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
"I don't know what it was," he answered. "And except in my own work, I tried to keep it quiet. You don't want to lay that on your friends or acquaintances or children, you know. That was the background of my life, and most of my activity was to address that sense of anguish. I tried everything -- wine, women and song, legal and occasionally illegal medications, severe spiritual practice -- until somehow the sheer fatigue of the effort required me to stop the effort. And then things started to change rather swiftly. But I don't know what it was."
"You never went to a therapist?"
"For one reason or another, I didn't have any confidence in the therapeutic model. Therapy seems to affirm the idea unconditionally of a self that has to be worked on and repaired. And my inclination was that it was holding that notion to begin with that was the problem -- that there was this self that needed some kind of radical adjustment. It didn't appeal to me for some odd reason."
Cohen did go to a therapist once, actually -- out of desperation. He was so depressed that he called a friend and asked if she could arrange for him to see her therapist straightaway. Then he drove to St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica "at about five miles an hour," barely able to negotiate the traffic. When he got there, the therapist asked him to describe his feelings. After Cohen had finished, she said, "How can you stand it?"
Up on Mount Baldy, Cohen found a notion of the self -- or non-self -- more conducive to his way of thinking than the one handed down by Freud et al. "Events happen, deeds are done, but there is no individual doer thereof," he told me, quoting Buddha. Not curing the self, but releasing one's grip on it -- that was the solution. Also of help was the monastery's rigorous daily schedule, so filled with menial chores that he had no time to think about his problems. And then there was his friendship with Roshi, and the companionship of the other monks. For Cohen, one of the beauties of Zen is that, because there is no discussion of a deity, it has never threatened his own Judaism, which has strengthened over time.
"It just deepens," he said almost dreamily. "You just enter into that 4,000-year-old conversation with God and the sages."
Although he doesn't consider himself religious in the strict sense, Cohen is clearly enamored of religious ritual. He lights the menorah on the Sabbath, burns "Gentle Smile" incense and bows his head before a meal. Cohen's maternal grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, known in Montreal as "the prince of grammarians," was a rabbinic scholar who wrote a guidebook to Talmudic interpretations and a dictionary of Hebrew homonyms and synonyms. When Cohen was a boy, the rabbi would read the Book of Isaiahwith him. Entire evenings would be spent on one or two lines. But Cohen got a glimpse of other religions, too. His nanny was Catholic, and would often take him to church with her. Cohen looked at Catholicism as an outsider, seeing it only in terms of ritual and prayer and the figure of Jesus, but found it appealing nonetheless. He still does.
"I like the company of monks and nuns and believers and extremists of all kinds," he explained. "I've always felt at home among people of that stripe. I don't know why exactly, it just makes things more interesting. I very much enjoy the formality of a place like the Mt. Baldy Zen Center. The kind of cordiality and courtesy that are common to the life there makes things easy. People know how to behave with one another."
Cohen retained his newfound monastic discipline and community feeling when he returned to Los Angeles and set to work with Sharon Robinson (who co-wrote the music) on Ten New Songs in the studio behind his house. The studio wasn't soundproofed, so Cohen would get up before the birds and the dogs and the traffic to record the vocals. Robinson and the sound engineer, Leanne Ungar, would arrive at the house around noon, and Cohen would cook them lunch. Then they would work together until dinner, with Cohen cooking again. "It was a very peaceful, agreeable time," he said. "A very graceful moment."
The good vibes are reflected in the record, which has a hushed, almost becalmed atmosphere. Death shadows many of the songs, and at times seems to be taking up residence in Cohen's voice, reduced now to a ragged croak that even further restricts an already tiny vocal range. (Wisely, he has Robinson sing with him throughout, which considerably sweetens the overall effect.) The lyrics are as mournful as ever. "I'm always alone/And my heart is like ice/And it's crowded and cold/In my secret life," Cohen sings in the opening track, sounding like a desolate lounge lizard with an empty glass in his hand. "Here It Is" unfolds to a jaunty little tune, but the words foretell a grim future of illness and death: