Elm Street, Canada
November 2001

Exile on Main Street

by Brett Grainger

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I'm on Sainte-Catherine Street in downtown Montreal. It's my first visit in a few years, and the strip is looking decidedly less seedy than I've ever seen it. A minor economic recovery has given the old lady a major lift - signs for shoe stores and reputable eateries now easily outnumber those for danseuses nues.

After lunch at Reuben's, I head to the corner of Rue de la Montagne and turn right, continuing north with the mountain in my sights until I arrive at the entrance to the Hotel Vogue, ready for my appointment with the city's favourite son, Leonard Cohen. Right off the top, I'm not crazy about the location. I dislike the anonymous, controlled environments that hotels offer a person in my profession. Interviewing a celebrity in a hotel room is like suntanning with your clothes on: it's safe, but it won't give you much colour.

No need to worry. Even against the vacuous decor, Cohen has more individuality than a thumbprint. "How are you, man?" he says, opening the door, then turning around to search the room for a match to relight his pipe. In profile, he reveals clues to his age. At 67, the well-tailored clothes hang loosely on him; he's also acquired a noticeable stoop. The long facial creases arcing downward from either side of his nose have grown into dark parentheses that contain a soft, enigmatic smile. He's dressed in his familiar uniform: dark double-breasted suit, grey shirt with dark striped tie, black slip-on shoes. The hair is more salt than pepper and cut short. But it's not the military buzz he was sporting during his six years at a Zen monastery on Mount Baldy, just outside of Los Angeles, where he engaged in what he calls "a study of friendship" with an aging monk, Joshu Sasaki Roshi.

Cohen secures a match and lights up. The dense aroma of pipe tobacco hangs like incense in the room. I feel a little as if I've come to the mountaintop to visit the guru. He is wearing sunglasses - big, graded-tint aviator lenses in plastic frames - even though he's in a windowless hotel room, and until quite recently alone.

Suddenly, it occurs to me that a hotel is the perfect place to interview Leonard Cohen. After all, this is the man who starred in a film called I Am a Hotel and penned a Byronic ode to Janis Joplin and an unmade bed in a room at New York's Chelsea. Hotels are the other mountains in his life. He might just feel more at home here in the Hotel Vogue than in his own house.

Puffing away, Cohen doffs the shades and we sit down at a table where he tells me about the challenges of conducting a recent European press tour - giving more than 100 interviews - while mastering the final tracks on his latest album, Ten New Songs.

Cohen may have come down from the mountain, but the mountain is still in the music. Starting with the very Zen title, there's a spareness to the entire project, as if he were trying to starve his songs down to a bare skeleton of notes and broken syllables. "I smile when I'm angry," he sings on "In My Secret Life." "I cheat and I lie. I do what I have to do to get by"). The austere production of Various Positions and I'm Your Man - Eurodisco synths, drum machine and an angelic chorus of backing vocals - is back, as is the voice ravaged by a fierce regimen of excess, really no more these days than a gruff whisper from the basement (or as he likes to say, "almost an octave more serious").

Not that he needs to worry about the pop charts. Call it the Woody Allen factor. In an industry of one-hit wonders, Leonard Cohen is more than an oddity. He's a miracle: a senior citizen with carte blanche to record just about anything he wants and release it to an adoring and loyal fan base scattered around the world. (More than 300 people have registered for a conference dedicated to Cohen next summer on the Greek island of Hydra, which the poet himself is unlikely to attend.) Sharon Robinson, Cohen's producer and musical collaborator on the new album, puts it this way, "There was no input at all from the record company. Leonard has a lot of autonomy when it comes to his career."

How to explain his good fortune? It's certainly not his prolific pace. To update an observation made by the literary critic Stephen Scobie, Leonard Cohen is a singer who hasn't issued a new studio album for nine years, a poet who hasn't published a new collection for 17 years and a novelist who hasn't written a new novel for 36 years. Part of the reason is that he's damn picky. It is well known that Cohen went through 500 revisions of the words to "Take This Waltz" (from I'm Your Man) before finally recording it; he has been working for years on many of the lyrics for Ten New Songs (a process he calls "blackening pages"). A single line can tie him up in knots for weeks. Given this kind of monkish devotion, it isn't shocking that Cohen's lyrics attain the exalted status of poetry. What perhaps should be more surprising is that they also succeed as great love songs, the kind you might find yourself humming along with on the radio.

My tape recorder isn't working.

Engaging in some light banter about the weather, I try to look casual as I whack the machine against the table. The combination of a late summer heatwave and the lack of air-conditioning in Cohen's Montreal residence made it necessary to meet at the hotel. "You're a citizen of Mountain Street once again," I say, slipping in a reference to his second novel, Beautiful Losers.

"I used to live at the top of Mountain Street," says Cohen. (I whack the machine again.)

"By Sherbrooke?" (Whack.) I'm starting to get some idea of how hot it must be at Cohen's place.

"No, no," he says. (Whack. Whack.) "Above Sherbrooke."

"Oh, on the actual mountain," I say, breaking into a cold sweat. Air conditioning be damned, I'm dying in here. So is my machine. I blurt out an apology and bumble through the standard idiot's checklist: switch batteries, examine the tape, wiggle moving parts.

"That's OK, man," says Cohen. "Check it out. Take your time." He gets up to pour another coffee, then sits down and relights his pipe. My machine is back together; I take a breath and hit "rec."

Cohen leans forward slightly. "Let's test it," he says. "One, two." Then it dawns on me: somehow the voice-activated recording switch has been turned on. The mike isn't picking up Cohen's whispery bass. I flip off the switch. "One of my recurring nightmares," I say, "is that I get through an interview, then find out later that the machine wasn't working."

"I had a similar experience a long time ago," says Cohen, "when I was interviewing Glenn Gould for Esquire magazine. This was before the days of tape recorders. Gould was famously reluctant to do interviews, but he accepted me as an interviewer. He had his gloves on and he was very, very courteous, and we began to talk.

"The conversation got heated," he continues, "and I put my pen down. I thought, I'm going to remember everything he says because it's really fascinating. We talked for a couple of hours and I thought, I've really got this nailed. Then I went back to my apartment on Mountain Street and I couldn't remember a thing. Esquire phoned me a few days later and said, 'How did it go?' I said, 'I'm working on it.' Then they started phoning me every second day. Then every day. And then I stopped answering the phone. I think I had to return the advance."

We laugh, then Cohen crosses the room to pour himself another coffee. I seize the moment to bring up an observation attributed to Irving Layton, his longtime avuncular drinking buddy. Once at a dinner party in Montreal, I say, Layton asked, "Do you know what the problem with Leonard Cohen is?" His answer? "Leonard Cohen is a narcissist who hates himself." Cohen laughs at the bon mot. "That's good," he says. "But I think Irving may have been talking about himself there."

It was Saint Augustine who wrote, "I am a problem to myself," but it might as well have been Cohen. In interviews, he often defines the human condition as "a gathering around a perplexity." Accordingly, the subject matter and primary concern of each of his 14 albums, nine books of poetry and two novels is always the same: Leonard Cohen. His art can be read as the transcript of an extended interview with himself, a kind of spiritual journalism in which the poet addresses his attention to the confrontation with love and its loss.

It's gotten him a bit of a reputation along the way. "Prince of bummers," "poet of pessimism," "troubadour of travail," "the Dr. Kevorkian of song" - journalists can't seem to get enough of the cliché of the dark knight, the tortured soul spinning his suffering into gold. But the gloomy picture does not match the man today - if it ever did. Increasingly, Cohen's depression and the inner conflicts that marked his earlier days are being replaced by a sense of ease with the world and with himself; the dystopic prophet who recorded The Future has finally come to terms with his exile on main street. Recently, Cohen allowed one of his self-portraits to be posted on his unofficial Web site, www.leonardcohenfiles.com. It depicts the aging poet in a mournful, ironic pose above the words "happy at last."

Are the anxious days behind? "For the moment," he answers. "You never write the end. But yes, I'm in a graceful period now. My kids are well [son Adam, 29, and daughter Lorca, 27], my work's going well, my friends seem to be OK for the moment." Cohen's close collaboration on the new album with Sharon Robinson, who wrote all of the music - a first for Cohen - suggests that the notorious perfectionist is at a place where he is ready to relinquish some control over his creative process. Lyrically, Robinson says, there's a sense of reconciliation and peace in his songs that wasn't there before. On "Here It Is," he sings, "May everyone live, and may everyone die. Hello, my love, and my love, goodbye."

"I had a lovely moment with Irving recently," says Cohen. (Good moments are few these days with Layton, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease.) "We were having a smoke and he said, 'Leonard, have you noticed that you have declined in your sexual interests?' He's 89. So I said, 'I have, Irving.' He said, 'I'm relieved to hear that.' I said, 'So I take it, Irving, that you also have observed some decline in your own sexual interests.' He said, 'Yes, Leonard, I have.' I said, 'When did you first begin to notice this decline in your sexual interests?' He said, 'Oh, about the age of 16 or 17.'"

In interviews, Cohen has the frustrating habit of repeating stories verbatim, and this one has been getting regular rotation. But it illustrates an important shift in the poet's concerns: as Cohen's sexual interests begin to wane, they have been replaced by another love, a desire to live closer to the deep, silent waters that feed a love "a thousand kisses deep," as he sings on one of the new tunes. The monk known on Mount Baldy as Jikan, "Silent One," is singing love songs to the silence, "the common and current stillness that resides at the centre of all things."

I ask him if he has a favourite book of the Bible. "I like Isaiah," he says, "especially the first chapters. I love the Psalms." Cohen explains that one of his new songs, "By the Rivers Dark," was inspired by Psalm 137, the one that begins, "By the rivers of Babylon." Suddenly, the poet of pleasure is quoting the scriptures of exile: "'If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right arm forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I set not Jerusalem above my deepest joy.' But I say the opposite," he continues. "Be the truth unsaid and the blessings gone, if I forget my Babylon."

It's all very heretical. Can you be a good Jew and love Babylon? "Well, you know," he says, "the Talmud was written in Babylon. A lot of good Jews lived and wrote and thought and prayed there. And that's where we are - we're on Boogie Street. We're in Babylon. I think it's appropriate to live completely where you are and not reserve some mythical or spiritual refuge as an alternative. That can produce a kind of dangerous spiritual schizophrenia. We have to make it here; we have to make Jerusalem in Babylon."

He leans back a little in his chair. "Something like that," he says, raising his hand to wave away the air of seriousness that has filled the room like the smoke curling up from his pipe. "I say it better in the song: 'Kiss my lips and then it's done, I'm back on Boogie Street.' As Roshi says, you can't live in paradise. No restaurants or toilets."

That's a good thing, because Cohen has drained a carafe of coffee in under an hour. "Just gonna take a leak," he says, sprinting to the bathroom. The slow, laboured sounds coming from behind the door punctuate the longer stretches of silence, and I'm reminded of an old Cohen tune, "Paper-Thin Hotel," from Death of a Ladies' Man. Cohen re-emerges, and we make our way out of the room and into the elevator. The doors close, then open, and we spill out into the anonymous, profane cacophony of the hotel lobby to say our goodbyes. He shakes my hand and then it's done, I'm back on Mountain Street.

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