Angst & Aquavit
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."
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."
It may seem odd for a popular singer to refer to daily life as "civilian," but that's how Cohen thinks: For him, the normal state of things is, at the very least, on high alert. Though he made his name in the hippy era, he's never been a peace-and-love kind of guy. His father and uncle served in the Royal Montreal Regiment in World War I, and during the Yom Kippur War, Cohen went to Israel to lend support. He drank tea with Ariel Sharon and sang for the troops in the desert. If he hadn't been a writer, he would probably have entered the army or the police. "I like activities where there's a strong sense of commitment and a daily regime that's compelling," he told me.
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 know I'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?"
"Especially if 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 always been 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.
But in the late '70s and early '80s, Cohen found himself increasingly out of favor. There were no more novels. Records such as New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974), Death of a Ladies' Man (1977), Recent Songs (1979) and Various Positions (1984) attracted less and less notice. Cohen did continue to publish poems. Since he was now thought of as a singer, however, critics felt free to ignore them. Unfortunately, he was being ignored as a singer, too. It wasn't that the quality of the work had deteriorated; on the contrary, it had steadily improved. Some of his greatest songs -- "Field Commander Cohen," "Paper-Thin Hotel," "The Gypsy's Wife" and "Hallelujah" -- were written during this period. But a consensus had developed that his work was maudlin, suitable only to slit your wrists by.
Cohen still had loyal fans, particularly in Europe, but by the time he sat down to write the songs for I'm Your Man, he was broke and beginning to feel marginalized and desperate. Sitting at his kitchen table in L.A., he started to write songs unlike any he had written before. Until this stage in his career, he had set most of his lyrics to acoustic guitar, writing music that owed as much to the French chanson and the Jewish minor key as it did to folk or rhythm and blues. The accompaniment was sparse and the tone intimate, very much one-on-one.
I'm Your Man and The Future changed all that. Composed on the synthesizer and set to an ironic Euro-disco beat, both records featured songs in the form of "demented political manifestos." His voice had grown deeper and his lyrics had a harder, more ironic edge. "They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom/For trying to change the system from within," he intoned on "First We Take Manhattan," I'm Your Man's opening salvo. Usefully dramatizing his own feeling of having been "eliminated from the landscape," Cohen wrote the song from the viewpoint of the leader of an imaginary government-in-exile, bent on revenge. There were lines for a terrorist to savor:
I'm guided by a signal in the heavens. I'm guided by this birthmark on my skin. I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons. First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.
Cohen's fascination with religion of all kinds served him well on these records. He seemed to be tuned into two frequencies -- the religious and the secular. The result was a televisual vividness, a CNN of the soul. (On "Ain't No Cure For Love" he sang of "rocket ships . . . climbing through the sky" while "the holy books are open wide.") But it was in two songs on The Future, the title track and "Democracy," that Cohen's political vision received its richest, most sophisticated expression. In the spirit of Norman Mailer, Cohen calls himself a "left-conservative" and has generally maintained a very positive view of the U.S. "In the hearts of the world some kind of prayer is being said for American democracy everywhere," he told an interviewer in 1993. "This is where the eyes of the world are turned. Is it going to work? It's here the experiment unfolds."
Both the optimism and doubt went into "Democracy." Set counter-intuitively to a martial drum-and-fife beat, the song was a genuinely complex and moving hymn to a political experiment teetering on the edge of banality and chaos. Despite its title, the song's central conceit was that true democracy had yet to arrive in the U.S. A new, more radical democracy was entering the country "through a hole in the air," "through a crack in the wall," "from the sorrow in the street":
It's coming to America first, the cradle of the best and of the worst. It's here they got the range and the machinery for change and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. It's here the family's broken and it's here the lonely say that the heart has got to open in a fundamental way: Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Unlike your average pop singer, Cohen had a fairly sophisticated understanding of the world. As a result, his political songs were based on close observation rather than the naive idealism usually found in the entertainment community. Like most Canadians, he had learned to study America the way women study men -- as a force to be reckoned with -- and he had also traveled the globe. He spent much of the early '60s living on the Greek island of Hydra, and he was in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs crisis. This wasn't someone likely to pen an anthem along the lines of "We Are the World." On the contrary, if you take as dim a view of the universe as Cohen does, then an outbreak of love and peace can only look like an anomaly. Given his conservative instincts, you suspect that he was as troubled by much of what he recorded in "Democracy" as he was moved by it. It's good that hearts should open, but as Cohen no doubt realizes, there's often a streak of fundamentalism to that "fundamental way."
"The Future," which was inspired both by the fall of the Soviet Union and the L.A. riots (which Cohen observed at close-hand), took a considerably bleaker view. Ostensibly written by a deposed Eastern European autocrat ("It's lonely here/there's no one left to torture"), the song put us on notice that "Things are going to slide in all directions" and depicted a world in which people longed for the return of Stalin and the Berlin Wall. "There'll be the breaking/of the ancient Western code," he warned. "There'll be phantoms/there'll be fires on the road/and the white man dancing." Until a few weeks ago, "Democracy" and "The Future" balanced each other perfectly. They were like a fork in the road. Depending on your mood, you might incline to one or the other, but each seemed equally plausible. Lately, the balance has shifted considerably in favor of "The Future":
Your servant here, he has been told to say it clear, to say it cold: it's over, it ain't going any further And now the wheels of heaven stop you feel the Devil's riding crop Get ready for the future: It is murder.
ALTHOUGH HE WASN'T IN THE MOOD TO TALK about politics when I met him, Cohen did allow that his perception of the world as "a butcher shop" had not been altered by the flush economic times of the '90s. "I guess fundamentally I prefer order to disorder," he told me when I pressed him on his political beliefs. "The details change from time to time, but I think that society is fragile and that the things we take for granted are not written in stone. Some sense of preservation operates in my work."
I asked Cohen what he meant when he sang about "the breaking of the ancient Western code."
"I think I meant the end of privacy as it developed in the West, which was the real feature of our civilization," he answered. "The notion that there was private space, which wasn't really terribly available in the world until we in the West started establishing private rooms and studies and walls. So I think I felt at a certain point that this was beginning to reverse itself with a very potent mass culture. This notion of a private space in which to develop certain ideas and cultivate certain aspects of the psyche. I felt that was disappearing, and that we were moving into a kind of mass mind.
"That's why I think the notion of being able to shut one's door and find that place is becoming more and more urgent. You just need to turn things off. And it's harder and harder to turn them off with every story that's going on, with every story being decided by all of us to be worth listening to. It's not just like the media is some special reserve of individuals who are deciding. All of us are cooperating in these decisions that it's going to be O.J. or Chandra Levy, or whatever the going preoccupation is. We all cooperate in that decision, and it becomes pervasive and inescapable. It becomes part of your mind. The notion that began in the Bible with cities of sanctuary, where you could go to escape the general mechanism of the situation, those spaces are dissolving. And it produces a sense of breakdown in the psyche. You get the kind of chaos and meaninglessness and data that can't be distributed along the lines. It can't be deployed usefully, and it becomes overwhelming."
Which is one of the reasons, presumably, why Cohen sought seclusion in a monastery for five years. That, and being so depressed he couldn't get out of bed in the morning. Or perhaps he was simply watching too much television, "getting lost in that hopeless little screen," as he sang in "Democracy." Who knows? Back then, Cohen probably wouldn't have told you he was depressed in the first place.
"How could I dare to complain?" he asked rhetorically. "Because I think the appropriate and legitimate response would have been, 'What have you got to complain about?' When you recognize that you're living in this incredibly privileged, tiny pocket of mankind, where there is the luxury to discuss these questions, one dare not complain -- except in a good, sad song!"
And since so many people listen to Leonard Cohen when they're depressed, who does Leonard Cohen listen to?
Cohen seemed to shrug, as if it wasn't a matter of great importance. "I can listen to George Jones in those moments -- or Chopin," he said. "Most of the songs that we love are sad songs, because we experience profound disappointment in our lives, all of us. And to hear it sung" -- he laughed -- "Well, that's what this whole racket is about, isn't it?"
I asked him, now that he was no longer depressed, if he felt that he had been sick in some way, if his depression had actually been biochemical. He had already told me that none of his experiments with Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft and Wellbutrin, as well as their cruder pharmaceutical ancestors, had helped him.
"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 Isaiah with 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:
Here is your wine, And your drunken fall; And here is your love, Your love for it all.
Here is your sickness, Your bed and your pan; And here is your love For the woman, the man.
May everyone live, And may everyone die. Hello, my love, And my love, goodbye.
"It's a pretty bleak song," I told Cohen.
"I would call it, I don't know, more . . . realistic," he replied, laughing. Then he poured out two more glasses of aquavit.
WITH HIS VOICE DISINTEGRATING, COHEN HAS turned into something close to a spoken-word artist. On much of Ten New Songs, he doesn't sing so much as lightly tilt his voice in the direction of a tune. Occasionally, he'll hand an entire verse over to Robinson. As he moves toward the end of his seventh decade, he appears to be coming full circle. He wants to write another novel, he's preparing a book of poems for publication, and his lyrics sound more literary than ever. Which was why it was surprising to note the paucity of books in Cohen's house -- at least by the standards of a working writer. A copy of J.T. LeRoy's The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things lay on a chair by the front door, but Cohen told me it was a gift. One suspected it wasn't going to be read. More likely to be read was the copy of Ramesh Balsekar's A Net of Jewels: Daily Meditations for Seekers of Truth, which had pride of place on the living-room coffee table. Ditto the Talmud and Buddha's Diamond Sutra. "I tend to read the same things over and over," he explained.
In his living room and bedroom and study, we stood together and looked through the contents of his small bookcases. Many of these books were gifts, too. Joseph Heller's Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man, for instance. Cohen took it off the shelf and looked at it. There were books by Lorca and Rumi and Bukowski, and a study of Cohen's early work by Michael Ondaatje. Cohen handled the books gently, as if they were distant, unfamiliar things. "He's a real poet," he said, pulling out a book by the New York School poet, Kenneth Koch. He and Koch had become friends when Cohen lived in Greece. "A lovely man."
"Did you ever meet John Ashbery?" I asked, referring to Koch's more celebrated colleague.
"Yeah, I did. He mentioned a poem of mine he liked."
The music collection was even smaller than the book collection. There were CDs by Tom Waits and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Om Kalsoum, as well as some by Cohen's son, Adam. There was one called Made to Order by a singer named John Ivey.
"Who's that?" I asked.
"That's my dentist," Cohen said, brightening.
"Is it good?"
Cohen wasn't reading much, and he wasn't listening to a lot of music either. His children were close at hand, and his social circle appeared to consist mainly of his current and former backup singers, several of whom lived nearby. (Tipped over on the carpet in his living room was a pair of gorgeous, ivory-colored high-heeled shoes.) The impression was of someone concentrating on his writing and soul, gathering his forces for one last sustained decade of work before he prepared to meet his Maker. By then he'd be ready:
I did my best; it wasn't much. I couldn't feel, so I learned to touch. I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool ya. And even though it all went wrong, I'll stand before the Lord of Song With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.