Every time I drove down to Leonard's modest home in a rather broken part of Los Angeles – there were bars on the windows and the pizza guys wouldn't always deliver there – I knew I was stepping into a space, a world, as essential and humanly exalted, as spare as one of the man's abiding songs. I had never met a writer who used words so well – with such a mix of hipness and high diction – and I had certainly never met someone who used silence with such power. Part of the strength of Leonard, in life as in art, was that he never pretended to know more than he did, and so gave even unknowing a depth and spaciousness it seldom possessed.
Everyone knows about his life in the world – the courtly manners, the beautiful suits, the women falling at his feet, the natural cool – but whenever I heard his songs I saw the private man, in his secret life. It's not an easy thing to shovel snow and bus dishes and dance attention on a 100-year-old man – let alone to sit stock-still in a meditation hall for 17 hours a day – and it's even harder to do it all in your 60s, when you could be doing everything the world considers as glamorous or sensuous in the cities of the plain.
So by meeting Leonard first, for many long days, while he was serving as a monk in the Mount Baldy Zen Center, I suppose I saw him mostly in that hidden self, unnoticed by the world, that was pledged to discipline and kindness and self-erasure via a kind of Marine Corps of the spirit. Where others heard I'm Your Man as a love song, I was reminded by an abbess in a Zen centre that it also sounded a lot like a Bodhisattva's vow of service. Where people read many of his intimate ballads as addressed to a young beauty, I always saw the bald head of his Zen friend and teacher, Joshu Sasaki-roshi, face unlined and body tiny, as the shadow subject of every hymn of devotion.
That was, of course, one of Leonard's great gifts as a poet: to write so closely, to something so deep and complex inside him, that at some point it hardly mattered whether it was girl or teacher or God. Each person could take it at his or her own level, and it would become medicine to those bereft in love, to those lost in faith, to those unsure of where their next lead was coming from.
Leonard never pretended he was above it all; he was always in the thick of things, internally – engaged, uncertain, ready to be proven wrong at any minute. Impermanence was as deep in him as, perhaps, the longing for permanence.
And what this meant in practice was a kind of modest, selfless kindness it's very rare to meet in any context, and especially from an accomplished artist. A stranger would compliment him on the street, and he would bow as if he were the lucky one. Someone he hardly knew would call him about a pet, and he would be there, very quickly, since it was his job to serve. Whenever I sent him a message, an automatic reply would come back, saying he was unavailable "till Sept. 21, 2020" or some such, and then a real reply would come back, minutes later, gracious and welcoming and generous.
That voice, so deep it seems to come from the underworld, will be with all of us forever. Those words, which more and more sound like reports from the afterworld, are built to last. But what all his acolytes and followers across the globe might never have guessed was that the modest, focused, regally intense and seductive and grown-up man they saw on stage, was a mere shadow of the man who tended to the world when nobody was looking.
Pico Iyer is an award-winning essayist, novelist and travel writer. His books include Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, and The Man Within My Head.
Special to The Globe and Mail