Lean in close now. Leonard Cohen is speaking, and if you want to understand him, it might take a bit of work. It's not just that he talks, as he writes, in sometimes enigmatic pronouncements; he's also quiet as a lullaby.
You've just settled in across from him, making small talk, when his two publicists retreat into the next room. Suddenly he seems freed by their absence. "Come and have a coffee," he says in his familiar low baritone, getting up and crossing the room. "How do you take it?"
Cohen is playing servant here, but he was master last night. When he appeared on stage at the Beacon Theatre for his first stateside concert in 15 years, the crowd greeted him with waves of adoration, like a beloved and humble sovereign returning from exile, or maybe a new U.S. president: There was hope in the air. And Cohen seemed energized by the affection, jaunty even, so much so that when he departed the stage after each set and encore, he skipped off like a thieving scamp.
But 12 hours after he and his band bid adieu with a soothing rendition of Whither Thou Goest, he is seated wearily on a couch, wearing a bolo tie and a black three-piece suit cut smartly to his lithe frame, his trademark fedora atop his head, and he appears almost fragile. At one point, as he considers a question and his left hand drifts absently up to his mouth, his fingers seem to tremble slightly. You suddenly remember: He's a 74-year-old man.
One, to be sure, who's in greater demand than ever. Since launching his tour last May in Fredericton, Cohen has played 99 concerts, some in venues as large as London's O2 arena, which boasts a capacity of 20,000. This spring, he will do another 28 shows across North America, including 11 dates in Canadian cities that he bypassed last year, in support of a DVD and double-disc CD album of his London concert, coming out March 31. Reinforcing his cultural currency, he will even play the shaggy Coachella festival near Palm Springs on April 17, joining an outdoor lineup of much younger acts that includes Conor Oberst, The Black Keys, Girl Talk, and The Hold Steady.
"The response has been very, very, very hospitable, and it's been a generally very nourishing experience," Cohen begins, slowly. "We've been all over the world, and you know, one is never sure that it's going to work again. You're never sure from concert to concert, actually, because there's some part of it you don't command."
Cohen likes to feel the mood in a room and react, in a process he says is almost spiritual. Which is why, as his music director and bassist Roscoe Beck explained a couple of hours before the show, Cohen tries to leave himself open to momentary whims onstage. "It's heads-up at all times," said Beck, who has played with Cohen since 1979 and put together the band for the current tour. "We may land on a chord and he just may feel that it's not time to come in singing yet, just emotionally it's a nice moment, and he'll decide to extend that moment another bar. We have to be ready for that, we have to be ready for anything. A lyric change, an added bar, a different song."
Cohen is out on the road again to rebuild a multimillion-dollar nest egg he alleges was lost through the mismanagement of others. A series of lawsuits and counterclaims now seems to be behind him, but the sting remains.
"I was spending enormous amounts of time in lawyers' offices, tax specialists' offices, accountants' offices, detectives' offices. In fact, I was spending all my time in offices, and I had to say to myself at a certain point, 'If God wants to bore you to death, I guess that's His business.'
"It was an enormous - 'distraction' hardly begins to describe it, because what happened was, my own work became a distraction. I had to take care of the matters at hand, they were urgent, and the situation was dangerous at certain points."
His financial well-being was threatened, but Cohen has always been someone to extract wisdom from twists of fortune, be they shattered romances or corruption in society; some of his best songs are built upon sharp insights into human nature gained when on the ropes. So, you ask him, what have you learned about yourself from the ordeal?
"The next time around, I'll try to know where the bank is," he grimaces. "I was very, very, very absent from these day-to-day concerns."
He leans back and recalls a moment four decades past. "When I first went down to New York from Montreal to pursue some sort of career," he says, "my mother, who I always thought was kind of naive - she was Russian, her English was imperfect - she said to me, 'Leonard, you be careful of those people down there. They're not like us.' And of course, I didn't say anything to disrespect, she was my mother, but in my mind I thought, 'Mother, you know, I'm not a child.' I was 32, I'd been around the block a few times." He turns to face you, and a lopsided smile wafts across his lips. "But she was right. She was right."
With all due respect to Cohen, though, we might quietly mutter a special thanks to whoever was responsible for his latest travails. For even he agrees that the tour is proof that some good can come from adversity. And to see Cohen in concert these days is to experience a sort of musical Method acting: The emotions in the songs seem to be channelled anew. Like an Oscar-winning actor, his control of his physicality and voice is almost lapidary, and it has a transfixing effect on an audience.
It seems a shame he never pursued feature film work. "I never had any skill of it," he shrugs. You ask him about a brief appearance in a 1986 episode of Miami Vice, as a French bad guy, that went down in Leonard Cohen lore as one of his less successful ventures. He laughs brightly, as if he hasn't thought of it in 20 years.
"I had a big part in Miami Vice, and after the first scene I shot, I was called by an agent in New York. She said, 'You were really marvellous, really marvellous today.' I said, 'You mean I'm fired.' She said 'Yes, they've rewritten the rest of the scenes for other actors.'" He chuckles. "I wasn't disappointed, I'd gone into that show because my kids watched Miami Vice and I wanted to surprise them by being on it."
Mainstream pop culture has never been Cohen's province, anyway; his influences are too European, too ancient. When the faithful made their pilgrimages to the Beacon last week, some from faraway lands, they found welcome solidarity through his expressions of outrage in songs like Everybody Knows and Democracy, in which he pledges, "Democracy is coming to the U.S.A." But, mostly in their late 50s or early 60s, they cheered the loudest at Cohen's admissions of weakness - as Tower of Song has it, "I ache in the places I used to play" - that stood as surrogate confessions of their own emotional and physical infirmities. He was their cantor, offering supplications in search of redemption.
Those weaknesses are what seem to be on his mind these days. Cohen says he has written an album's worth of material, and has recorded a couple of songs, many of them apparently fuelled by a creeping sense of his own mortality. And why not? This is his first tour in 15 years; when it draws to a close, who knows if he will ever see the road again?
"The clear sense that you know you're in the homeward stretch is a very compelling component in writing," he says. "A lot of other things fall away that you hope would satisfy you like human life, and your work becomes a kind of haven, and you want to go there, and you're grateful when the time opens in such a way that you can actually sit down and work at your own work, because everything else somehow has failed.
"I'm speaking not just for myself," he continues. "Somehow, just in the nature of things, you know, the disappointments accumulate, and the obstacles multiply and you sense the destruction of your body, and your mind, and you feel here is the last arena - 'arena' is too big, the last boxing ring, or the last Ouija board, where you can examine some of the ideas that have intrigued you. That have seized you, really."