Loading...

Angst & Aquavit 

Leonard Cohen in the afternoon

Wednesday, Sep 26 2001
Comments
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."

Related Stories

  • Hollywood's Tax Win

    Jerry Brown, California's skin-flint governor, acceded Wednesday to an increase in the film tax credit to $330 million. Brown is a well-known skeptic of Hollywood subsidies, but the combined forces of organized labor, multinational entertainment conglomerates, and B-list celebrities proved too powerful to resist. The industry didn't get the $400...
  • $100 Short 8

    L.A. is the most unaffordable rental market in the United States. And if you're lucky enough to be in the market to buy your own place, you're also facing some of the highest prices in the nation. Now comes word that the cash in your pocket has become less valuable...
  • Are You Ready to Vote on Weed Shop Policing? 3

    A proposed law that would have established policing of marijuana dispensaries statewide was essentially killed in the California legislature last week. Dale Gieringer, state coordinator of California NORML, says it's now time to take the matter directly to voters. He envisions the possibility, in 2016, of an initiative that would...
  • 12th Planet Is Sick of the Dubstep Scene

    12th Planet is credited with bringing dubstep to America.  Ahead of his performance at Made in America in Grand Park this Sunday, August 31, we talked to him at the Red Bull Studios in Santa Monica, where he is recording music for his new album. In contrast to his heavy sounds,...
  • Porn's Condom Law Goes Down

    A proposal, dreaded by the porn industry, that would have mandated condom use for adult performers on-set throughout the state of California, was essentially defeated in the legislature today. The bill by L.A. state Assemblyman Isadore Hall would have expanded L.A. County's own mandatory condom rules to reach across the...

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."

Related Content

Now Trending

  • Made in America Fest Will See Massive Police Presence

    There will be a massive police presence at the Made in America festival downtown this weekend.  Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Rick Stabile says there will be about 270 city officers dedicated to patrolling the perimeter outside the two-day concert that starts Saturday. Another 200 Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department...
  • The 10 People You Meet in Tinder Hell

    Tinder, man. Tinder. For all the single folks out there, it has largely replaced reading for pleasure and most other hobbies, now occupying roughly 99 percent of all human downtime (guesstimate). You Tinder on the toilet, you Tinder at Grandma's wake, you Tinder anywhere there's a good signal and some...
  • Here are the Winners and Losers in California's $330 Million Film Tax Subsidy

    Jerry Brown, California's skin-flint governor, acceded Wednesday to an increase in the film tax credit to $330 million. Brown is a well-known skeptic of Hollywood subsidies, but the combined forces of organized labor, multinational entertainment conglomerates, and B-list celebrities proved too powerful to resist. The industry didn't get the $400...
Los Angeles Concert Tickets