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Angst & Aquavit 

Leonard Cohen in the afternoon

Wednesday, Sep 26 2001
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Photo by Max Gerber

LEONARD COHEN IS THE ULTIMATE CROSSOVER ARTIST. A SINGER WHO published two novels and four books of poetry before he ever set foot in a recording studio, he exchanged the old, adult realm of the printed word for the brave new electronic youth culture that arose in the mid-1960s. Put it this way. In 1962, when Cohen was a promising young Montreal author with short hair and neat clothes and two collections of poetry to his name -- Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) and The Spice-Box of Earth (1961) -- he was flown to Paris by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to moderate a panel discussion between Mary McCarthy, Malcolm Muggeridge and Romain Gary on the "crisis in Western culture." Eight years later, after recording Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs From a Room, he performed in front of 300,000 people at the Isle of Wight Festival while stoned on Mandrax. Evidently, Cohen had found his own solution to the crisis: He went to where the action was. On a modest level, he became a part of the mass media, the mass mind. Now the mass mind is part of what he's worried about, and the crisis is no longer just Western, it's global. Eight days before the attack on the World Trade Center, I sat with the famously gloomy singer in his home near a rundown section of Pico Boulevard, and found him surprisingly upbeat. Maybe it was the fact that Songs of Leonard Cohen had just gone gold in America -- 34 years after its release. Or perhaps it was the satisfaction of having completed his first record in almost a decade, Ten New Songs. Possibly it was the thought of his upcoming trip to Bombay, where he planned to study with one of his gurus, Ramesh Balsekar. But probably it was none of these things. In all likelihood, Leonard Cohen was upbeat simply because, these days, he feels happy.

"Is this a good period in your life?" I asked.

"It is, but I hesitate to affirm it," Cohen said, laughing. "My mother would be spitting and throwing salt over her shoulder."

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Sitting at a small kitchen table, the 67-year-old composer of such songs as "Suzanne," "Bird on a Wire," "Famous Blue Raincoat," "Chelsea Hotel," "I'm Your Man" and "Democracy" plied me with pâté and gorgonzola, with red wine and aquavit. He drank strong coffee and smoked cigarettes. He looked less like a singer than an unusually cultivated business man of indefinite provenance -- the face Jewish, the accent Canadian, the manner Old World and faintly elusive. A cosmopolite, but not quite at home anywhere. A Jew with a shrine to the Virgin Mary in his kitchen. A bohemian in a jacket and tie.

It was a pleasure to meet him. His hair is close-cropped and gray now, his smile wonderfully embattled. He makes you laugh. The man known as the most doleful singer in the world is really a kind of comedian, obsessed with hierarchies and judgments at a time when the world has been trying to forget that they exist. "I started out scraping the bottom of the barrel," he once said, and he has fashioned a career out of creative impotence, stylish desolation and a wry cataloging of his artistic shortcomings. In one of the best tracks on 1988's I'm Your Man, he placed himself 100 floors below Hank Williams in "The Tower of Song," and last year he wrote a poem about the number of fake poets crowding "the sacred precincts." "Needless to say," Cohen concluded in a trademark gesture, "I am one of the fakes."

You have to like a guy like that, even if at times you half believe him.

Cohen has never been a prolific artist, but one reason his fans have had to wait nine years for his 10 new songs is that he spent five of those years living as a monk in a Zen monastery atop Mount Baldy, an hour's drive from Los Angeles. At some point during his stay there, the depression that has afflicted him for most of his adult life lifted, and he is still not sure why. But whatever the reason, he does seem to be content, with his daughter living downstairs, his son around the corner, and a small apartment in the annex reserved for his sister when she comes to visit. Only a wife is missing: Though he has had countless affairs and several long-term relationships, the most famous recent one being with Rebecca De Mornay, Cohen has never married.

"Just cowardice," he explained.

"But it's hard to be alone, too," I pointed out.

"I think that's one of the reasons I went up to Mount Baldy. I didn't seem to be able to put a civilian life together, and that worked some sort of solution."

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