Journalists loved interviewing Leonard Cohen because he made his interviewers look good. His quotes were rich in humour, language, pathos and, to use an old-fashioned word, even wisdom. I interviewed him only twice, once in 1985 when his fortunes were at a low point, and once again in 1993, when his career had undergone a major revival. They were two of my favourite interviews and, I believe, created a shift in my centre of gravity.
Beyond the fact of his musical and literary genius, Cohen had a compelling personal aura and an effect on people. The singer Jennifer Warnes put it well, when she said that Cohen "has a way of crystallizing things for people that allows you to let go of a lot of shit that you otherwise would hang onto. It's intoxicating. He's a real catalyst; he has a real shakeup personality."
Our first interview, in 1985, was on a spring day on a park bench outside the old Inn on the Park hotel on Toronto's Eglinton Avenue East. He was then 50 years old, dressed in lounge-lizard black, hair slicked back, smoking as he talked. I was prepared to dislike him because of his fame as a serial seducer, and I was prepared to write about an aging roué with flowery metaphors who smelled of tobacco and cologne. When he mentioned a female journalist we knew in common as "a friend," I mentally groaned (her, too?).
He immediately won me over. He was a gentleman, and moved into thoughtful and honest conversation in the way of a good friend in a 3 a.m. heart-to-heart, and I didn't want to disappoint him. At the time, he was doing some of his best work and being largely ignored. He had recently released his first book (Book of Mercy) and studio album, Various Positions, in five years. The album included songs that became among his most renowned – Dance Me to the End of Love and Hallelujah – but the album had been ignored. This was the era of mega-selling pop records from Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson. Cohen's record company, Columbia, judged Various Positions too weak to be released in the United States. Walter Yetnikoff, president of Columbia Records at the time, told him, "Look, Leonard, we know you're great, but we don't know if you're any good."
He was grateful for the interest of the young alternative bands playing in England – the Smiths, Joy Division and Nick Cave and the Birthday Party – whose music was a kind of groan of despair in the face of Thatcher-Reagan triumphalism. He disagreed that the younger artists were responding to the "melancholy" in his work.
"For me, it's not so much being melancholy as being serious. There's room for seriousness. Diversion and entertainment are valuable, too, but there's also room for seriousness."
Everything had changed by 1993, at the time of my second interview. Jennifer Warnes's gorgeous 1987 album of Cohen songs, Famous Blue Raincoat, reawakened interest in his work. Then, in 1988, came his comeback album, the swaggering and caustic I'm Your Man; the tribute album, I'm Your Fan, in 1992, with REM, John Cale and the Pixies; and Cohen's 1992 album, The Future, influenced by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Then 59, Cohen's hair was a snowy white buzz-cut and he looked smaller, but seemed more strong and scrappy. He was promoting a book of his poems and songs, Stranger Music. "How are you, man," he muttered when he shook my hand, and the conversation seemed to pick up from where we had left it eight years before.
"Tastes change," he said, "I was a joke for a long time. From about 1970 to 1985 I was a joke, and I even laughed at it. This depressive grocer of despair."
Truth was, my perspective on Cohen's music had shifted, too, with age and experience. In the previous few months, I had been to too many funerals. My mother was playing Leonard Cohen to my father when he was ill. A colleague, the film critic Jay Scott, had died of an AIDS-related illness, and Ain't No Cure for Love was played at his funeral. I started seeing Cohen's songs as songs of grief, of life transitions, not just romantic despair.
I wasn't seeking a teacher but I'm sure my mental state influenced my line of questioning. We talked about his practice of meditation: "It's somehow involved in your self-respect. I don't divide the day into spiritual and profane activities. Zen has the quality of work. I'm very happy to be employed."
I asked how he reconciled Zen Buddhism and his Judaism. He said Allen Ginsberg had asked him the same question, but it wasn't a problem, because the kind of Judaism that attracted him was abstract and conceptual, about what couldn't be named or described but only approached, as a wall. The struggle is recurrent, constant, with peace in the gaps.
"Look," he said. "The emergency never ends. At times, a peaceful self is born, but it can't last. Everybody's heart gets broken. Everybody gets creamed."
What have I learned from Leonard Cohen? Where to start? Don't underestimate melancholy; the crisis is the beginning of the healing. Even failure is temporary and "love's the only engine of survival." Also, you get more benefit from 20 minutes of sitting alone quietly than from many hours of cable news and Facebook. Goodbye Mr. Cohen, with gratitude.