Unembarrassed and undestroyed, Leonard Cohen at 71

Wednesday, Jun 28 2006

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Would he have been as good of a songwriter if .?.?. ?“.?.?. I had been able to sing? No. But I always thought I could sell a song. I always thought I could get it across. With some exceptions. ‘Light As the Breeze’ is one. And ‘Hallelujah’ is another one. It’s had a very curious life, that song.” Cohen says it almost didn’t see the light of day. When he had finished the album that contained it, Various Positions (1984), Columbia executives weren’t enthusiastic. “They said, ‘We know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.’?” Now this pensive ?celebration of broken love ?has been covered by many, including k.d. lang, who scores a special obeisance from Cohen for her inter­pretation.

This whole documentary thing is a bit foreign to Cohen, who says he hasn’t seen many, though there’ve been a few made about him by the BBC and CBC. He remembers a little-known one, Bird on a Wire (no relation to the Mel Gibson–Goldie Hawn vehicle), which focused on a 1972 tour. “[Director] Tony Palmer was using some experimental techniques that involved superimposing one image on another. I think I bowed out when I saw the bass player playing my nose.”

I’m Your Man finds Cohen in a rather dark, fatalistic frame of mind, talking about the “vale of tears,” about being born “alive in the horror,” and about how we live without recognizing that “we’ve already been killed.” Today, though, he says he’s feeling cheerful.

click to enlarge Cohen is one of the few lyricists to use the word body regularly. ''I use the word thigh a lot too. Lately I've moved on to shoulder. You sort of feel like a butcher or something.'' (Photo by Tim Palen)
  • Cohen is one of the few lyricists to use the word body regularly. ''I use the word thigh a lot too. Lately I've moved on to shoulder. You sort of feel like a butcher or something.'' (Photo by Tim Palen)

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“They say that as you get older, the brain cells associated with anxiety begin to die and you start feeling better.” Is there any way you can kill those early? “That’s a good question. But the longer it goes, you get a kind of .?.?. divine amnesia. The memories remain, but the charge that disturbed you dissolves. Often when you review your past, you think of these experiences — ‘That mother­fucker,’ y’know. Now I don’t remember the emotional charge.”

He asks how old I am. “Yeah, 55 I found difficult,” he says. “I found I was losing my powers in some way. I had no currency in the sexual marketplace, but there didn’t seem to be anything to take its place. I remember at that time I had trouble with people and relationships and myself, and I was on every antidepressant you can think of.”

Since we’re not talking about the movie anymore, I indulge an old curiosity by asking Cohen about the word body, two blunt lyric syllables only he and Kris Kristofferson have written with any regularity. He’s pleased with himself about it. “I use the word thigh a lot, too. Lately I’ve moved on to shoulder. You sort of feel like a butcher or something.” (He has a song called “The Butcher,” whose title character is God.) “There’s a Tom Lehrer song where he’s holding her hand, and it really is just her hand.” Cohen follows with a quite creditable Bela Lugosi impersonation.

Forgetting that Cohen sidetracked an acclaimed literary career to become a pop star, people think of him mostly as some kind of sage. Every 10 minutes, though, his behavior reminds me of his showman side.

There are three guitars in Cohen’s living room, and two of them have a broken string. When I ask him what happened to his roadie, he explains that his strings are hard to replace; he has them specially made to accommodate the tension required for the way he tunes the instruments — two full steps down from the standard. He wrote many songs when his voice was higher, and instead of reconfiguring the picking patterns, which are intricate, he just tuned the guitar to his lowered range. He picks up the lone fully strung ax, and the famous arpeggiation mode he invented swells out effortlessly from his fingers. He’s thinking about a tour, and he’s been practicing.

“That’s my chop,” he says. “I’m working on another one, and when I’ve got that down, I’ll have chops.”

Cohen goes to a little stereo and puts on a homemade CD of the “rap” music (ha) he’s been working on. The sparely stated rhythm that supports his lyrics reminds me of Jamaican toasting, but when the instrumentation fills in, the feel is more like the music of the Greek islands he frequented in the ’60s. Hypnotic.

He also plays a couple of tracks from Blue Alert, the new album he produced for Anjani, a friend and former backup singer in his band. She has set some of his words in spacious, floating jazz arrangements; it’s just how you’d think he would want it to sound.

Finally, Cohen reads me a poem from his new Book of Longing, which is alive and contradictory, like the Zen he practices, and you should read the whole volume. The poem is about following his words into the world — a humble but complex sentiment. Possibly, he’s also drawing my attention to the adjacent verse, which is illustrated by his small drawing of his teacher/friend Roshi:

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