues, two genres that influence his beliefs almost as much as his complex of religions.
At some deep level, his music remains hurtin’ music. At McGill University, he led a country group, comprised of young urban Jewish men, called the Buckskin Boys; the last major album he listened to was by George Jones. Ten New Songs includes one overt country song, which continues the theme of powerlessness against fate: “I fought against the bottle,/ But I had to do it drunk –/ Took my diamond to the pawnshop –/ But that don’t make it junk.”
Absent is the worldly wit of his last two albums of new material, The Future and I’m Your Man. This material is no less clever, but slower to reveal itself. There is one number that could be called a protest song, The Land of Plenty ("May the lights in The Land of Plenty/Shine on the truth some day.") – but its lyrics are almost entirely devoted to the singer’s lack of worthiness. “Mostly this song is about my lack of credentials to sing this song, and my ignorance about the place from which it arose,” he says. And then he offers the song’s key line: “Don’t really have the courage/ To stand where I must stand./ Don’t really have the temperament/ to lend a helping hand.”
And this brings us back to Boogie Street, an address mentioned frequently on this recording. At first blush, you might take this to mean Cohen’s return to Babylon from the mountaintop. But he has something more universal, more despairing, in mind. He points out the song’s culmination, a lyrical kick in the face: “Though all the maps of blood and flesh/ Are posted on the door,/ There’s no one who has told us yet/ What Boogie Street is for.”
“Boogie Street is the place where we always live,” he says, settling into an easy chair. “It’s Boogie Street at the monastery, too. It’s everywhere.”
As Buddhism’s holiest cliché would put it: Life is suffering. Cohen sees little more: “The evidence accumulates that ours is not an entirely happy undertaking. The amount of suffering that one sees and hears about is shattering. But the only comfort in the matter is Thy Will Be Done. To whatever degree you want to establish that as a principle in your life: The notion that it’s unfolding according to a mechanism that you can’t possibly penetrate. Acceptance. Or surrender.”
A bleak conclusion, especially from a man who says he has left depression behind. Surely there must be a glint of hope, as he suggested in his oft-quoted 1993 song Anthem: “Ring the bells that still can ring./ Forget your perfect offering./ There is a crack in everything./ That’s how the light gets in.”
He offers a wry smile, and a shrug of admission.
“Of course there are moments – I suppose when you embrace your children, or kiss your beloved, or plunge into a pool of cold water – when you forget who you are, when you forget yourself, and that’s a very refreshing occasion, and it’s paradise, there’s no you. But you resurrect immediately, into Boogie Street. If you’re lucky, you resurrect with the residue of the experience of paradise. But, as Roshi says, you can’t live in paradise – no restaurants or toilets.”
It seems that Leonard Cohen has finally managed to forget himself, even as he prepares to place himself upon the public stage once again, after his longest retreat. Self-erasure is a difficult way to find peace, and an even tougher way to make art, but somehow he has managed to accomplish it.
“It’s been a very graceful moment,” he says, as he bids his guests farewell and turns back to the plain white room. “These things are always temporary, but I’m happy to be in it.”
“I was once a secretary to a Zen monk who was establishing zendos in Trappist monasteries. There had been a rapprochement between Zen and the Trappists started by Thomas Merton. In one place, we talked to this prisoner, and he asked, ‘How do you get through the day?’ The monk said, ‘You should regard this place as your own. We’re not invited to make this place our own, but that’s what you must do.’ “ And then Cohen adds, a little mournfully, “This monk also said to me – his English wasn’t so good – ‘Older you get, lonelier you become, more deep the love you need.’” The poetry businessReport Typo/Error