By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
On Mount Baldy, he found the regime he was looking for. Waking every morning at 2:30, he spent hours meditating, chanting, cooking, making beds, washing dishes, shoveling snow and acting as personal secretary to Sasaki Roshi, the portly Zen monk to whom he has been devoted since the late 1970s. Then, in 1999, he came down from the mountain armed with a sheaf of poems and lyrics and set to work on a new record with his friend and sometime co-composer and backup singer, Sharon Robinson. The result is a record in Cohen's most introspective mode, even as it celebrates his return to the fray. In "Boogie Street," probably the album's most immediately captivating song, Cohen's re-engagement with the world is made explicit:
A sip of wine, a cigarette, And then it's time to go. I tidied up the kitchenette; I tuned the old banjo. I'm wanted at the traffic-jam, They're saving me a seat. I'm what I am, and what I am Is back on Boogie Street.
Boogie Street, the actual physical thoroughfare in Singapore, is given over to business by day and prostitution by night. But in the song, Cohen says, it symbolizes "ordinary human struggle and life, the place of work and desire. It's where we're meant to be, it's what we're born into. There are moments when the burden of the self is lifted, but those are only temporary situations. As I say in the song, 'You kiss my lips and then it's done/I'm back on Boogie Street.' Whatever the experience is -- the god, the woman, the insight, the epiphany, the penetration -- those are temporary events. Or as my old teacher says, 'You can't live in Paradise -- no toilets or restaurants.'"
But you can live in a modest but pleasant home on a quiet street in Los Angeles and get by happily enough -- these days, at least, Leonard Cohen can. Well-off, but not too well-off. Famous, but not cripplingly so, and unknown to almost all the neighbors. I asked him if he felt fortunate to have achieved a modest rather than enormous level of fame.
"Tremendously," he answered. "It has none of the burdens of celebrity. It suits my nature. I never really wanted to be in the center of things, if there is such a place. Most singers feel that they're not there, but I knowI'm not there. I've been able to make a living and send my kids to school. It's a very acceptable level of renown."
"Did you always dress this well? Or is it something you've developed?"
"No, I always wore a suit, pretty much. I grew up before blue jeans hit. I always felt better in a jacket."
"So you put on a jacket even if you're not going out?"
"Especiallyif I'm not going out."
Evidently, wearing a jacket and tie was a matter of discipline, a poet's version of a uniform. The jacket, which was purchased at a thrift store on Fairfax, cost $7, and most of Cohen's suits are years, sometimes decades old. "I don't like shopping," he explained, showing me a threadbare Armani in his closet. Next to it was another jacket with a small gold badge on the lapel. The badge said: Canadian Border Patrol.
ONE OF THE IRONIES OF COHEN'S CAREER IS THAT although his name is a byword for gloom, he has always appeared to others as a thoroughly enviable figure -- wealthy, suave, articulate and a ladies' man to the core. That has been his genius: to make depression seem profoundly alluring. (But then, depression has alwaysbeen alluring, from Hamlet and "Ode to a Nightingale" on down.) But the suspicion remains that he is too smooth, that he is a man who talks about God to Details, and that the depression he offers up is of the designer variety. At least Cohen seems wise to the problem. The one book he has been reluctant to discuss is The Book of Mercy(1984), which is, more or less, a book of prayers. It's hard to talk about stuff like that, he once told a reporter. "It doesn't go with your sunglasses."
Cohen's glum view of his own life has often extended to the world around him. For years he has been predicting The End, and his announcements of imminent apocalypse have occasionally sounded like shtick. But in two of his best albums, I'm Your Man and The Future(1992), his ability to articulate a profoundly uneasy sense of what was coming reached new heights. Suddenly he wasn't just talking about his own warring psyche anymore, but writing songs about the world. As it happens, they're some of the best political songs of our era.
In part, Cohen's donning of the prophet's mantle was a reaction to the disintegration of his own life. His relationship with Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his two children, had fallen apart, and his career was in the doldrums. His first three records, Songs of Leonard Cohen(1967), Songs From a Room(1969) and Songs of Love and Hate(1971), had turned him into a cult figure, and thanks to his fame as a singer, his book sales picked up too. His novels, The Favorite Game(1963) and Beautiful Losers(1966), were republished, and his Selected Poems 195668 sold 200,000 copies. He was riding high.