He has left the monastery. He entered, and left six years later, without an understanding of Buddhist philosophy. He continues to be affiliated with a good religion, continues being a good Jew. His stay in the Los Angeles Zen community had been a therapy of hard work. For the first time in his life he has been freed from depression, a major force in his life. At 67, the poet of anguish returns to songwriting with Ten New Songs, a lovely and tranquil CD that goes on sale October 8.
It can't be called work to sit down facing this gentleman or angel, to ask him a few questions and to listen to the prodigious story of his life, to laugh at his jokes (almost always jokes on himself) and to learn of his magnanimous wisdom. Here it is. The list of jobs brother Jikan (his alias as a Buddhist monk) performed during the last six years in the Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy (Los Angeles, California), rise at three o'clock in the early morning to cook, to pray, to paint walls, to write, to fix pipes, to study..., the work of being happy with life. This small man or angel seated in front of me is, undoubtedly, happy. He is Leonard Cohen, descended from divine heights, Buddhist monk, poetic eminence, soldier of one radical cause: life.
He crosses the room leaving a light trace of fragrance of the essence of tobacco and wood. Slight, weightless, slightly bent, aged. Gray storm eyes and the remnants of a smile on his astute face. He has crossed the room and already you are in love with him. For certain. And you are going to lose your words. Eeeeeeh... (you can just see it happening). Mr. Cohen, your CD is precious. "Oh, thanks, it is interesting to hear first impressions." Yes, and your voice (with great difficulty I listen to mine), your voice has changed. "My voice always is a surprise: I never know how it is going to sound. Yes, it seems that it has become deeper."
Leonard Cohen (Montreal, Canada, 1934) has returned to the ordinary world after six years of seclusion. His album, Ten New Songs, on sale October 8, offers ten new songs which begin with a sample of his life's credo, "In My Secret Life." "Everyone knows that the secret life is the one that parallels the one we live for appearances, it is the life of deep feelings, of honesty, the one we can never show; it is the life behind the mask." Everyone wants to know why he returns, if there is something he still needs to express, to delight us, if the state of things for him is still not satisfactory. "I entered the monastery after I released my last CD, in 1993. I was approaching 60 and my old teacher and great friend (his teacher, Roshi) was on the verge of turning 90. I thought that he might not have a great deal of time left, or perhaps I didn't either, that perhaps it was the moment to strengthen my friendship with him, to engage in a more indepth study of his teachings. Then I became monk. It was not because I was looking for another religion; no, I am happy with my own religion. The life up there is not a religious life, but of hard work and study.
"After a period, I began to feel that my knowledge had reached a certain point and I had a revelation: I realized I do not have a talent for religious studies. I did not feel conflicted, but relieved, relaxed: I no longer had to study anymore. It is not that I found what I was looking for, but I believed I had arrived at the moment of descending, so I asked my old teacher for permission." And all want to know if he has returned forever. And he responds: "I don't know. I remain very close to my teacher and to that community. I liked life in the community, to work shoulder to shoulder. I was the cook up there. My life was filled with great disorder, with chaos, and I achieved a little discipline there. So, I decided to return to music."
Perhaps he cannot speak of optimism -- this one they call the prince of anguish and the king of cool -- but yes, he has gained a certain amiability in his years of practice. You will know him by his lyrics. He is what he writes. "I never stopped writing and the lyrics on this album belong to that period in the monastery; I believe that the songs are serene." Once more he speaks of love; he, the poet who says that he is not a romantic. Do you miss someone to love, Mr Cohen? "Do you mean is love absent from my life? I do not know how to explain the results, but I have tried to avoid doing a romantic tango. Although perhaps I got lost in my own tango. I have never considered myself romantic, nor sentimental: my interior is very realistic."
He relates that he first was introduced to Zen studies in Greece, in the late 60's, when he plunged into a serious depression that, according to rumors, was a reaction to a disappointment in love. "Memories were not the cause of that depression. During the course of my life there have been some wonderful women. And it was not that I could not find love, but that I could not accept love, because I did not know how. Perhaps the break up was an element in that depression, but I really never knew where my depressive condition came from, but it had to do with an isolation of myself. It has been the force, the determinant mechanism that made me adapt this attitude in life. I lived trying to avoid it, to escape it, to understand it, to handle it. It made me turn to drink, it pushed me to drugs, and it lead me to Zen..." It is great news that even without knowing the reason, without wanting to ask too much, Leonard Cohen has overcome his depression for the first time in his life. "It was removed from above" (laughs, swearing only God knows that hidden wisdom).
While fleeing from the emptiness he reached for the adoration of nothingness, no principles or goals. After his first experiences in the monastery, the troubadour of despair concluded that it was madness, and in addition that he was not completely comfortable with the Buddhist philosophy, but for some strange reason, he felt compelled to return time and time again to that place. Until finally, he remained there. A lucky addiction, this spiritual period. "Yes, it can be explained that way. My teacher's school places much emphasis on work and ordinary life, and is very structured, severe and strict. What happens is that you stop thinking about yourself. It worked for me. I never really understood the Zen philosophy. What kept me coming back was my friendship with Roshi. Like all great teachers, he accommodates all students who come to him. Some seek a teacher, others discipline. I needed a friend and he gave me a great deal of affection. He did not try to give me spiritual instruction, but a solution to the pressures of my life, and it didn't matter to me if it passed for religion, the kitchen or philosophy. But I was not able to obtain an understanding of Buddhist concepts, I tired of trying." He continues that he doesn't know who God is, but he is content because he thinks he might have discovered who Leonard Cohen is, "and that seems much more important."
Leonard Cohen, the monk Jikan, had access to music, from his car and the computer in his cabin. He was the cook, secretary and chauffeur for his teacher on his trips, who knows when the singer had time to write his songs. Roshi knows Cohen's manager and they get on well together, why not. Many people have formed the universe of the singer throughout the last 30 years and "Roshi is family." The singer became acquainted with his teacher through a friend who was also exiled on the Greek island of Hydra, an earthly paradise for the Canadian where he could maintain his sanity. It seems that in a certain way Cohen lost part of himself when he left Hydra.
-- Does Roshi like the new CD?
-- He has not heard it yet, but other monks have and say it is better than a week of meditation.
The monastery on Mount Baldy has its own Web page. It is not the isolated place one would imagine, although it is austere and and the monks live in cabins that are two by two meters. Cohen suggests that during his years there he was more connected with the world than if he were outside, seated in front of his television set each night. "We have a romantic idea of what a monastery is, that it is a place of solitude and peace, but it is a most busy place, a place less solitary. The life in the city is often solitary, with anxious people searching for company they cannot find. On the other hand, in the monastery you sleep with other people, work shoulder to shoulder with them and there is no place for privacy. The monks are like pebbles in a bag, they polish each other."
During the interview, he repeats frequently a phrase that defines his humility: "To make a living," something to be pursued throughout life. It is difficult to believe, but for him this continues to be a worry -- the singer does not enjoy mega stardom. He has changed his black habit of dress these last years with gray suits and jackets, shirts and ties well coordinated, a silverplated tie pin under the knot. Impeccable, the inherited elegance of a tailor or someone similar, who was his father. Between his fingers, he plays with some blue stones. His hair remains a reminder of his monastery life, a brush cut of light white hair falling slightly on his forehead. During his years of reclusion, he maintained a flat in a neighborhood in Los Angeles (a humble area, he says), that he purchased with two other monks, also disciples of Roshi, and near a Buddhist meditation center. The duplex has a garage that he turned into a recording studio. "I had to look for a life, I couldn't study all day." His daughter lives with him. And his son, also a musician, lives around the corner, the Cohen corner, Boogie Street. "When I say that I'm back on Boogie Street (phrase appears in two of his new songs), I'm referring to the ordinary world of work and desire." Leonard Cohen, the song says, is back on Boogie Street. "Yes, now I spend my time living in an apartment and working in a garage."
Cohen is from a prominent Jewish family in Montreal, with origins in Poland. Both grandfathers of the Canadian singer were remarkable members of the community, one of them a scholarly writer. He still belongs to the same synagogue of his ancestors. His religion is a good religion. "The more I studied in the monastery, the closer I felt to the religion of my family. In the Zen monastery one neither affirms nor refuses G-d, therefore a conflict with other beliefs is not possible. What we study is the essence of things, of life." Citing the words of the bard ("Oh,...my words"), the greatness of a religion is in affirming other religions, the way a great culture affirms other cultures. I am conscious of putting a finger in a wound, but the first thing that comes to my mind is the establishment of Jewish colonies in the land of the Palestinians. (Silence) "What I think? That's a weighty question. My loyalty is compromised, I wish everyone well, but I am especially worried about the survival of Israel. With the present Administration and its policy, Israel is somewhat of a priority on my mind. But last week I was reading the Quran and it speaks of reconciliation, of peace, of compassion. I have hope there will be a solution, although I don't know what that would be. I know that it is tragic, that the Palestinians need to find a place to live, as do the Jews. The problem is that G-d has commanded them both to live on the same site." (Waiting for laughter, laughter)
His father was a textile manufacturer, although he had studied to be an engineer. He remembers his mother singing as she worked about the house. He was orphaned by his father when he was nine years old. His exploits do not seem like an act of defiance: "Naturally, my mother was a bit frightened when she saw me making the rounds of the city with a guitar, just as I was frightened the day I saw my son do the same. She never believed I'd be able to earn a living doing this. Whenever we'd go out to dinner, when the check would arrive, she'd hand me the money underneath the table. She continued until I was very well established." His folk music and poetry were influenced by his religion and time in the synagogue, and it was in his adolescence that he began to write his own lyrics. Religious and lyrical.
-- You also wanted to be a priest?
-- No, no I have no memory of that. At the time I wanted to be a hero-type, Superman, Captain Thunder. A priest, that is the last thing!
He studied literature at McGill University in Montreal where he began his life as a writer. He remembers it warmly and with a great deal of irony. "My first book of poetry sold 100 copies, a bestseller in Canada, and my second novel, about 3,000... (Silence) Worldwide." When he became famous as a singer he sold a million copies of each novel. One day the young writer had decided to benefit from his poetry. In other words he became a musician for money: "Yes, it is true. I had a real economic problem. I played the guitar and had been a member of a country group, so I decided to try music. When I think about it, to try to resolve my economic shortage by becoming a singer..., I think that is the last thing that was likely to happen to anyone. I had arranged to travel to Nashville, but I passed through New York and there I came in contact with the movement that was formed by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and others. So, I began to write my songs."
Thus, this is how the Jewish writer became a singing stranger of folk, he did not make any political demand, and instead of jeans he dressed in a dark suit jacket: "I was at least ten years older than the rest of them. Rebellious? No, I always felt that none of those causes was sufficiently radical. They seemed limited to the established models, and I fought against any model. I have looked everywhere, in Scientology, in Zen, in sex, in drugs, but none of those activities provided me the balance I was looking for. Until I stopped seeking." And he arrived at nothing.
-- Mr. Cohen, what do you remember about the Chelsea Hotel?
-- There was a great deal of sex, a great deal of drugs, love and a wonderful Spanish restaurant on the corner. It was all somewhat amusing, but at its heart there were many sad and dark histories, yes, like the one of Janis Joplin.
"I have never been a good civilian," says the singer talking about his family life, father of two children, husband without ever marrying. "Well, my children like me. But the truth is that I tried to be a good father and husband, but I was not very good." Now his children have chosen to live nearby. His son, Adam, released a CD, without much impact. "He fascinates me with his efforts, his songs are very original and beautiful and his voice is good. It pleases me to share his work, to sit in his dressing room, smoke a cigarette and drink wine with him and to understand his nervousness before he begins a set."
When we finish speaking, Leonard Cohen gets Chema Conesa's [the photographer?] attention. He sits like a bird on the vertex of the chair with a distant look and... "Mr. Cohen, would you be able to move toward...," and Cohen, "Oh, had I fallen asleep." Gone is the force that drove his life, the depression, and he is no longer in a hurry. He has hundreds of pages written and much desire to return to the life of a novelist. "No, it is not exactly a book that I am writing, but there is a pile of papers that grows and grows (he gestures that the size of the pile is at least a couple thousand pages). They are separate pieces that I don't know how to identify. Some are simply jokes." Jokes about monks? "Yes, some. (Laughs) But I have no urgency to publish anything." He has two unpublished novels from his youth. "They are there, some place. They are not very good, but I would be able to rewrite them. Ultimately, I am headed toward writing a novel. The life of a novelist pleases me, solitary and orderly, with the daily challenge of finishing a specific number of pages. Yes, perhaps now I will return to fiction."
-- It seems that you have never felt better in your life?
-- Yes, thanks to G-d (he will know which God, or perhaps not).
One of the songs on Ten New Songs speaks about what is left of our religion. Presumably this is the religious sense of life which he calls on to resolve this hasty world. "I am not good at answering these great questions. The Irish have a saying they employ whenever you ask them to do something: 'I will do it with the help of G-d and two policemen.' As the Irish are able to do things drunk, so the world will be saved with the aid of G-d and two policemen." (More laughter)
-- Thank you, Mr. Cohen, for your sense of humor. I believe we are finished.
-- Oh, thank you. May I tell you another story? I visited an old friend, a professor in Montreal who is now 90 years old and lives in a home and he said to me, "Leonard, have you noticed a decline in your sexual desire?" And I said, "Yes, I have noticed some decline." "I am relieved to hear it." And when did you begin to feel this way, I asked him. "Oh," he says, "at about 15 or 16." I believe that is a smashing response.