On first inspection, Leonard Cohen seems smaller than the 5 feet, 5 inches that's his more or less "official" height, and not so much slender and dapper in his smartly cut suit as fragile. Well, you think, he is 71 after all -- a senior citizen with two children now in their 30s and a lot of life lived under a head of hair now sparse and grey. How could it be otherwise?
Then there are those financial and legal difficulties he's been weathering for almost two years. If you believe you've been bilked of more than $4-million (U.S.) by people you once thought were your pals -- as Cohen has -- it's gotta put some lines to the face, a droop to the eyelid and a stoop to the shoulder.
Still, Cohen's stride is purposeful and brisk, the handshake firm as he greets you. And when his eyes lock into yours and he cracks a killer smile, or offers a characteristically pithy pronouncement in that measured, gravelly baritone, or when, in response to a question about his determination to keep writing poetry and songs, he spontaneously sings, "They can't take that away from me" ("They've got everything else"), it's clear Leonard Norman Cohen is still our man, still a little giant of charisma.
Toronto has seen and heard a fair amount of Cohen in the past five or six days. The primary reason for the visit was to attend his induction (and that of five of his songs) into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Cohen always has had an uneasy relationship with these sorts of tributes -- he remains the only English-language poet ever to have declined (in 1968) a Governor-General's literary award. But his new manager, Vancouver's Sam Feldman, overseer of the careers of Elvis Costello, Diana Krall and Norah Jones, among many others, told him coming to Toronto would be good thing, and so it came to pass.
The trip also afforded Cohen the opportunity to do some preliminary promotional work for Blue Alert, a recording of 10 songs by his inamorata (and fellow Feldman client), Anjani Thomas -- pronounced Ah-jaw-knee, "as in ingénue," a publicist told me -- for which he was both producer and lyricist. The CD is due in stores in May from Sony BMG, the label Cohen's been associated with for almost 40 years. It's also the month Cohen will publish a collection of all-new poetry, his first since 1984, a hefty, illustration-packed hardcover called Book of Longing.
The morning after the hall of fame ceremony, Cohen looked amazingly spry and alert. He and Thomas had ducked the post-induction reception, retiring instead to the lounge of the host hotel where friends, fellow artists and fans dropped by to share congratulations and whisper confidences. Sleep that night was fitful, non-existent -- "We were just so wired," said Thomas of the love-bombing a tearful Cohen had received at the songwriters' event -- but both Thomas and her beau seemed buoyed by what she called "the pure experience of it all, how solely Canadian it was."
Cohen, of course, is no stranger to lack of sleep: "He keeps monk's hours; he's sometimes up at 3 or 4 in the morning," said Thomas, a reference, in part, to the years in the mid-1990s that Cohen spent at a mountaintop Zen Buddhist centre near Los Angeles. While there, it wasn't unusual for a shaven-headed Cohen to meditate in a sitting position for seven days straight, pausing occasionally to relieve himself in a bucket outdoors. If he started to nod off, a patrolling monk would prod him with a stick.
Cohen's always been disciplined in his bohemianism. Admittedly, he's sometimes embraced Rimbaud's dictum that the true artist must rationally disorder his senses -- in 1993, in the wake of splitting with actress Rebecca De Mornay, for instance, he was reportedly downing as many as four bottles of wine a day for a time -- but invariably he finds his way back to his guitar, keyboard, chair, table and notebook to try to put some order to what he once called the "inspired confusion of womanhood, godliness, beauty and darkness."
Asked if he thinks the hall of fame picked the right five songs for inclusion (they are Suzanne, Hallelujah, Everybody Knows, Bird on the Wire and Ain't No Cure for Love) Cohen smiled: "Well, they picked the songs that people like. Which is what I like. I had some input. I forget how it went or how they were chosen but there's nothing I oppose. I'm glad there are any of my songs in there. It's a wonderful thing to have anything succeed in this vale of tears."
He laughs when it's mentioned that Kris Kristofferson once said Cohen "nicked" part of the melody for Bird on the Wire from a song by country legend Lefty Frizzell. "It's very possible," Cohen remarks. "You listen to so much, a lot seeps in." Indeed, Cohen's love of country and western music is well known and of long standing, his first band being the Buckskin Boys, which he started in 1952 in Montreal. Fittingly perhaps, Kristofferson buddy Willie Nelson sang Bird on the Wire at the hall of fame ceremony last Sunday.
"I once had that [nicking]happen with Leo Sayer. Do you remember that song When I Need You?" Cohen sings the chorus of Sayer's number one hit from 1977, then segues into "And Jane came by with a lock of your hair," a lyric from Famous Blue Raincoat, a Cohen composition from his third record, 1971's Songs of Love and Hate. "Somebody sued them on my behalf . . . and they did settle," even though, he laughs, "they hired a musicologist who said that particular motif was in the public domain and, in fact, could be traced back as far as Schubert."
Cohen is currently working up his 12th studio recording, a follow-up to his last long-player, Dear Heather, from 2004. The quirky Heather got a mixed reception from critics and fans, because of its seeming patchwork nature ("Less like songs than poetry recitals set to vague jazz backings," according to one listener), its lack of big hooks and, perhaps most worrisomely, the sound of Cohen's voice, which one said has gone from "autumnal to wintry: death-haunted and barren." Further cementing Dear Heather's semi-pariah status in the Cohen canon was its author's refusal to do any promotional interviews.
Today, Cohen says Dear Heather "was meant as a kind of preface, or display, of the palette of all the circumstances and influences in my life . . . The stuff was not tossed out. It had incubated for a while. But the style was like talking points, a kind of notebook." Cohen says he "had intended to follow Dear Heather with another record very quickly, or as quickly as I could," one for which he would have done interviews and one that would have sounded "more substantial."
But then "these little pesky troubles" arose -- Cohen's characteristically deadpan allusion to the monumental legal difficulties he's faced since the fall of 2004 and his continuing struggle to recover some of the millions his lawyers allege former associates -- most notably, his manager of almost 17 years, Kelley Lynch -- wrongfully appropriated.
"It's all enough to put a dent in one's mood," says Cohen of his straitened circumstances, which came to public attention last summer, "but fortunately it hasn't -- and in relation to the great disasters we seem to be living through routinely, it's a tiny thing. . . .
"Certainly, it's an enterprise I could have done without," he admits. Yet "it's summoned some wonderful expressions of support and affection," not least being the heightened intimacy between himself and the Hawaii-born, 40-something Thomas, whom he first met in 1984 and later used as a harmony vocalist and keyboardist on records and on tours. Moreover, "the troubles have proved very nourishing in their way," helping him to focus on completing the collection of poetry and Thomas's record and to write new material.
"Who's to say what the components are for good work? In its fashion, my dilemma has created a landscape that has allowed me to do a great deal of work. Part of it has been necessity, to pay the legal bills, but the work itself has brought some blessings . . . I do dare to hope I'll be able to get out of it in another six months."